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

Ryder - 4/2014

Ryder – 4/2014

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

Wild Beast

Wild Beast

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)

7 thoughts on “CHAPTER 55 – INNOCENCE

  1. Good observations, Louis.
    I’ve observed infants and children teetering and wandering around in minefields of potential calamity, looking where they’ve been instead of where they’re going, and somehow – for the most part – missing the sharp corner, the immoveable rock-hard object, and so forth. When they fall they fall without fear and when they do hit something they seem to bounce, much like drunks who survive head-on collisions with trees at 60 plus because they are too insensate to react to impending doom with tension and rigidity.

    I’ve put some of it down to the rubber bones of children, and for a time considered it just sheer dumb luck. But as the improbability of not being injured in the “real world” increased with the sheer number of times I’ve seen them miss serious injury by fractions of an inch, I’ve been led to feel as if an unknowable mystery is in play there.

    I agree with you that the sage’s simile embraces and utilizes that familiar experience as he observes the nature of innocence and openness, of flexibility and fearlessness, and the general tendency of the Tao to flow with those qualities when present rather than consistently drown them in a sack thrown off a high bridge.

    You are astute in observing that “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.” I like that.

    Obviously a baby in the wild can be eaten by bears or wolves, stung by wasps, carried off by condors, and so forth. Yet we are all familiar with instances when defenseless children and the young of other species are approached gently, treated with kindness, and even nurtured by strangers. Contemplation of the nature and phenomenological events we observe in and around children, the sage seems to say, is a way to describe locally, if not exactly and dogmatically and with the hard firmness of absolutism, the essence of Te.

    As to the “loss of innocence,” that seems like an oxymoron to me. How can we lose something that is essential and intrinsic to our nature? We can lose track of it, obviously. Yet it remains ever present.

    The original sin represented in the Christian tradition – reflected in many other traditions as well – indicates that we developed a concept of self, became imbued with self will and therefore choice, and so created the concept of knowledge. We were cast out of our innocent nature where dualism did not exist and, in a sense, this separation created what we refer to as the “real world,” the place where we are confronted with choices – one of which is the chosen separation from innocence, even though it is still in us.

    The acceptance of paradox seems to me to be a vital thing when we seek to understand the Tao, because the existence of duality in a thing which is ultimately Oneness is a fundamental paradox present in our existential perception. We are too often aware of our fall from innocence in the real world, and have chosen to be seldom aware of our own natural innocence in the Tao.
    Yes, we are guilty. Yes, we are innocent. And if we insist only one or the other must prevail – that is, not accept the paradox of their simultaneous existence in our perspective – then we have ways and means through customs and rituals involving confession, contrition and absolution which do acknowledge and accept the paradox, and which have been established as a way to balance the dualistic scale there and conduct the individual to a state of grace in and with the Tao, to take them to an awareness of the essential innocence we are imbued with.

    I get the whole life-is-dangerous thing. Evil is present, harm is possible and unless we are careful, probable. We know we are not only vulnerable to but also capable of such things if only because we see others doing them, even if we strive to not do them ourselves. Or, more commonly, we are aware of these things as a result of our own wrong thoughts and/or actions. Yet our experience teaches us, through the dissonance and unhappiness of spirit which results, that Te, virtuous innocence, is present in us, and we are agitated by our separation from it by those actions and thoughts which are not in accord with our true nature.

    So pragmatically how does one cope in a world where history is full of things like Hitler’s Auschwitz and Stalin’s pogroms, which scythed tens of millions of lives from the planet? How do we conduct ourselves in a world where predators assume many forms in many places and the shades of evil exist always in the dark hemisphere which balances the light? How do we conduct ourselves in the face of such horrendous potential and the fear it inspires in us?

    It’s always there. Always has been, perhaps may always be. Yet to live only for that, to live aware of only that, to be enthralled with only that – well, that’s just the waste of a good life.

    So long as every year brings a new crop of children into the world it will always be so. We are born, we experience, we learn, we adapt. We prioritize the “real world” in the process and, imbued always with our essence, come under the influences there. As time goes on we experience varying degrees of existential angst as we engage so fully in “half” of our existence that a burgeoning, gnawing impulse begins to inform us of our unbalanced condition, and spiritual hunger appears. We sense our fall from grace, and desire to fall back up into heaven – or at least rise high enough to be balanced in the paradoxical condition of our existence.

    An essential quality of humanity, for better and for worse, is our adaptability. I love the sage’s observation of flexibility in this chapter. He reminds us to be aware of the existential nature of our “real world” AND the essence of who we are, and observes that it is good to be flexible in the first and to not lose contact with the second. It’s a really deft expression merging the two.

