1. Not to honour men of worth will keep the people from contention;
The reason that the Tao Te Ching appears so cryptic is because profoundly subtle things are being spoken of. Unlike the Buddhists who in the course of time developed specialist terms for such matters the author of the Tao Te Ching had recourse only to everyday language. Profoundly subtle matters are therefore spoken of using everyday terms.
The present statement appears to be some kind of socio-political injunction and some sense could be made of it as such. But, looking deeper, what is being referred to by men of worth and the people?
Chapter 2 disengaged us from there, weakened the pull of there and established us Here. . It prompted us to the necessary awareness. These prompts have to be constantly renewed. Joel S Goldsmith understood the story of the manna from heaven which sustained the Israelites during their travails in the wilderness in this light. It was important that the manna should not be stored. The higher sustenance - realisation, satori - has to be continuously refreshed. Memory of realisation, formulations and expressions of realisation and strategies to realisation are not realisation. Because the realisation is always fresh the expression of it, although usually similar, is never the same. This is what we have here. A fresh reminder to rest Here.
Men of worth refers to a particular division of the myriad creatures. It refers to qualities or states which might be deemed worthy of cultivation (honoured) - old manna. To honour these is to set them in contrast with other aspects of the psyche (the people) creating contentiousness within the psyche which has the result of fuelling the cognitive process.
not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft;
Goods hard to come by could refer to the same thing as men of worth or perhaps both refer to when consciousness is with itself - Here. Assuming the latter, then to value one's current status in contrast to memories of before or comparison with others is to lose it, to have it stolen by there.
not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind.
It seems to be the case in sequences like this that there is a deepening gradation of meaning. In this sequence we have honouring, valuing and now displaying in the sense I would imagine of putting up on a pedestal. The sequence is one of deepening respect and also increasing separation (the putting up on a pedestal). It's difficult to avoid this trap because what we want to turn to is: worthy, hard to come by and desirable. The advice given is:
a) Don't make a big deal of it - in fact don't make any kind of deal of it as this brings it into the realm of the cognitive process - mental conditioning - and creates contention.
b) Don't value these moments ie don't hang on to these moments otherwise they get lost and
c) Don't display them like prize trophies.
When Here, the mind is effectively transcended but it still has a reaction which tends to take awareness out of focus from Here and undermines any tendencies to come into focus Here. The ego tries to appropriate (contends for) these occurrences of satori. The second phrase describes the ego's success (theft). The current phrase describes the consequences of building up notions of our 'achievements' - unsettledness of mind, derangement of ego.
2. Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies,
The people refers to the objects (or states) of consciousness. How does the sage relate to these objects of consciousness? The sage empties the mind and fills the belly. The belly refers to being, to what is real. Emptying the mind means disengaging from the mind, from notions and concepts, from the cognitive process. So the sage disengages from the cognitive process and engages with being. The sage disidentifies with notions and concepts and identifies, comes back to, being. The translation is in the plural - minds and bellies - but this is probably just to keep it in line with people.
weakens their wills but strengthens their bones.
The previous phrase dealt with the situation as it is. The current phrase is more proactive - their wills are weakened. It is the will of the myriad things that is weakened in the sense that the sage actively goes against the tendency to identify with them. Bones relate to structure and poise which determine how we engage with the world. Strong bones means it's easier to remain centred in Being.
3. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire
Over the last few phrases there is a sequence of contrasts moving from grosser to subtler levels:
minds and bellies
wills and bones
innocent of knowledge and free from desire
Innocent of knowledge means not being seduced by knowledge. So, we don't get lost in concepts - mental constructs. The tendency to do so is weakened and this is by bringing it into awareness, by being fully aware of how easily we are seduced by the desire for knowledge.
This awareness if from the perspective of immediate Being, the immediate experiencing. It is desire that defocusses awareness from iteself so with Being in focus we are free from desire.
and ensures that the clever never dare to act.
In other words, our activity is not based on ideas or concepts. Centred in Being, we act not in accordance with notions. The clever will never dare to act because the bones are strengthened and the bellies are full, the minds are empty and the wills are weakened.
4. Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.
Staying focussed in Being everything will be done. There is action, there is doing but this is not based on what we think we should be doing. In oriental classifications the mind is regarded as the sense organ by which mental objects are perceived. The point is that thoughts are not wrong in themselves. Action happens and it might very well include thinking but there is no place for the neurotic mind. The neurotic mind consists in the thinking for the sake of thinking and can be let go of.