“Bestowing no honors
keeps people from fighting
prizing no treasures
keeps people from stealing
displaying no attractions
keeps people from making trouble
thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones
by keeping the people from knowing or wanting
and those who know from daring to act
the sage governs them all”
(Taoteching, verse 3, translation by Red Pine)
SU CH’E says, “Bestowing honors embarrasses those who don’t receive them to the point where they fight for them. Prizing treasures pains those who don’t possess them to the point where they steal them. Displaying attractions distresses those who don’t enjoy them to the point where they cause trouble. If people aren’t shown these things, they won’t know what to want and will cease wanting.”
WANG CHEN says, “Sages empty the mind of reasoning and delusion, they fill the stomach with loyalty and honesty, they weaken the will with humility and compliance, and they strengthen the bones with what people already have within themselves.”
WANG PI says, Bones don’t know how to make trouble. It’s the will that creates disorder. When the mind is empty, the will is weak.”
WANG P’ANG says, “An empty mind means no distinctions. A full stomach means no desires. A weak will means no external plans. Strong bones mean standing on one’s own and remaining unmoved by outside forces. By bestowing no honors, sages keep people from knowing. Prizing no treasures, they keep people from wanting.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The mind knows and chooses, while the stomach doesn’t know but simply contains. The will wants and moves, while bones don’t want but simply stand there. Sages empty what knows and fill what doesn’t now. They weaken what wants and strengthen what doesn’t want.”
YEN TSUN says, “They empty their mind and calm their breath. They concentrate their essence and strengthen their spirit.”
HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Sages purify their ears and eyes, put an end to dissipation and selfishness, embrace the one, and empty their mind. An empty mind forms the basis for transmuting cinnabar by enabling us to use our yang breath to transform our yin essence. A full stomach represents our final form, in which our yang breath gradually and completely replaces our yin essence.”
WEI YUAN says, “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”
LIU CHING says, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”
If your world is in disorder, it probably isn’t because of a failure to act (contrary to conventional wisdom), but because of action. As Wei Yuan says, action comes from desire, and desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world. It took me a bit of time to realize how these sages governed. I have gotten so used to being manipulated by the powers that be, and I thought these sages were doing the very same thing. Liu Ching straightens out my thinking, however. Sages transform others, not by acting on others, but by cultivating themselves. Sages empty their own minds. They weaken their own wills. It is their example which keeps people from knowing or wanting, and those who think they know from daring to act.
Red Pine introduces some additional sages today:
WANG CHEN (FL. 809). T’ang dynasty general and student of the Taoteching. His commentary, which he personally presented to Emperor Hsiuan Tsung, remains unique for its display of pacifist sympathies by a military official.
WANG P’ANG (1044-1076). Brilliant scholar, writer, and son of Wang An-shih. His commentary, written in 1070, was “lost” until Yen Ling-feng reedited it from various sources.
LU NUNG SHIH (1042-1102). High official and scholar known for his knowledge of ritual. His commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Liehtzu and Chuangtzu.
YEN TSUN (FL. 53-24 B.C.). Urban recluse of Chengtu. He supported himself as a fortune-teller and spent his remaining time reading and pondering the Taoteching. The lengthy commentaries that he produced are sometimes quite profound but more often obscure, and those that survive are incomplete. He divides the text into seventy-two verses.
HUANG YUAN-CHI (FL. 1174-1190). Taoist master famous for his sermons and oral expositions of Taoist texts. His commentary, which he dictated to a disciple, focuses on internal yoga as well as on points in common between the teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius.
WEI YUAN (1794-1856). Classicist, historian, geographer, and admired administrator. While his own views are insightful, his commentary consists largely in selections from Chiao Hung’s earlier edition.
LIU CHING (FL. 1074). Recognized for his literary talent by Wang An-shih, he was given several minor posts but failed to advance due to his fondness for argument.