Sunday, June 11, 2006


The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five tastes dull the palate.

Too much chasing after things just makes the mind crazy.
Too many precious things just get in the way.

Because of this, the wise person attends to his belly, not his senses.
Ignores the latter, listens to the former.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Tao Te Ching. The first three lines are very clear, and various translations usually translate them into exactly the same English words. The fifth line is very ambiguous; the gloss is something like [hard-to-get objects make a person's activities hindered]. Translators usually take one of two routes: Either valuable objects are making a person do wrong or harmful things, or they are hindering his progress. We can't know if the authors intended this line to mean something more specific, but I've tried to maintain the ambiguity in my translation.

The last two lines feature another common metaphor in the Tao Te Ching: the belly. In fact, in Chinese, as well as Japanese, the belly has a much more important role, being symbolically the seat of health and well-being. That's what it means here; not just making sure you eat enough, but attending to health and satisfaction rather than over-stimulating the senses. Relating to the senses, in fact, we have to keep in mind how most of the sayings in the TTC are meant to be taken as proverbs, not universal laws. When this verse says "The five colors blind the eye," it doesn't mean that looking at colors will make you blind. Rather, it's warning against
over-stimulation, the same way we might tell someone to take it easy by saying "Slow and steady wins the race." We're not recommending the person do everything in her life slowly, just that she exercise moderation and make sure she's not going too fast.

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