Chapter 78 – More Water
In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.
Therefore the sage says,
One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state
Is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet.
One who takes on himself the calamity of the state
Is called a king worthy of dominion over the entire empire.
Straightforward words seem paradoxical.
Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)
Straightforward words often do seem paradoxical, but sometimes they begin to make sense when we hear them enough. Certainly, we have heard most of what is said in this
chapter before. In bringing forth his teaching about Tao, Lao Tzu uses many images. The most common one is the image of water, with the feminine and the child or infant running a close second and third.
Here, of course, the image is of water. Therefore, a good starting place for discussing this chapter is to re-read Chapter 8 which (again in Lau’s translation) contains the following:
Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.
. . . . . .
It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.
The fact that the highest good settles in the lowest places calls to mind what was said in Chapter 66 (still using Lau’s translation):
The reason why the River and the Sea are able to be king of the hundred valleys is that they excel in taking the lower position.
Hence they are able to be king of the hundred valleys.
Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
One must in one’s words humble oneself before them;
And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one’s person, follow behind them.
Therefore the sage takes his place over the people yet is no burden;
takes his place ahead of the people yet causes no obstruction.
That is why the empire supports him joyfully and never tires of doing so.
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
Applying the thoughts from those earlier chapters to what is said here, I once again get the feeling that this chapter was written by someone other than Lao Tzu, and sometime after his teachings had received a degree of recognition.
This Chapter 78 first re-emphasizes that water, which benefits all things is submissive and weak, yet it is able to gradually smooth away even the hardest rocks or impediments. That metaphor calls to mind a lazy stream or river following the path of least resistance – a path that changes over time as it erodes its banks and the surrounding land.
However, water does not always work so subtly. It can also take the form of flooding rivers or tsunamis or driving storms and change the things it contacts in minutes rather than in decades. It doesn’t really matter, for in either case the water is creating change though its natural flow. It is the naturalness of the water’s movement that exemplifies Tao.
The author of this chapter next states a meaning to be found in the metaphor; namely, that the weak overcomes the strong and the submissive overcomes the hard. He or she then comments that everyone in the world knows that principle, but none can put it into practice. Note that it says “no one.” That seems to mean not the emperor, not the sage, not the common man.
That would seem to be true because water, in any form, does not intend to erode or to take any particular path. Water does not plan how it will move or evaporate or precipitate. Water simply flows – from place to place, from physical state to state. If any of us decide that we want to “put into practice” those concepts, we would have to intend, plan and take purposive action. Yet, doing any of those things would take us out of the natural flow.
In other words, while it may be that any of us can live in the flow of Nature or practice what Allan Watts has called “the watercourse way,” we cannot put such a lifestyle into practice.
Next, this chapter tells us that the sage says certain things about how the ruler must take on the humiliation and calamity of the state and its people. Since this follows the comments about the strength of water, it seems that the author is telling us what Lao Tzu wrote back in Chapter 66 of the ruler taking the lower position because that is where all the waters eventually come. Just the way the chapter is worded makes me think it was composed after Lao Tzu’s time.
The chapter ends as these comments began –stating that “straightforward words seem paradoxical.” Throughout the Tao Te Ching, the reader has been presented what seem to be paradoxes. The first few times, the natural inclination was to try to resolve the paradox or intellectualize the complementary nature of seeming opposites. After several of these mind games, though, the person who wrote this chapter came to realize that that the Old Master was not asking us to do any of that intellectualization. Rather, he was telling it like it is.
This author was able to understand those straightforward words – though I think (and what do I know?), that the understanding may have been on only a subconscious level. Most of us – speaking for myself – maintain a higher degree of befuddlement, at least at the conscious level.
I think I need a drink . . . . . of water.