Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 55

This chapter has a surprise bonus in it, a little hidden wisdom treasure. But before we get to that…

The chapter begins with a passage comparing a person with abundant Te (Virtue) to an infant, a metaphor repeated in several places in the Tao Te Ching. A baby is supple and soft, yet amazingly strong and full of vigor. I laughed when I read that the infant can cry all day and not get hoarse. Having recently spent what felt like all day (but was really only about half an hour) trying to soothe my wailing grandbaby, I can attest that I wore out much faster than she did. My ears are still ringing.

A baby’s innocent and unfiltered engagement with its experience of life in the present moment is its protection, its power, and its wisdom. It lives in perfect harmony. This is reflected in Jesus’s encouragement to be like a small child, to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. And it is picked up in A Course in Miracles, which teaches that our safety lies in our defenselessness.

The next passage sets out a series of connections.

Knowing harmony is called the eternal
Knowing the eternal is called enlightenment

The natural expansion of life force is called a blessing
The heart’s allowing vital energy (qi) to move freely is called strength

The secret wisdom treasure is hidden in these last two lines, which can be translated in an opposite way, thanks to several characters susceptible to different meanings. An alternate translation:

Increasing life force is called ominous
The mind’s control of vital energy is called overstraining (or violence)

Hmm, so which is it? These lines reveal the beautiful and unfathomable paradox of Tao. The two translations are not in conflict with each other. The characters support either view (although for reasons too detailed to bore you with here, I lean towards the first translation).

When we are in harmony with the infinite (eternal), our energy is uncontained and unrestricted. It moves in concert with the energy of the universe. To say it another way, the energy of the universe moves though us unimpeded by our attempts to control it or direct it. Our power is unlimited because it is not “our” individual power, but universal power. We are merely the conduits through which it is expressed.

The second translation cautions us about exhaustion and suffering that result when we seek to impose our individual will on this energy that moves through us. The effort we expend in doing this depletes our vital energy and leads to disharmony and misfortune.

The last lines contrast this infinite and eternal energy with the finite and limited energy of the individual.

Things in physical form flourish and then age
This is not the nature of Tao
What is not Tao comes to an end

This sounds more negative in translation than I think the Chinese characters truly reflect. Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, the infinite and eternal Tao is described as the source of the “ten thousand things” (the manifested universe) which come into being, and then at the end of their life cycle return to Tao. The physical aspect of our individual existence is undeniably time limited. We manifest and return. That isn’t bad. It is natural. We are both infinite and finite.

Again, the wondrous paradox that weaves through this ancient text. Babies are not troubled by this. No wonder so many wisdom teachings honor them.

16 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Chapter 55”

  1. I love this, Galen: "A baby is supple and soft, yet amazingly strong and full of vigor." Was a greater truth ever uttered? Babies are born into this world needing nourishment, protection and love, and they certainly know how to ask for it! And is there no doubt, as you attest here in taking care of your grandchild, that we give it? I truly believe that is what God wants from us – total dependence, unafraid to ask for what we need, knowing we can trust Him to provide. In the meantime, we let go of our own egos, and simply let God.

  2. Trust being the key word there, Martha. Like Einstein said, the most important question we have to answer for ourselves is whether the universe is friendly or hostile. When we can trust that there is a natural flow of energy in the universe, we can surrender in trust to step into the river and flow with the current.

  3. You did a magnificent job on the serious end, so let me pick up the comic relief. My grandson is in the terrible twos… I can just see my son bring him up to Jesus after he said those words and saying, "Maybe I'd best rephrase this…"

  4. I get the sense of letting go of what binds us – ie that which prevents the eternal from flowing through us. Babies come into the world with no social restrictions or mental and emotional bonds so are free to express themselves and are open to everything (and yes, the decibel level of crying babies is a true wonder ;>))

    So the exhaustion sets in when we try to contain the natural flow of energy when we impose our individual will – that 'will' coming from socio-cultural forces. So no wonder people get headaches!

    Thank you for this, Galen – lovely interpreting which makes so much sense! And for the creative life too!

  5. 'A baby’s innocent and unfiltered engagement with its experience of life in the present moment is its protection, its power, and its wisdom. It lives in perfect harmony '

    That's good Galen . So, I take from that ..if we can have an innocent and unfiltered engagement with our experience of life in the present moment, this is our protection, our power, and our wisdom. We can live in perfect harmony.

    Personally I find the more I can focus on the present moment it protects me from the voice in the head which wants to keep the focus projected forward in an imagined, often fearful future, Or this voice wants me to regret and take identity in past moments. Its only 'Now' that we can have power and wisdom over the mental chatter of the mind. This inner voice, (monkey mind) can't operate effectively when our focus is on 'Now' because it then has no power over the spirit or heart center. Living now, with just this moment, as it is, in full acceptance and surrender, is the only sure path to sanity,wisdom and perfect harmony with life.

  6. So that's why I get so many headaches! Your description of the will coming from socio-cultural forces is so true. It starts early. Sometimes kids say these marvelous things that we dismiss because we have lost that naturalness.

  7. There is an image elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching of Tao as a sacred vessel holding everything. I like this image because it is so accepting — the sacred vessel holds not only my wisdom and power but also my monkey mind and fear. There is no struggle, no judgment, no grasping or aversion. Everything is held and accepted as part of the entire manifested universe.

    I love that image because it frees me from self judgment and internal struggle. There is no part of me that is not sacred. In this sense, there is not so much power "over" something, but simply the power of universal energy permeating everything.

    That is the surrender of spiritual life, I think. Or as Adyashanti says, "Surrender is the name of the spiritual game." That quote always makes me smile.

  8. 'The mind’s control of vital energy is called overstraining (or violence)'

    This fits with what I was expressing in my last comment. The mind is not meant to be in control, all the wisdom teaching point to this. So, that begs the question if the mind is not meant to control us, what is? Is it the spiritual heart? Is it the infinite intelligence above us,(I will invent a new word and call it epi-intelligence). Or is qi the life force what directs our life? Is it the over soul that R.W. Emerson talked about? Perhaps these are all ideas that point to what has traditionally been called 'God' in the west and middle east.

    Its an interesting point to ponder. The thinking mind want's to control us, but maybe that is not the optimum design control mechanism. We are meant to be operating from a much deeper and profound center, call it what we will, this is the greatest truth of our existence and most spiritual paths point to it.

  9. Are we meant to be controlled by anything? Or to control anything? Your question of control invites us to contemplate the nature of control, from whatever source. This relates to my response to your last comment. Power doesn't have to be power "over" something. If we are in harmony, what meaning does control have?

  10. That is a good point Galen. You are absolutely right. I see that now. That takes dualism out of it altogether. Thanks, I see the truth of this, now, in what you are saying. Now, I have to change my concept of that. You taught me something fundamental here.

    'If we are in harmony, what meaning does control have?'

    This is what I love about your blog and commenting….always learning something new, hahaha

  11. I meant to comment on this and today your next poem showed up in my news feed. I read this one and pondered about virtue and innocence after reading it. You always brighten my day, Galen. I read it again just now and enjoyed it once more. 🙂

  12. Glad you enjoyed it, DJan. Are you bracing for the snow headed our way? I was up at my cabin for a few hours today to do some winterizing. Already snow there–it was so beautiful. Thanks for commenting.

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