Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 55

Stephen Mitchell's translation of Poem 55 runs as follows:

He who is in harmony with the Tao

is like a newborn child.
Its bones are soft, its muscles are weak,
but its grip is powerful.
It doesn't know about the union
of male and female,
yet its penis can stand erect,
so intense is its vital power.
It can scream its head off all day,
yet it never becomes hoarse,
so complete is its harmony.

The Master's power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
thus his spirit never grows old.

The city of Prague from the castle walls

 Derek Lin's translation of the same poem runs thus:

Those who hold an abundance of virtue
Are similar to newborn infants
Poisonous insects do not sting them
Wild beasts do not claw them
Birds of prey do not attack them
Their bones are weak, tendons are soft
But their grasp is firm
They do not know of sexual union but can manifest arousal
Due to the optimum of essence
They can cry the whole day and yet not be hoarse
Due to the optimum of harmony
Knowing harmony is said to be constancy
Knowing constancy is said to be clarity
Excessive vitality is said to be inauspicious
Mind overusing energy is said to be aggressive
Things become strong and then grow old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao will soon perish.

Swan on the river Vltava, Prague, Feb 2016


I have often heard it said that as we go further on our path in life in terms of our own personal development that we have to unlearn much of what we have learnt during our early socialisation as children and many of our inculturated opinions so as to eventually reach some level of self-knowledge or individuation.  What I am referring to here are crazy ingrained opinions like "children must be seen not heard," "boys never cry," "men must be strong," "women must be ladylike," "If I haven't a beautiful body I'm not really important," "not to have money is a supreme failure in life," "bad exam results mean failure" and a host of other opinions which can fester into downright prejudices against and hatred of self and others.  And the worst thing about all these ingrained opinions and prejudices is that for a long enough period of our growing as people we are blithely unaware of them.  However, if we are open at all to life, we won't be long about learning lessons in awareness.  After all, life does have a habit of slapping us in the face every now and then as if to say in no uncertain terms: "Wake up! Can't you see what life is doing to you? Do you really think all those things you have gathered around you in life are going to last?  Do you think you can take them to the grave with you? Do you think your thoughts are the only right thoughts? How much of you is ego? Is the price you are paying for all those ego trips really worth it?  Where lies your heart or your soul? Do you not realise that you too will pass as will everything in this world?

Charles Bridge, Prague, February 2016
Solid things after a while begin to seem less solid as we grow older.  Things begin to lose their gloss and sparkle as our body ages.  And yet, are there not things of the soul, goods of the spirit?  Traditional wisdom teaches us that there are.  Things of the soul or goods of the spirit or spiritual values are perhaps, our Taoist poet tells us, whatever is unconsciously pure and natural just like a newly born baby that is totally in harmony with itself.  It is in that natural state of being that approximates, I'd imagine, to what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi means by "flow," that is the total absorption of the person in what the person is doing, an actualised being in the now. For an article on the concept of flow see HERE.

Montbretia flowers in my garden, Summer 2007
The natural power of life is seen in the potential power that the infant naturally possesses. In the above poem the author refers to the classic infant grasp reflex.  I have always loved putting my little finger into a young baby's open palm and them to feel that wonderful natural grasp - that wonderful infant tenacity of life, that natural thrust there is in every newborn life to cling on and to survive.  In a sense, what the Tao Te Ching is about, as is the case with all true religions and spiritualities, is finding that natural current of life, tapping into life's Still Point, discovering the Source of our natural power as it were.  As we grow up and become inculturated into whatever society we are born into, we learn to put on the ways of the world; to learn off all the various roles we have to play in life if we are to survive - in other words, we learn to put the ego firmly in the driving seat or into the saddle.  That is part of our survival skills and is very important to do if we are to get on in life.

Montbretia, my garden, Summer, 2007
However, problems emerge when we become besotted with success; when we begin to become enthralled by our own ego; when we begin to believe in the literalness of our own constructed identities; when we begin to believe that any single one or even a combination of some of the masks we are forced to wear is the real us. These obsessive and compulsive parts of ourselves which almost suffocate by times the real us are essentially what Buddhism means by the vices of clinging to and living in dependence upon the apparently real world. Let me liken the real or total self to a diamond with a multitude of faces.  Every face is a face of the diamond and all the faces together conspire to reveal the unique mystery of each individual self.  Spirituality helps us to transcend over-identification with any one face of the diamond, with any one mask of our many workaday masks.  Its the totality of faces/masks/identities and the ability to move with ease from one to another as required and then to deepen our pursuit of the real self through going into the heart or depths of the diamond through meditation and prayer.  There we will encounter the real if elusive self. When one starts out on this spiritual quest for the real self, the "follower of the way" or the "disciple" is drawn into a magical web of discovery that transcends even the self.  However, this writer has only touched on the outer perimeters of this growing reality.  Readers desiring deeper or higher spiritual truths will have to search elsewhere for such insights, into the writings of more powerful and enriching spiritual teachers, those rare souls who have travelled further on the path to self-awareness, awareness of others and an awareness of the abiding presence of the Other, some of us, including this writer, dare call God.

Ireland's Eye from Baldoyle, Summer 2006

Our Taoist author sees the naturalness of the little child, how at-one the little creature is in itself; how united it is in body and soul; how unsplit mind and body are in this natural new little being.  The world is about to work its spell on the little infant and socialise it in its ways and mostly in the ways of the ego and in the ways of its obsessions of humanity.  The new human being will begin to learn the lessons of separation, of how to separate body from mind; body from soul, if you prefer and then be taught the tough lessons of life when the mind ignores the body to the sore cost of both.  Then all the psychologies and all the spiritual paths will kick in for the person who desires to be whole again.

The little baby boy, according to our Taoist writer, experiences arousal in the erection of its manhood and yet it is a sexually unaware arousal insofar as it only experiences the power of life in its member and not the thrust to penetrate its feminine counterpart.  This natural power is felt in his little body, akin, I should imagine, to the generative and receptive powers felt in the female infant's little womb. All this is natural and unselfconsciously natural.

Cycle Path, Baldoyle, 2006
The Tao works by flowing through all the good and natural things of life.  As an erstwhile theologian, I can see parallels here with what classical Catholic Theology referred to as the Natural Law which was concerned with morality mostly and how moral laws can be deduced by human reason by observing nature - in other words, all human values are there already in nature and have only to be deduced or discerned therefrom through the faculty of reasoning. However, that's a shallow enough parallel, but a parallel nonetheless.  Note the Catholic concept would not embrace the vitality associated with either a Pagan or New Age concept of what is natural.

Another traditional Eastern analogy that the writer of this blog likes is that of how the wise person is not like a tree in the storm which can be fractured, broken, even uprooted if the wind is strong enough, but rather like a blade of grass which can bend in the wind and consequently not be harmed.  This is the sense that the above Taoist writer is getting at above when he says in the second stanza that the Master "lets all things come and go," or as I've already said above he learns to "go with the flow."

Finally, in this Holy Week as we fast approach Easter Sunday, read the above verses reflectively again and let their words have an effect on your soul.  Happy reading and peaceful meditating, friends.  Namaste!

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