    The chi present in a baby’s grip, the howl of displeasure and quiet contentment, the sudden fall and getting back up again – it’s all perfectly direct, open, honest and in the moment, always present there, and the child is perfectly consistent in the moment, and in the flow from moment to moment. The child is in, as the sage observes, a perfect, constant harmony. It appears as though the child is careening through space and time, wobbling here and there, experiencing encounters which at every turn are variable, yet met with a constant honesty. These encounters inspire laughter and crying, frustration and satisfaction, a howl or a coo, a firm no here, a delighted yes there.

    The child’s consistent, natural honesty, openness to the next moment, and willingness to be engaged in whatever may come –that constancy to be honestly engaged – is what the sage is speaking of when he says, “Knowing constancy is enlightenment.”

    A basic knowing I embrace is expressed in the phrase “Heaven is here.” It is not “there.” It is where we are from moment to moment. Perhaps when we die a higher order of cosmic experience will unfold before us, but that heaven is not here yet, it is not real. It is “there,” and so far as I am concerned, nowhere.

    Our life is here, in heaven here and now, and not “there.” Our life is well-met if, meeting every circumstance honestly, we praise the praiseworthy, rage against iniquity, laugh at the paradox and foible, cry in grief and soar in joy, fight when we must and heal ourselves and others as we can, and accept our circumstances as being what they are from moment to moment, and move accordingly.

    • In his consideration of the literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain set out a few basic rules for writers. Among other things he said that an author should “say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it” and should “use the right word, not its second cousin.” I confess that I have violated those rules many times, and especially in some of my discussion of the Tao Te Ching.

      Lao Tzu has told us that one who knows does not speak and he who speaks does not know. That seems to be at least partially due to the inadequacies and slipperiness of language, especially when trying to pin down the concepts he has called Tao and Te.

      “Innocence” is another of the difficult words, one which has various meanings depending on how it is used. Often we speak of innocence as the opposite of guilt, but there are problems with that usage. If a saintly person is convicted of an offense that is malum prohibitum, rather than malum in se, he could be seen as simultaneously guilty and innocent.

      It has been a long time since my 9th Grade Latin class, but since I have started throwing out Latin phrases let me look at the etymology of “innocence.” The root is the Latin verb noceo, which means to hurt or inflict injury or do harm. Even those who have not studied Latin may be familiar with the Hippocratic admonition to doctors, “primum non nocere” – “first do no harm.”

      To that root the prefix “in-“ has been added. Like “im-,” “ir-,” “il –“ and “ig-,” it is a negation, but often those prefixes mean more than simply “not.” They often indicate a condition that could not possibly occur. Thus, an “immovable object” is one that cannot be moved; an “irresistible force” is one which cannot be resisted; “inconceivable” refers to something that cannot be conceived of; and something “ignoble” is so base or degraded that it can never rise to a higher level.

      “Innocence,” then would be a condition that is incapable of hurting or causing harm to another.

      Of course, the meaning of the word is not quite that simple. It would be more correct to say that innocence is a state of consciousness in which the innocent being has no desire to harm another and believes that no other would wish to harm him.

      An implicit corollary might be that such a person cannot defend himself from forces which would cause injury. Newborn babies are like that, and they have parents who are willing and able to provide the protection and nurturing the babies require to grow. God, Tao or the Universe is also willing to protect and nurture its innocent offspring, whether they are infants or elderly sages.

      That corollary is flawed, though. Living things often have the ability to defend themselves or cause harm even if there is not such an intention. One modest example occurred several years ago when a person who was afraid of spiders asked me to kill a spider crawling across her floor. Instead, I picked the spider up in a Kleenex, took it outside and set it free. My friend asked me if I had been meditating so much that I could not even kill a spider. I replied, “I am certainly capable of killing a spider, I just can’t imagine why I would want to.” A number of times since then the Universe seems to have helped me avoid serious injury despite some of my very stupid actions. I think perhaps it is saying, “We need to help this child who helped the spider.”

      Another example from popular culture is the old TV series Kung Fu in which a young Buddhist monk wanders the American West in a state of innocence that is disturbed each week when some un-innocent human tries to hurt him. Fortunately, the monk is able to avoid injury because his innocent consciousness is coupled with formidable skill in martial arts. So, the program reinforces the popular belief that I mentioned in the original post that childlike innocence is chipped away as a person experiences the realities of life in this world.

      In considering the perceived distinction between innocence and experience, a reference is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Let us look briefly at two of his poems, both of which are entitled “Nurse’s Song.” In the “Songs of Innocence” the poem goes like this:

      “When the voices of children are heard on the green,
      And laughing is heard on the hill,
      My heart is at rest within my breast,
      And everything else is still.

      “‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
      And the dews of night arise;
      Come, come leave off play, and let us away
      Till the morning appears in the skies.’

      “‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
      And we cannot go to sleep;
      Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
      And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.’

