Who Knows Contentment, and Who Knows Restraint?

“Which is more vital
fame or health
which is more precious
health or wealth
which is more harmful
loss or gain
the deeper the love
the higher the cost
the bigger the treasure
the greater the loss
who knows contentment
thus suffers no shame
and who knows restraint
encounters no trouble
while enjoying a long life”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 44, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG MAO-TS’AI says, “What the world calls fame is something external. And yet people abandon their bodies to fight for it. What the world calls wealth is unpredictable. And yet people sacrifice their bodies to possess it. How can they know what is vital or precious? Even if they succeed, it’s at the cost of their health.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Which is more harmful: to gain wealth and fame and lose one’s health or to gain one’s health and lose wealth and fame?”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heroes seek fame and merchants seek wealth, even to the point of giving up their lives. The first love fame because they want to glorify themselves. But the more they love fame, the more they lose what they would really glorify. Hence, the cost is high. The second amass wealth because they want to enrich themselves. But the more wealth they amass, the more they harm what they would truly enrich. Hence, the loss is great. Meanwhile, those who cultivate Virtue know the most vital thing is within themselves. Thus, they seek no fame and suffer no disgrace. They know the most precious things is within themselves. Thus, they seek no wealth and encounter no trouble. Hence, they live long.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If we love something, the more we love it, the more it costs us. If we treasure something, the more we treasure it, the more it exhausts us. A little of either results in shame. A lot results in ruin. And regret comes too late. People who are wise are not like this. They know that they have everything they need within themselves. Hence, they do not seek anything outside themselves. Thus, those who would shame them find nothing to shame. They know their own limit, and their limit is the Tao. Hence, they don’t act unless it is according to the Tao. Thus, those who would trouble them find nothing to trouble. Hence, they survive, and surviving, live long.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive sensual desire exhausts our spirit. Excessive material desire brings us misfortune. The living keep their treasures in storerooms. The dead keep their treasures in graves. The living worry about thieves. The dead worry about grave robbers. Those who know contentment find happiness and wealth within themselves and don’t exhaust their spirit. If they should govern a country, they don’t trouble their people. Thus, they are able to live long.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Long ago Chih Po-ch’iao attacked and defeated Fan Chung-hsing. He also attacked the leaders of the states of Han and Wei and occupied parts of their territories. Still, he felt this wasn’t enough, so he raised another army and attacked the state of Yueh. But Han and Wei counterattacked, and Chih’s army was defeated near Chinyang, and he was killed east of Kaoliang. His skull became a drinking bowl, his kingdom was divided among the victors, and he was ridiculed by the world. This is what happens when you don’t know when to stop.”

We have it precisely backwards, you know. Oh, it is easy to say we know health is more vital, more precious, than fame and wealth. But, as we also know, actions speak louder than words. And our actions do speak loudly, and unequivocally. We make ourselves sick chasing fame and wealth, external things. When, instead, we should be considering the most vital and precious thing is that very internal thing, we prove by our actions, we despise.

What is our problem? Lao-tzu has the answer for us, in today’s verse, if we will only learn it. Our problem is we don’t really know which is more harmful, loss or gain. That is what trips us up. To understate things quite a bit.

If only we understood. If only we realized. The deeper the love, the higher the cost. The bigger the treasure, the greater the loss. Chasing after fame and wealth, is that gain? At the loss of something as vital, as precious, as our very lives?

If only we understood. If only we realized. Those who know contentment, in other words, those content with what they already have, who don’t go chasing anything external, suffer no shame. Those who know contentment, know restraint. And those who know restraint encounter no trouble. That, my friends, is living. It is a long life of enjoyment. And it sure beats merely existing.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

HUANG MAO-TS’AI (FL. 1174-1190). Scholar and military official. Lao-tzu-chieh.

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multi-volume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts. Tao-te-chen-ching-lun.

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