Daodejing Chapter 3 breakdown: emptying the heart-and-mind

Richard Brown
2 min readDec 6, 2023

Chapter 3 of the Daodejing highlights how the practice of wuwei, or effortless action, by a sage ruler creates a stable and peaceful society in which everyone lives in harmony with each other and the surrounding environment.

Section 1
Not honouring the worthy,
Keeps the people from contending.
Not prizing rare goods,
Keeps the people from stealing.
Not displaying objects of desire,
Keeps the people’s hearts-and-minds,
From descending into chaos.

The opening section of the text advocates the removal of potential sources of conflict and envy from the common people. By refraining from rewarding and promoting ministers and officials, the sage ruler prevents personal rivalries and factional strife emerging as well as reducing the risk of favouritism and corruption. If the people see others acquiring fame and power that is not available to them, they will be tempted to do whatever it takes to acquire them.

By eliminating ostentatious consumption, the sage ruler stops the common people from falling prey to materialistic desires and resorting to theft and even rebellion to satisfy these artificial cravings. Without shiny new objects constantly distracting them, the people will remain calm and content with their existing lives.

Section 2
The sage rules by:
Emptying the heart-and-mind,
Filling the stomach,
Softening the ambitions,
Strengthening the sinews.

The sage ruler builds a healthy and sustainable society by leading a simple life in accordance with the Dao. By making sure that everyone is well-nourished and in good physical shape, he removes their worries about not having enough food to eat. By showing no inclination for greater power, wealth, and glory, he keeps them calm and content with their existing lives.

Section 3
The sage frees the people,
From fake knowledge and desire.
Ensures that those with fake knowledge,
Never dare to act on it.

By creating a stable and harmonious society, the sage ruler prevents the emergence of vapid intellectual fads and fashions that fan the flames of materialism, discontent, and ultimately rebellion. When the common people’s material and social needs are met, they are much less prone to having their emotions stirred up by opportunists looking for a fast track to power.

Section 4
Practice effortless action,
And order prevails.

Rather than interfering in the lives of common people with authoritarian decrees, strict laws, and heavy taxes, the sage ruler provides the ideal environment for them to lead happy and fulfilling lives. The practice of effortless action is the most effective way of ensuring social stability and cohesion.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.