The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Good Book?
Twice before, first in chapter two, and then in chapter five, Lao Tzu contrasted good with bad (or evil). There, I believe he was talking about a subjective thing, a mere human construct. But, today, Lao Tzu introduces something entirely different: an objective thing, the supreme good (or virtue). It is the Te in Tao Te Ching. If the Tao can be (and it often is) translated the Way, then Tao Te Ching, can be (and it often is) translated The Way of Virtue Book. Can I get away with calling it, “The Good Book”? Haha, maybe.
Anyway, in today’s chapter, we are going to learn a little something of what Te (virtue) is. And, how we can be virtuous. Since we can be good at it, we can also be bad at it. That is just the way things are. But, let’s not talk about being bad at it, just yet. In later chapters, Lao Tzu will tell us the Tao is a refuge for us when we are bad. But, for today, let’s just talk about what it means to be good.
And, to do that, Lao Tzu introduces his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, and Te; that is, water.
The supreme good is like water.
Oh, the things we could tell about the virtue of water! And, we will, over and over again, as we go along our journey. Today, Lao Tzu points at two remarkable attributes of water, which make it like the Te, and the Tao.
First, it nourishes all things effortlessly. It doesn’t have to try to do so. This is wei wu wei, doing without doing, a fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism. We have talked about it before, and will do so many times again.
Second, it is content with the low places we humans mostly disdain. That water flows downhill, seeking out the lowest place, tells us of its humility.
Now, you might think it odd that Lao Tzu would attribute humility to something like water. “Why, all that is, is water being water.” Yes, and that is just the point. It just is what it is. Nothing more, and nothing less. Thus, it is like the Tao.
“But, weren’t we supposed to be talking about the supreme good?”
Do I really need to start over again?
That is the supreme good! Being simply what you are. Nothing more, and nothing less. If we are bad at it, it is because we are trying to be something more, or something less, than what we are.
But, I promised we weren’t going to talk about being bad at it. Sorry, my bad.
So, how can we be good at it?
“In dwelling,” Stephen Mitchell says, “live close to the ground”. Now, I like Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Really, I do. But, sometimes, I find his translation just not quite sufficient. I am a bear of very little brain, sometimes. Here, I turn to Robert Brookes’ translation, which says, “In dwelling, choose modest quarters.” That might help a little too much. I think Lao Tzu’s point is for us to be humble. And where we live, or how we dwell, needs to reflect humility. Just think of the many ways we try, to “keep up with the Joneses”, by having an even bigger home, or living in just the right neighborhood. We could talk more here, of the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the things “we couldn’t possibly live without”. The list could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
In thinking, keep it simple. I made mention of Winnie the Pooh in the previous paragraph. That wasn’t accidental. You may be familiar with Benjamin Hoff’s “The Tao of Pooh”. Being a bear of very little brain isn’t all that bad, when you are practicing the supreme virtue.
In conflict, be fair and generous. Robert Brookes’ also says it quite well: “In dealing with others, be kind.” It seems so simple. And, some will no doubt suggest it is a bit naive. So be it! If, instead of competing, and comparing ourselves with others, we would be content to be kind, what a difference it would make in our world. How quickly any conflict would be resolved, if just one party to the conflict chose to be fair and generous, instead of demanding they get what they want (what they desire).
In governing, don’t try to control. This one is my favorite one. Lao Tzu will talk a lot about the art of governing, in the days and weeks ahead, but this “don’t try to control”, those four words alone, says everything. It was what attracted me to Lao Tzu’s teachings in the first place. But, just so you know, it doesn’t just apply to governing others. It also applies to my favorite thing, self-government. How you govern yourself. Don’t try to control. Let things come and go. Don’t force. … Before I get carried away, on to the next one…
In work, do what you enjoy. I know this might be a sore spot with some of you. Because isn’t that what everyone tells everybody? Except they also tell you that you have to keep up with the Joneses, too. And, they heap stress after stress after stress on you. Who can enjoy that? But, really, I know this is true. If your work is truly something you enjoy, it will go a huge way toward your being content.
Finally, in family life, be completely present. I talked, the last couple of days, about my mother, and how completely present she was with her children, and then her grandchildren; and, even though she is gone now, she is still present within us. And, that is just what Lao Tzu means by being completely present. We have multiple roles in family life. We are children, siblings, parents, spouses, etc. Be present in each of those roles. Don’t be absent.
Te, the supreme good, is being like the Tao; it is being yourself, nothing more, and nothing less. Be content to be simply yourself, don’t compare or compete, and everyone will respect you, without you having to “earn” that respect.