Chapter 8 – Water
The highest goodness
is to be like water.
all the Ten Thousand Things,
yet does not compete.
Water will go to the low places
and be content.
This is like Tao.
Tao dwells in low places.
Tao dwells with all people.
A home prefers level ground.
A heart prefers depth.
Relationships prefer kindness.
Words prefer sincerity.
Leadership prefers peace.
Serving others in daily life is most effective when one lives in rhythm.
A person is respected when he or she does not compete and is therefore without blame.
For this Tao Te Ching Tuesday, we begin with water as a metaphor for the Tao. Because the true Tao cannot be described in words, metaphors are used throughout. The most common are the feminine (which was introduced earlier), the infant (which is coming soon) and water in its several manifestations.
In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy Wing-Tsit Chan reminds us the early Indian culture associated water with creation and the Greeks saw it as a natural phenomenon, while ancient Chinese philosophers preferred to use it to teach moral lessons. Water can be all of that and more. Water is such a common symbol for the Tao that Allan Watts refers to the Tao as The Watercourse Way.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu introduces the intuitive nature of water. Its proper and natural place is seen as lowlands where it can rest contentedly, not striving to rise up to try to attain more goods or power or fame. Later – in Chapter 66 – we are told why such striving is actually counterproductive. The great rivers and seas are said to rule over the lofty mountain streams because they receive all that the streams have to give by simply existing below them.
This paradox is not recognized by most people who see life as striving and competing with others to get ahead. The Tao surely dwells in us all, but is recognized only by a few. Those that do recognize it are able to see the world with an expanded perspective –a perspective that allows them to do the right thing intuitively.
From their expanded perspective they recognize the difference between level and sloped, between deep feelings and shallow, between kindness and egotism, between sincerity and deception and between war and peace. Thus, they recognize the rhythm of life and act in a seemingly effortless manner in accord with that rhythm.
To some, this may seem to be completely intuitive action – or inaction (wu wei). Others may see it as dumb luck or a failure of a person to live up to his or her potential. This will be discussed in more detail in other chapters. For now we can simply say that from the expanded perspective, the sage recognizes that the natural flow is the Tao. Within the flow the sage, recognizing the Tao in everyone, may bring help and sustenance to others without competing; without being any more or less than he or she is – which, of course, is everything. It is what passes for life as we know it.
As a matter of fact . . .
A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to once again try to learn how to swim, so I enrolled in a class through our local recreation district. A few days before the first session, my friend Rick gave me this advice: Remember, water is your friend. I mentioned that to some of my fellow students as we were waiting for the lesson to begin. One of them, Ted (another sexagenarian beginner), commented, “That is probably true. After all, we were born in water. And,” he continued with a wary eye on the pool, “we will probably die there.”