Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

This chapter is divided into two parts and a coda. The first part highlights the cause and effect relationship between creating or perceiving disparity and the resulting discord. The second part is often interpreted as giving advice on how to govern others, but personally I think it is about how we govern ourselves.

Exalting some above others causes rivalry
Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace

All three examples have in common a value that we place on something through our own judgment, a value that is not inherent in the thing itself. That value creates distinctions, and then desire that leads to attachment. We experience a sense of lack, creating discontent, and even fear or anger. We tend to see this dissatisfaction as rooted in our circumstances. Instead, we could see our dissatisfaction as rooted in our own judgments, which we can change or release.

Even as I write this, my mind is spinning out “yes, but…” scenarios. For example, we have just finished celebrating the amazing accomplishment of Olympic athletes from all over the world. We exalted some above others as a result of competition. Is that a bad thing?

Here is the simple answer. How did it make you feel? Did it open your heart or close it?

Contrast the Egyptian judo athlete who would not shake the offered hand of his Israeli competitor, with the American tennis player who, when the referee called his opponent’s shot out, urged his Australian competitor to challenge the call. His opponent won the challenge, and the look that passed between them was not one of rivalry but of brotherhood.

Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly
Gentling the will
And strengthening the bones

As stated above, this section is often interpreted as guidance for governing others. In this context it can be misconstrued as suggesting manipulative tactics, like keeping the masses docile by hard work and a “chicken in every pot.” Although there are many references in the Tao Te Ching to governing, nowhere does the text advocate controlling the populace in any way. But when viewed as a guide for self governance, these lines make more sense.

Emptying the heart (or the heart/mind – in Chinese, the heart is seen as the center of intellectual as well as emotional activity) does not mean giving up one’s autonomy, but rather emptying ourselves of ego and attachment.

Filling the belly doesn’t mean sitting down to a super sized meal, but rather filling our center, in the mid-abdomen, with pure energy, or as the Yellow Emperor said, “swallowing the breath of heaven.” Belly breathing, that is, breathing deeply so that the abdomen expands, as opposed to shallow chest breathing, is the perfect way to practice this.

Gentling the will doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather giving up our need to force our will on others or on circumstances beyond our control.

And strengthening the bones doesn’t mean heading to the gym, but rather being so perfectly aligned in our structure that we stand and move, literally and figuratively, with little or no effort, because we are in harmony with the universe. It can also refer to strengthening the bone marrow, the source of our life blood, again both literally and figuratively.

Doing without doing
Then all is as it should be 

This coda reflects a theme we first encountered in Chapter 2 and repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei, or non-action means being in harmony with the Tao, or the natural flow of the universe. Doing without doing means that when we are aligned with this harmony, things happen as they should without our trying to direct things with our will.

I’m laughing as I finish writing this post because Chapter 3 is quite short. I have used many more words than Lao Tzu did to express this simple teaching of contentment and non-interference.

4 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3”

  1. I might not have seen the "filling the belly" part quite that way had you not used all those words! To me, "Coveting what we don't have disturbs inner peace" is the key block. I used to be big into comic books, and a whole series was once done around a character who had came from a universe where it was all there was IN that universe. It got a pinhole opening into our world, and then spent months studying desire. When it found that any desire satisfied only lead to more desire, it nearly destroyed everything.

  2. Thanks for the nice response to all those words, CW–I'm glad some extra words helped! That is so insightful about the self-perpetuating nature of desire. It reminds me of an interviewer's question to Rockefeller about how much more money he needed before feeling satisfied. The answer? "Just a little more."

  3. Your posts are always an interesting read. I look at some of these thought as talking about agency; our right to choose which is a gift given by a loving Heavenly Father. As we learn and grow and learn to use this agency in good ways we can then come to the point of accepting and following God's will for us. One of my favorite quotes that talks about governing ourselves is. "Teach them correct principles and then let them govern themselves.: It works~

  4. LeAnn, I think your favorite quote is perfect. It works very well indeed. I'm thinking of how that applies to parenting, too. Thanks for commenting.

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