"Searching for precious goods leads astray."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 12
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
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.
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
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
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.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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