Keeping The People At Rest

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter three

不尚賢使民不爭; Bù shàng xián, shǐ mín bùzhēng;
不貴難得之貨使民不為盜; Bù guì nándé zhī huò, shǐ mín bù wèi dào;
不見可欲使心不亂。 Bù jiàn kě yù, shǐ xīn bù luàn.

是以聖人之治虛其心實其腹; Shìyǐ shèngrén zhī zhì, xū qí xīn, shí qí fù;
弱其志強其骨。 Ruò qí zhì, qiáng qí gǔ.
常使民無知無欲。 Cháng shǐ mín wúzhī wú yù.
使夫知者不敢為也。 Shǐ fú zhī zhě bù gǎnwéi yě.
為無為則無不治。 Wèi wúwéi, zé wúbù zhì.

Not valuing the virtuous person causes the people not to strive;
Not [holding] precious rare goods causes the people not to behave as thieves;
To not see what may be desired, causes the Heart/Mind no confusion.

Therefore the Sage governs by emptying their Heart/Mind, filling their abdomen; 
[When] their will is weakened, strengthening their bones.
Always instructs the ignorant people [about] desirelessness.
And enabling those who know to not dare to act.
To act without action, then everything is governed.

Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

When this text was written, it was during a time of immense social and political upheaval. I actually reckon what we’re experiencing nowadays parallels what it may have been like in ancient China during this ‘Warring States’ period. So looking at the wisdom that came from that time/place is really beneficial and relevant for us today.

One of the things that many of the thinkers and scholars were lamenting was that ‘virtuous people’ were not being rewarded or highly esteemed. Instead, government bureaucracies were filled with nepotism, and warlords were ruling local regions, seeking to cause war over resources and land instead of seeking to maintain relationship. Even the traditional rules of combat were being ignored, where armies were engaging in bloody desperate battles instead of following the ‘gentlemanly’ art of war.

The first line is referring to this. How are people going to want to be the very best, most moral and ethical they can be if the leaders are not modelling it? This was a massive part of Confucius’ philosophy: if leaders were virtuous, there would be a trickle-down effect.

Interesting again the evidence that these thinkers also observed a connection between desiring/lusting after something, and the confusion it engenders in one’s Heart (心 xīn is Heart/Mind, the Heart was seen as the seat of consciousness, not the brain).

I’m still trying to find the evidence for this, but the phrase:

虛其心實其腹
Empty their Hearts and fill their abdomen

This is an often-used phrase in Taoism, especially in the alchemical schools where it was used to describe the purpose of meditation and Qìgōng practices — I wonder if this is the earliest use of the phrase, as I think it might be. It has a few layers of meaning to it, but in the sense that it was used by the alchemists, it means dropping the attention and energy from the Upper Dantian (head) to the Lower Dantian (abdomen). In practice what we do here is ground ourselves and we become stronger and more stable, therefore less prone to being dropped by an opponent.

But the other aspect of this is that we also drop awareness from being ‘intellectual/rational’ (thus, logical) to being ’embodied’ — where what we know/perceive ceases being logical and reasoned to being more of a ‘felt sense’.

For example: have you ever felt like you just knew something, and could feel that knowledge from deep within you, even if you couldn’t explain it, or provide any evidence or rational reasoning for it?

That’s what’s being referred to here. It’s the goal of all alchemical processes in the Taoist tradition. Our intellects/minds can trick us, and are subject to familial and cultural conditioning; but what we know, what awe feel is very real for us. It’s the same sense as the Greek word ‘gnosis’.

There is another possible translation of this phrase, and that is:

When their hearts are empty, fill their bellies.

This is consistent with my translation of the following phrase, and makes sense also from the medical perspective. When the heart is empty, it means it lacks 血 xuè blood. Blood is synthesised in the body through the nutrient absorbed from food. So in order to fill the heart with blood, the belly needs to be full — the people need to be fed!

This also makes sense that a Sage-ruler looks after the health of their citizens by providing them with the resources to be healthy and happy. Again, this seems consistent with the translation of the next part of that sentence. We know from historical documents that many villages were left without able-bodied men to work in the fields as they were dragged off to fight unjust wars, thus there was a drop in agricultural production for the people, with any food produced being sent off to feed troops.

The line 弱其志強其骨 is a reference to something in medicine. 志 zhì is the Will, and is said to reside in the Kidneys, its one of the 5 aspects of human consciousness. When Kidney- is weakened at the physical level, this can affect our capacity to have the strength to persevere — something that happens to people with chronic illness or chronic fatigue. Bones are the tissue governed also by the Kidneys, and is linked also with marrow (the brain is considered to be marrow) and 精 Jīng/Vital Essence. So to strengthen the bones is also to strengthen the marrow, the Kidneys and the Will.

The Sage’s role is to teach the ignorant about how not to desire, and to help those with knowledge to not act. Here we have mention of 為無為 wèi wúwéi, ’action-through-nonaction’, the act of effortless action, which is sort of like not acting. This is a direct reference to Confucius, who advocated that rulers and noblemen should behave in this manner. This verse is actually very Confucian, even though Taoism is always touted as being somewhat antagonistic to Confucianism. 

I feel this verse comes from a different source than the first chapters. Firstly because its overt Confucian tendencies, but also because it seems more directed to rulers and people in power. It’s more pragmatic than it is mystical (which the first two verses could be seen as).

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