It Favors The Stomach Over the Eyes

“The five colors make our eyes blind
the five tones make our ears deaf
the five flavors make our mouths numb
riding and hunting make our minds wild
hard-to-get goods make us commit crimes
thus the rule of the sages
favors the stomach over the eyes
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 12, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins by explaining, “The early Chinese liked to divide everything into five basic states of existence. They distinguished things as made up of varying amounts of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. And each of these came with its corresponding color: blue, red, black, white, and yellow; its corresponding flavor: salty, bitter, sour, pungent, and sweet; and its corresponding tone: la, sol, mi, re, and do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Color is like an awl in the eye. Sound is like a stick in the ear. Flavor is like an ax through the tongue.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When the eyes are given free rein in the realm of form, they no longer see what is real. When the ears are given free rein in the realm of sound, they no longer hear what is real. When the tongue is given free rein in the realm of flavor, it no longer tastes what is real. When the mind is given free rein in the realm of thought, it no longer knows what is real. When our actions are given free rein in the realm of possession and profit, we no longer do what is right. Like Chuang-tzu’s tapir [Chuangtzu: 1.4], sages drink from the river, but only enough to fill their stomachs.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Desiring external things harms our bodies. Sages nourish their breath by filling their stomach, not by chasing material objects to please their eyes. Hence, they choose internal reality over external illusion. But the eyes can’t help seeing, and the ears can’t help hearing, and the mouth can’t help tasting, and the mind can’t help thinking, and the body can’t help acting. They can’t stay still. But if we let them move without leaving stillness behind, nothing can harm us. Those who are buried by the dust of the senses or who crave sensory stimulation lose their way. And the main villain in this is the eyes. Thus, the first of Confucius’ four warnings concerned vision [Lunyu: 12.1: not to look except with propriety], and the first of the Buddha’s six sources of delusion was also the eyes.”

LI YUEH says, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The main purpose of cultivation is to oppose the world of the senses. What the world loves, the Taoist hates. What the world wants, the Taoist rejects. Even though color, sound, material goods, wealth, and beauty might benefit a person’s body, in the end they harm a person’s mind. And once the mind wants, the body suffers. If we can ignore external temptations and be satisfied with the way we are, if we can cultivate our mind and not chase material things, this is the way of long life. All the treasures of the world are no match for this.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Hard-to-get goods’ refer to things that we don’t possess by nature but that requires effort to obtain. When we are not content with our lot and allow ourselves to be ruled by conceit, we turn our backs on Heaven and lose the Way.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “‘That’ refers to the blindness and delusion of the eyes. ‘This’ refers to the fullness and wisdom of the stomach.”

And RED PINE adds, “‘This’ also refers to what is within easy reach, while ‘that’ refers to what can be obtained only with effort…. Until as late as the early twentieth century, vast tracts of land in northern China were set aside for the exclusive use of the nobility and the military for conducting group hunts to practice their riding and archery.”

When I was a child, growing up, my parents had very strict rules regarding meal time.

Rule #1: You had to put a little bit of everything on your plate. Rule #2: You had to eat everything you put on your plate.

As rule #1 was explained to my siblings and me, our parents worked hard to put food on the table for us, and it behooved us to reciprocate the love shown in the food being provided for us, by eating some of it. Rule #2 was explained as a simple matter of not letting anything go to waste. To the waist, maybe, but not to waste.

There were, after all, starving children in the world somewhere, my parents seemed particularly concerned with the starving children in China (I don’t know why), and somehow they benefited when we ate everything we had put on our plate.

To this day, I can’t leave any food on my plate. I have to be real careful to make sure there is never too much food on my plate to eat. Because I can’t dare to see it go to waste. When I had kids of my own, while I wouldn’t make them eat everything on their plate, I did take it upon myself to finish what they left.

The reason I am sharing this is because I was often told by my parents that “my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”

I knew better than to take that statement literally. What they meant was simple. “Don’t put more food on your plate than you can eat.” Once on your plate, it couldn’t be served again as leftovers. And leftovers were something we had aplenty.

Now, being blessed with a mother who was a wonderful cook, I had little problem with cleaning my plate, But that problem with my eyes being bigger than my stomach, well that took some time to outgrow. And a lot of that growth occurred in my waistline, I am afraid.

The point of all this is to say that my parents and Lao-tzu (who happened to be Chinese, go figure), would have gotten along splendidly.

The rule of the sages favors the stomach over the eyes. As Li Yueh says in his commentary today, “The eyes are never satisfied. The stomach knows when it is full.”

Our eyes are never satisfied, they delude us into thinking we need more, more, when our poor stomach may be speaking to us with its still, small voice, “Whoa, there, I am already quite full.”

Ah, to listen to my stomach…. To be ruled, only by what it needs…. To not exceed that.

To pick this over that is the whole point of today’s verse. Now, put just a little of everything on your plate, and eat only until your stomach is full. Have a great day!

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