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"Searching for precious goods leads astray."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 12

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


12

The five colors blind the eye.

The five tones deafen the ear.

The five flavors dull the mouth.


Racing through the field and hunting make the mind wild.

Searching for precious goods leads astray.


Therefore, the sage attends to the belly,

And not to what he sees.

He rejects the latter and chooses the former.



Moderation

This chapter obviously continues the reasoning of the previous one. The 11th chapter's theme of emptiness is followed by this chapter's praise of moderation.

       The five colors in the Chinese tradition are green, red, yellow, white, and black. The five tones of the Chinese musical scale are C, D, E, G, and A. The five flavors are sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and pungent.

       This division into five is likely to have come from the Chinese concept of the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. In ancient China it was believed that everything in the world was made up of these five materials. This can be compared to the old Greek elements, which were four: fire, earth, air, and water.

       Lao Tzu warns against any form of excess. A multitude of colors is chaotic, straining for the eyes to watch, and not a pretty sight. Any artist would agree. Similarly, all the instruments in the orchestra playing at once should not go on for long. It works in a crescendo, but rarely elsewhere. A skilled chef limits the number of flavors on a dish, or none of them becomes delightful. Disciplined moderation is a key to great art of whatever genre. Less is more.

       This is not only true for art, but for life in general. If we stimulate ourselves with noise, excitement, and hurried action, then our minds start to boil and reason escapes them. There are moments when intensity is unavoidable, maybe also cherished, but they should be few, and there should be generous pauses between them.

       Not only does excess of this kind confuse the mind, but it dulls it, too. Adventures lose their appeal when they become routine. Nothing is so exhilarating that we can do it constantly without getting bored. Any thrill needs to be exotic. The more familiar it gets, the less of a thrill it becomes. That's the practical reason for avoiding gluttony of any kind.

       Precious objects, no matter how tempting, should not lead our steps. They are just things. If we allow them to control our lives, we are sure to choose paths that have the least to do with what we need. Of true and lasting value is what happens inside of us, so a step towards anything else can only take us farther away from it. A true quest both begins and ends within ourselves. Every other direction is a roundabout.


The Belly

The sage stays within, caring for the needs of his belly instead of striving for what his eyes can see. This refers not only to making sure of getting food, before searching for other delights. In the Eastern tradition, the stomach is regarded as far more than the location of one's intestines. It's the seat of personal resources, even awareness of sorts. The stomach is the center of the human body.

       Traditionally, the belly is also the center of personal power. Of course, this is quite accurate from a medical standpoint, since the stomach processes the food and extracts the nutrition and energy we need to survive. The old Chinese teaching also tells us that inside the belly is the major source of the vital breath, the life force ch'i (also spelled qi). See more about the vital breath in my comments on chapter 10.

       According to this tradition, the center of the stomach is tan t'ien (also spelled dantian), the red rice field, from which great energy emerges. To stimulate the flow of life force within yourself, you need to focus on this center and act according to its impulses.

       So, when Lao Tzu says that we should attend to our belly, instead of what our eyes can see, he also means that we should make sure to stay centered. Focusing on the belly keeps you grounded and collected. It's how to guard your integrity and get to know yourself properly. When our eyes trick us to forget what our bellies tell us, our minds get lost and our bodies are sure to suffer.

       Lao Tzu reminds us to get our priorities right. In doing so, we get to know ourselves and stay true to what we really are. What the eyes show us may very well be illusions, but what we feel inside our bellies is for real.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





My Taoism Books:


Tao Te Ching - The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.


Tao Quotes - the Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Quotes

The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. 389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

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Other Books by Stefan Stenudd:


Cosmos of the Ancients. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Cosmos of the Ancients

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The life energy qi (also chi or ki) explained, with exercises on how to awaken, increase and use it. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.


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Stefan Stenudd, Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction. Stefan Stenudd


About me

I'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.

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