Tao Te Ching Verse 3

Society today encourages ambition and prestige. Many aspire to celebrity status or to be successful entrepreneurs; many believe success is measured by position in society and possessions obtained.

Verse 3 of the Tao shows us how this way of life creates imbalance in the world.


Translation by John Macdonald

Verse 3

If you over-esteem talented individuals
people will become overly competitive.
If you overvalue possessions
people will begin to steal.

Do not display your treasures
or people will become envious.

The Master leads by
Emptying people’s minds,
filling their bellies,
weakening their ambitions,
and making them become strong.
Preferring simplicity and freedom
from desires,
avoiding the pitfalls of knowledge and wrong action.

For those who practise not-doing
Everything will fall into place.

The first four lines say that we create imbalance by placing greater value on some things more than others. We refer to someone as ‘clever’ or a possession as ‘expensive’.

What exactly does this mean, as everything in life is relative to something else.

A BMW car is more expensive than a Ford Mondeo; a Bentley more expensive than the BMW. Therefore desire is never satisfied because there is always something greater to own – or something better to achieve…and there is always someone more clever!

emphasising the need for more highlights the perceived ‘lack’ and makes people unhappy, dissatisfied, envious and covetous. Even those that do succeed are rarely satisfied for long, because they’re still locked into the mindset of ‘striving but never arriving’. Daily-tao.blogspot

If we were satisfied with the basic needs: a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, surrounded by people we love this imbalance could be redressed. The verse goes on to say that relinquishing ambition and desire makes for a happier, more balanced society.

The Tao is:
‘Urging us to forsake the demented race to perpetually accumulate and acquire, he instead advises us to empty our minds and weaken our ambitions….by letting go of our ambitions, desires and all the things we think we need in order to be happy, we stop projecting our happiness into the future and can instead be at peace and content in the present moment, now.Daily-tao.blogspot.

Weakening our ambitions and letting go of our desire for possessions does not mean we stagnate. Instead, we grow by moving forward with enthusiasm for the simple things in life – without the excesses and indulgences.

I am writing this during Lockdown of the Coronavirus pandemic. Those whose work is non-essential have been told to stay at home. A world recession is imminent as the economy comes to a halt. Rich and poor will suffering due to lack of income. Rich and poor will lose loved ones. The virus does not discriminate.

What value is the Bentley when you are not permitted to drive it? What is the value in competition when you are not free to compete? The Olympic Games have been cancelled, television filming has halted, the James Bond movie premiere delayed. Many businesses will inevitably go bust.

As people are forced to stay at home, a different way of living will emerge. Some will find it hard to cope; some will just be bored. Others – if their lives have not been devastated by the virus – will spend time with their families; spend time in the garden; take up a hobby they have been too busy to indulge in.  Desire and ambition will be placed on hold as there will be no means to satisfy them for the time being.

Without the need to chase possessions and status, life will be simple and perhaps a new freedom will emerge.