      “‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
      And then go home to bed.’
      The little ones leapèd, and shoutèd, and laugh’d
      And all the hills echoèd.”

      Children at play, enjoying life and nature until it is too dark for anything but peaceful sleep: I like it; but in “Songs of Experience” the poem is a little bit different:

      “When the voices of children are heard on the green,
      And whisperings are in the dale,
      The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
      My face turns green and pale.

      “Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
      And the dews of night arise;
      Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
      And your winter and night in disguise.”

      Now the weight of the world has turned the nurse bitter and cynical, and her response to the same playful situation is completely different.

      Too many people feel that way. They say, “We were innocent and free until the world beat us down. We have come to know reality and can never again be what we were as children.”

      In this chapter, Lao Tzu begs to differ. The sage, he tells us – one who is filled with virtue or Te – does go back and become like the innocent newborn child. Innocence, we have seen, is a state of consciousness. The condition of being world-weary is another state of consciousness. We can each choose which is right for us.

      I believe Jesus was expressing the same idea when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3, New International Version); or “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3, New International Version). I think, too, that A Course in Miracles is similar in teaching that each one of us, in any situation, can say, “I choose peace instead of this.”

      Another of Mark Twain’s rules for writers is “eschew surplusage.” I have broken that one, too. And I continue to break it. Rather than quitting here, I would like to bring up one more quotation, this one from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American:

      “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be much wiser to guard ourselves against it; innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

      The first phrase is a reflection of what I have been trying to convey. An innocent being does not openly seek protection. Why would he think he needs it? Rather, each of us and the Universe intuitively wish to keep him from harm. The rest of the sentence, though, returns to the Weltschmerz of the ego of the common man. Lao Tzu has repeatedly told us that the sage is not common. He putters along, often alone, in a world that thinks him strange.

      Why is he strange? Largely because he repeatedly chooses peace instead of each obstacle presented by so-called reality. From that state of peace he can be reborn, he can change and become like a little child. He can live innocently in a state of harmony with all creation.

      If there is a dumb leper spreading such a condition, I welcome meeting him on the path.

  2. Sages do talk a lot sometimes, and although it seems to be a black mark on one’s page when purists come to judge it’s not such a big deal really. Always seemed to me that birds gotta sing, brains gotta talk…

    If the moment is about talking, we talk, sometimes to ourselves in the presence of others, sometimes to those others, seeking the resonant echo of our knowing in the reflection which returns, connecting us. If the moment is about speaking, we speak. If the moment is about seeing, we look. If the moment is about knowing – well then, phooey on a lot of philosophy, we dance.

    As Blake expressed, sometimes we see children dancing on the hill and beyond them the shadow of death behind; and sometimes we see death on the hill and children dancing in the shadows behind.

    It depends on whether we’re looking forward or back, seeing through the temporal overlay of mind, observing the promise of children in their youth or their death in old age, where seemingly the children they still are have somehow become a “was,” and we feel that the once innocent promise and possibility we possessed as children has fallen to illusion and dissolution and so to death.

    It’s perspective, and both are legitimate viewpoints in our dualistic experience. The key is to engage, to not only “see” but to dance the dance in the presence of the shadow. An answer to both perspectives, simultaneously present, is expressed in the lyrics of “Let’s Dance,” by Chris Rea:

    “When you sing of the joy only love can bring,
    heaven knows it’s in my heart and my soul…
    (We’re) caught in a world full of tears,
    so many bad times and fears,
    (Yet) while there’s a chance and you’re near – Let’s dance.
    One thing is certainly true,
    this moment’s for me and for you,
    So while there’s not a thing that we can do – Let’s dance…”

    Also, on the topic of surplusage uneschewed, your mention of malum prohibitum, and malum in se reminded me that I had never sent my response to your observations on Chapter 50, so I posted it, finally, at:

    It also has a resonant bit in it about death that echoes here, too.

    I am surplussaged unto death here, I’ve done it to myself, my gold is buried in buckets of low-grade verbal ore and Mark Twain has all kinds of openings through which he can skewer me at his leisure, I’m even mixing metaphors now and so… I’m off to the porch and then a dance through the woods with Honey and The Dog!

  3. There are times when I am playing with my grandson Giovanni and he is clearly enjoying whatever we are doing, whether flying a kite, or jumping over waves in the ocean or just reading a book. Neil Young wrote, “I am a child, I’ll last a while, you can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.” In the moments that I stop thinking about things that need to be done and time to do them and focus on holding Gio’s hand and jumping over the next wave, I can feel the pleasure in his smile and the harmony of all that is that moment. For a second, I know innocence.

  4. OMG. I don’t have time this morning to properly read it all, but I just wanted to mention that I love your grandson. I had to pop over here and take a peek. SO CUTE. Your puppy is cute too! 🙂 I can see why a lick on the face would cheer him up when he was sick!

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