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"Things exalted then decay."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 55

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


55

The one who is filled by virtue is like a newborn baby.

Wasps, scorpions, and serpents will not sting him.

Birds of prey and wild beasts will not strike him.

His bones are soft, his muscles weak,

But his grasp is firm.

He has not experienced the union of man and woman,

Still his penis rises.

His manhood is at its very height.

He can shout all day without getting hoarse.

His harmony is at its very height.


Harmony is called the eternal.

Knowing the eternal is called clarity.

Filling life exceedingly is called ominous.

Letting the mind control the vital breath is called force.


Things exalted then decay.

This is going against the Way.

What goes against the Way meets an early end.



The Virtue of the Infant

The first part of this chapter compares the sage to a newborn baby. Infants are soft and weak, yet their tiny hands grab with surprising firmness. Although they are many years away from puberty and sexual encounters, they get erections. They can scream forever, without getting hoarse, and with a shocking loudness at that.

       Lao Tzu is obviously himself amused by the comparison, and by the paradoxes evident in babies. Indeed, they are inspirations to the sage.

       It's not so that the virtuous should regress to the stage of the newborn. For example, there is no need to stay away from sexual experience. The infant erections are signs of manhood being present from the beginning, which is to say that a human being carries all of his or her potential already from the moment of birth.

       Lao Tzu might also imply that the virtue of the innocent promotes potency. At least, most of us would agree that the sexual experience is enhanced if partaken in joyful and equal consent. That's the virtue of it.

       The firm grasp of the virtuous is not to grab things for oneself, but for holding on to Tao and the noble principles by which it governs. Nor is the sage supposed to be shouting all day. Quite the contrary. But his voice of reason should not be easily silenced and good words should not escape him when called for.

       As for the baby being invulnerable to vicious animals, it's possible that Lao Tzu is doing some wishful thinking. Actually, predators seem to prefer going after infants, since they are the easiest to catch and make the least resistance. Here, he might refer to the adult with a childishly pure mind, as mentioned in chapter 50. Those who know how to live, escape violent death because death has no place in them.

       This can be said about newborn babies as well. Freshly born, they are full of life, and death is farther away from them than it will ever be.

       The clarity that Lao Tzu speaks of in this chapter is the realization that harmony is eternal, because it meets with no resistance.

       The safest way to last is not to provoke resistance, from oneself as well as from others. Inner harmony means living at peace with oneself. Those who do are spared of frustrations, dissatisfaction, and depression. By living in harmony with your surroundings you avoid conflict and animosity. That's how harmony persists longer than the opposite.

       The Chinese word for harmony, ho, also means peace and to be united. It's written with the sign for a grain or sprout, and that for the mouth. That's indeed an image of things in a delightful setting. The food meets the mouth. The resource meets the need.


Pushing Things

Filling life exceedingly and allowing the mind to control the vital breath are two examples of one and the same mistake – that of pushing things in life. There's no gain in overdoing things. It only invites bitter failure.

       The vital breath, ch'i (or qi), is also mentioned in chapters 10 and 42. I explain it in some detail in the former of those chapters. This life energy flows readily through us and everything around us. It's a very natural thing, so if the mind tries to control it, the flow is disturbed and the vital breath might cease to function properly.

       That doesn't mean it should not be used. It is used, automatically, when we intend to do something, when we concentrate on something, and so on. Our bodies have access to it. When we act, it will be there according to our needs, if we just allow the natural process to have its course. But if our minds try to produce and control the vital breath, there is a risk that we block that flow.

       It's also an indication that we might try to misuse it. When the vital breath is forced, it tends to be destructive and malign instead of healing.


Decay Follows

The last three lines of the chapter are exactly the same as in chapter 30, where they don't fit as well. Maybe some copyist along the way accidentally doubled it. In the oldest existing Tao Te Ching manuscript, found in Guodian, the lines are missing in chapter 30.

       In this chapter, the three lines fit very well. They come right after Lao Tzu warns against filling life exceedingly and forcing the vital breath. Those are two examples of exalting things by overdoing them. Decay must follow.

       What has reached its highest point must then descend. That's as true in life as it is in drama and the movies. If we hurry to that moment, we only manage to shorten our lives.

       Still, every one of us would like to have life reach a wondrous height before we leave it. No one would be pleased by having that peak experience early and then spend the rest of a long life reminiscing, nor would we be comfortable to take our last breath without ever having reached it.

       Ideal life is similar to drama in so many ways. So, we need to have the climax very near the end. Otherwise, what is there to long for in the inevitable future?

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





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