Chapter 12 – Fast of the Heart
The five colors make man’s eyes blind; The five notes make his ears deaf; The five tastes injure his palate;
Riding and hunting Make his mind go wild with excitement; Goods hard to come by serve to hinder his progress.
Hence the sage is for the belly Not for the eye.
Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.
It is time for Tao Te Ching Tuesday, Chapter 12. For this chapter I have set out the translation of D. C. Lau. Like most of the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 12 lends itself to several interpretations and can be commented upon from many perspectives.
One approach would be to read these words as telling us to avoid excess and live in moderation. The physical world with its sights and sounds and emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure and accumulation of physical goods deludes our human minds into thinking those things are important. The sage, though, seeks only what is necessary and does not lust after worldly pleasures that others may inappropriately value. “Take what you need and leave the rest,” as we have been told by the Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”).
Another interpretation would be to say that one who sees only the colors of the physical world may as well be blind; who hears only the sounds of this world may as well be deaf. Instead, we should bring our senses away from the exterior – bring them back within to experience the worlds beyond worlds. We should not limit ourselves.
To draw these various approaches together, it is helpful to consider again the writing of Chuang Tzu.
Before looking at what he tells us, I would like to commend to you a great little book called The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton. Merton (1915-1968) was a brilliant Trappist monk who did not read Chinese, but who studied Eastern philosophies extensively in translation. He spent five years reading translations from Chinese to English, French and German, and from that study he produced his own versions of some of Chuang Tzu’s work. One of the stories he includes is of a disciple of Confucius who tells the master that he is going to leave for a distant kingdom. When asked why he is going, the disciple explains that Confucius has told his followers that to be helpful to the world they should leave the state that is well governed and go to that which is in disorder. He has decided to leave because the ruler of the distant kingdom is an egotistical bully who does not care about his subjects. It is the disciple’s intent to change that ruler’s way of thinking. Confucius asks how he intends to bring about the change. The disciple replies that he will present himself as a simple and honest man so that his own integrity will alter the thought of the despot. When Confucius explains why that tactic will not succeed, the disciple describes his back-up plan – which is to pretend to yield to the will of the ruler, but inwardly maintain the true virtues. Doing that, he believes, will let him interact with the royal court and the common people to bring about a grassroots change. Again, Confucius explains that this back-up cannot succeed. The disciple then asks Confucius to suggest a better approach. Confucius tells him that he must fast – not in the sense of avoiding food, but a “fast of the heart.” Merton’s rendition explains a “fast of the heart” in these words:
The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to one faculty, to the ear or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind. Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
Consider seeing with the spirit, tasting with the spirit, striving for the pleasures of the spirit, as well as hearing. Perhaps that is more what Lao Tzu is urging us to do in this chapter. Perhaps, too, this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that certain demons can be expelled not by prayer alone, but only “by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29, King James Version of the Bible)
As I look at what I have written, I get the feeling that Master Lao and Master Chuang may be trying to say something to me – across 25 centuries and thousands of miles. It is just like going to church. How many times have I walked out of mass after hearing a homily about one of the Seven Deadly Sins or lack of concern for others or having the wrong priorities in life and said to my wife, “I really wish the priest would quit talking about me in front of everyone”?*
This material has the same effect. Many times I have fasted from food for a day or two or three or have gone through a week or more of avoiding mass media as a “news fast,” but these practices are still focused on the material, leaving me blind and deaf to the emptiness and the spirit.
Is it just for me that these lessons are intended? How did they know what my faults and weaknesses were going to be?
* I am reminded here of the story of a minister who began his sermon by stating, “Everyone in this congregation is a sinner!” As he paused for dramatic effect a man sitting toward the back of the church laughed loudly. The minister continued, “Greed, lust, sloth and uncharitable thoughts are in the hearts and minds of every person in this congregation!” Again, the man laughed loudly. The minister was beginning to get upset, but he went on with his sermon saying, “Unless they repent, everyone in this congregation faces eternal punishment for their sins!” When the same man laughed even louder, the minister decided he could take no more. He pointed at the man and said, “Could you please tell me what you find so amusing about what I am saying?” The man replied, “I’m just in town visiting my sister. I am so grateful I am not a member of your congregation.”