True Words Seem Paradoxical, Part One

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Two days ago, Lao Tzu contrasted the hard and inflexible with the soft and yielding, by talking about the difference between the dead and the living. If we are to prevail in life, we must be soft and supple. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu talked about how excess and deficiency are adjusted, so there is perfect balance. It is how the Tao acts in our world. And, those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. Today, Lao Tzu returns to his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, water.

The reason Lao Tzu returns to talking about water, again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching, is because the attributes of water perfectly illustrate how to be in harmony with the Tao. Being in harmony with the Tao is the opposite of going against the direction of the Tao; no wonder water is so abundant on our planet. We know, for instance, that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. It is also good to understand, the adult human body is comprised of anywhere from 50 to 65 percent. And, infants, another of Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphors are a whopping 75 to 80 percent water. Water truly is abundant, in us, and all around us. It can’t be any easier for us to be like water.

And that is exactly what Lao Tzu has enjoined us to do, time and time again. Be like water! To illustrate for us the practice of doing without doing, a central tenet of philosophical Taoism, he tells us water nourishes all things, without trying to. And, when he wants to express the importance of humility, he reminds us, water always seeks out the lowest places.

In today’s chapter, the fascinating attribute of water he wants to point out is how soft and yielding it is. Nothing in the world is quite like water. And, if you want to dissolve the hard and inflexible, nothing surpasses it.

Yes, yes, the soft overcomes the hard, and the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true. But, consider just how few can put this knowledge into practice.

Remember our chapter, yesterday? We were talking about how excess and deficiency result in a whole lot of sorrow and suffering. We, quite understandably, want to do something to ease that suffering. But, hold on there. Remember, we talked about those who pay lip service to what the Tao achieves in our Universe; but, because they try to control, and use force to protect their power, their good intentions have evil results. You don’t want evil to enter your own heart. This is exactly what we want to avoid.

This is why Lao Tzu, once again, invokes the Master to show us the way. The Master seems indifferent, and even disinterested, as he remains serene even in the midst of sorrow. But that is why evil cannot enter his heart. Instead of trying to help, he has given up helping. Thus, he is people’s greatest help. This is where Lao Tzu points out that true words seem paradoxical.

How many times has Lao Tzu told us this, before? People don’t understand the Master. We just don’t get him! The way he seems to be, and the way he actually is are worlds apart. Because he doesn’t try to help, he is the greatest help. Oh, how I wish I could get all the good-hearted people, with all their good intentions, to understand this one lesson. If you want to be the greatest help, then give up trying to help. Let the Tao adjust excess and deficiency. Don’t interfere. Don’t try to control. Trust the people; and leave them alone!

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