Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12

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The audio recordings below are provided for your convenience. Please note that they are MP3 files extracted from YouTube videos, and the videos contain visual elements that cannot always be adequately conveyed through spoken words alone.



The material world offers many temptations and distractions. They are colorful, and they can confuse us and blind us. There are also many sounds — flatteries, arguments, lies and so on. They are loud, and they can quickly overwhelm us. Last but not the least, there are sensory stimulations for every taste. They excite us initially, but leave us numb eventually.

In this world, many rush around as if they are in a race. They pursue fame and fortune as if they are in a hunt. They become crazed, failing to realize that their lust for material things will only result in negative consequences.

Observing all this, the sages conclude that one should focus on the simple basics of life, rather than the many desires of the material world. They discard all the noise, all the words, all the rush… so they can embrace the Tao.

Thoughts & Reflections

At the physical, sensory level, this chapter is an accurate depiction of the world in which we live. It is indeed true that overindulgence in colorful, dazzling sights all around us can lead to eye fatigue, overindulgence in loud music and noisy sounds can lead to loss of hearing, and overindulgence in flavorful foods and confections can lead to the loss of one’s appetite. These are the negative effects of subjecting the physical senses to too much stimuli.

It is also quite true that overindulgence in exertions such as racing and hunting can lead to an unsettled, agitated, frantic state of mind. Likewise, the pursuit of rare treasures and material acquisitions can lead to ruin upon one’s character, and shame upon one’s reputation. These are the negative effects of not having moderation in one’s activities.

Thus, even before we extend the metaphors of this chapter to cover all the manifestations of the material world, and our activities among them in general, we can already see the truth in Lao Tzu’s words. We can see the importance of Tao cultivation as the way to live, the way to handle the many challenges we encounter every day.

Translation Notes

As the presentation explains in detail, the character 爽 usually has a positive context in modern Mandarin, so a native speaker unfamiliar with Classical Chinese may mistake the meaning of 五味令人口爽 as something like “five flavors are refreshing in your mouth.” This would of course be quite odd, given the meaning of the previous two lines.

The takeaway here is when it comes to understanding the Tao Te Ching, native ability to speak Mandarin is not enough. You may have friends who are quite fluent when ordering in a Chinese restaurant — but that’s no guarantee of anything having to do with ancient texts.

Derek Lin
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