Chapter Three Commentary
Chapter two described how making distinguishing between this and that is not in accord with nature and thus not in accord with the Tao. Chapter three takes this same idea and applies it to a social context. It is interesting to look at some of the words of Tao Te Ching in its historical context to get an understanding of its intention. Confucians were proponents of morality and patterns of social classifications. Confucians and Mohists advocated exalting capable people to positions of nobility and those that were not capable were to be viewed as simple commoners. It is clear that the author(s) of the Tao Te Ching were cautioning against such distinctions. This chapter is suggesting that the tendency to exalt people that are deemed as special or to value things that are rare and desirable are behaviors that go against the non-discriminating nature of the Tao. Things are valued because we put value on them or others want them, so we may want them as well. We may not feel complete if we do not possess things or characteristics that others have. It is not that possessing things that are useful or characteristics that we feel we should develop are necessarily bad things, rather it is the thought and feeling that if we do not possess them, then we are somehow flawed or incomplete. Therefore, highlighting these things as something of value beyond what is natural and void of any value classification, causes competition, strife and a general sense of dissatisfaction. In the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the second noble truth outlines the cause of suffering or dukkha samudaya. This is called tanha which means craving or thirst. It has also been clearly explained as a sense of unsatisfactoriness. Of course there are many types of desires and craving and Lao Tzu is talking specifically about valuing objects and status. In Buddhism this craving makes no sense because all of these things are impermanent. In Taoism, this kind of craving makes no sense because it is not in accord with the nature of the Tao. Both traditions are pointing to the same thing…simply that what we value is a mental construct and not in accord with the transient flux of the universal principle of Tao.
The Tao Te Ching is suggesting that we stay with what is natural and shy away from what is unnatural, specifically socially constructed desires that usually fall short of any real and lasting satisfaction. It is only then that the wise will concern themselves with real matters rather then concern themselves with the empty promises of social convention that is a result of social indoctrination which often looses site of the natural way of things.
This chapter reminds us that the natural design of things is ultimately without limit, whereas the socially engineered design has very clear limits and expectations. This is especially clear in today’s society where so much emphasis is put on how much we have and how much success we have achieved.
The next part of the chapter is very important and can be viewed from different perspectives, although pointing to the same thing. From one perspective, emptying the hearts and filling the bellies could very well mean that when we let go of too many gaining ideas and desires, we become satisfied with things just as they are. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to refer to the desire mind as “not-enough-mind.” This is the insatiable mind that always wants more and more with the belief that more will finally satisfy. In Taoist thought, the heart and mind are called xin or heart-mind. So, keeping their hearts empty means keeping the heart-mind empty. This is Don’t Know mind, the mind before thinking occurs. It is the mind that allows everything to be as it is moment to moment. Filling their bellies means being satisfied with what is. Just this is enough. Everything is already complete nothing extra is required. The mind is the part of the will that contrives and schemes, the belly is the part that acts naturally from instinct. So, keeling the mind empty, but the belly full means to act instinctually or naturally.
From another perspective, that of Taoist alchemy, this verse can be taken quite literally, meaning that our goal should be to keep the heart-mind empty and the dantian (the area of the lower belly) where the life energy of chi is stored. When this happens the vital essence is strong right down to the marrow of the bones. When the essence of the heart-mind is united with the essence of the belly, it creates chi which eventually creates pure spirit, or shen. This mixing activity is Taiji which eventually settles in to wuji or the state of oneness that eventually leads back to the Tao.
In the practice of Tai Chi, we simply allow this process to unfold naturally. Doing the form of Tai Chi naturally stimulates this alchemical process. However, we need to keep the mind empty when doing this, just be the form and the rest takes care of itself.
In mindfulness practice this chapter is pointing to seeing in to how we have become attached to social convention and being aware of how the mind is pulled every which way in search of that which will ultimately satisfy our “not-enough-mind.” When practicing meditation, watch how the mind works. When thoughts come, look into the content of these thoughts. There is no need to do anything with these thoughts, but just observe them as they come and then naturally awareness emerges that highlights just where the mind is being pulled. If some level of insight is developed from this, then one can see that the very things we are chasing and are attached to are impermanent and non-abiding.
A simple reading of this chapter might have some just gloss over it as a precept for how to live a life unfettered by social convention, but it is more than this in that it allows us to let go of all of the shoulds and should nots, the musts and must nots and the needs and wants and just simply fall in to this moment to moment reality that is our lives…right here now with nothing lacking at all.