Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
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.
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.