Chapter 55 – Innocence
He who is filled with Virtue is like a newborn child.
Wasps and serpents will not sting him;
Wild beasts will not pounce upon him;
He will not be attacked by birds of prey.
His bones are soft, his muscles weak,
But his grip is firm.
He has not experienced the union of man and woman, but is whole.
His manhood is strong.
He screams all day without becoming hoarse.
This is perfect harmony.
Knowing harmony is constancy.
Knowing constancy is enlightenment.
It is not wise to rush about.
Controlling the breath causes strain.
If too much energy is used, exhaustion follows.
This is not the way of Tao.
Whatever is contrary to Tao will not last long.
Translated by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989)
After reviewing several translations of Chapter 55 in preparation for this week’s “Tao Te Ching Tuesday” discussion, my first thought was that we finally have to deal with a chapter showing the dark side of following the “natural way.” Sometimes out in the wild, with no bar codes on the food, a person may mix a little loco weed in with his watercress sandwich. I was afraid Lao Tzu had done that before he sat down to write this chapter.
What was he thinking? Wasps and serpents and wild beasts and birds of prey are all willing to attack a helpless newborn under appropriate circumstances. One of the reasons
humans first came together in bands or tribes was to provide the protection necessary so that babies are able to grow and the species survive.
Sure, there are legends of babies Romulus and Remus raised by wolves and of infant Tarzan raised by apes. In The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling tells of the child Mowgli who was adopted by wolves after his parents were killed by a tiger. However, those kids were not immune to being injured or killed by dangerous beasts; they were protected from those dangers by the wolves and apes that had chosen to act in loco parentis.
The Prophet Isaiah tells us that in the time when the lion lies down with the lamb, human children will play with poisonous snakes and suffer no harm. The world is not yet like that, though; and it certainly wasn’t like that 25 centuries ago when Lao Tzu was writing.
Finally I realized that Lao Tzu was not laboring under the delusion or hallucination that babies can get by just fine on their own.
The ancient Chinese did not use punctuation. The English translation above includes punctuation, though, and the first line ends with a period, implying the end of a group of words which express a complete thought. (Some other translations used a comma or semicolon, so I dismissed those.) The thought here is a simile that requires the reader to supply certain implications. It is that the sage who has cultivated the virtue (Te) of the Tao is innocent, without guile and non-aggressive; those qualities symbolized by the image of a newborn baby. It is that sage, Lao Tzu tells us, who has grown and developed the virtue that protects him from what would otherwise be a dangerous world.*
There are many stories from around the world illustrating similar beliefs. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, was believed to be so loving and innocent that he could preach and minister to wild animals. In the poem “Layla and Majnun” by the 12th Century Sufi poet Nezami, Majnun (which means “madman”) adopts the life of a desert hermit after the death of his beloved and achieves an innocence that draws all types of animals to live with him in peace and harmony.
Conversely, one of the main characters in the Gilgamesh epic is Enkidu, who, with the innocence of a god, was able to run with the gazelles and interact with all the animals at the watering hole. That innocence was lost when he spent seven nights with the harlot created by the goddess Aruru and thereafter the wild beasts fled from him.
So, as the survival of a baby depends on the protection and nurturing of some form of parent, the sage qua sage must be protected and nourished by his or her own child-like innocence. As long as that innocence continues, God or Tao or the Universe will fill the protective role of the parent (see, e.g., Chapters 4, 25 and 51).
One of the melancholy bits of life in the physical world is that almost all people have the
tendency to move away from the state of innocence. Here, Lao Tzu begins with the image of an innocent newborn child and the sage whose adherence to the Tao gives him the same kind of qualities. He ends by telling us that all that is not the Tao does not endure – using essentially the same words as the last line of Chapter 30. The innocent baby, I am afraid, will someday learn the so-called “ways of the world,” grow old and pass from this life.
Somewhere along the way, the former baby will look back and try to remember a more innocent and tranquil time. For most of us, innocence always seems to live in our past. Let me end with a few lines from a Simon and Garfunkle song (“Old Friends/Bookends”):
Time it was and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph;
Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.
*This is similar to the statement of Jesus that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)