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)
I have been referring to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person since my commentary on chapter one. To refresh your memory, in chapter two’s commentary I said, “Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous doesn’t mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.” I wanted to do this, today, because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter opens with talking about what Stephen Mitchell calls “the supreme good”. This is the “Te” in Tao Te Ching. And, calling it the supreme good makes me want to go back and think about what Lao Tzu has said previously about good and bad. He certainly didn’t say there is no such thing as good and bad, though I did say the Tao doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. But a lot of what I have been saying about good and bad has been talking about a subjective thing, human constructs. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. It is a subjective thing, it is all in how you see things. Once again, the Tao doesn’t take sides, and wise and virtuous persons don’t, either.
However, now that I am faced with talking about the supreme good, I find myself needing to differentiate between the subjective good and bad, we have talked about before, and the objective good and bad, which Lao Tzu addresses today. What was it, again, we have said about virtue? Virtue, the supreme good, is being in harmony with the Tao. Te and Tao go hand in hand, together. The supreme good is being in harmony with the Way things are. If you want to be in harmony with the way things are, that is, be virtuous, you will need to practice wisdom, that is, trust your inner vision. Which, of course, is why I refer to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person.
The supreme good, virtue, is like water. This is the first time Lao Tzu will use the metaphor of water, though it won’t be his last, not by a long shot. How is being in harmony with the Way things are like water? First, because, just like water, it nourishes all things without trying to. Without any effort water nourishes all things. And, being in harmony with the Way things are, also, requires no effort. All those who practice this, are nourished by it. A second way in which being in harmony with the Way things are is like water is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. One of the attributes of water is that it seeks out the lowest places. Lao Tzu would say, “It is content there.” And, being in harmony with the Way things are is being content to be beneath, below, rather than being above. In other words, just like water, it is like the Tao.
I am going to go out on a limb, here, and believe that all my readers are just like me; you want to be wise and virtuous persons. And, good news, Lao Tzu gives us a list of aphorisms to help us along the Way. These cover every aspect of the art of living. Do you want to be like water, too? Here are some ways to accomplish this.
In dwelling, live close to the ground. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “choose modest quarters”. The idea is very much the same. Be humble in your dwelling.
In thinking, keep to the simple. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “value stillness”. If you have storms raging in your life, you can be sure, they started with the way you think.
In conflict, be fair and generous. In Robert Brookes’ translation he says, “In dealing with others”, I like that. Dealing with others doesn’t always have to involve conflict. He goes on to say, “be kind.” Being fair and generous is being kind. But Robert Brookes continues by saying, “in choosing words, be sincere.” I am really enjoying comparing these two interpretations because they go so well together. Be fair and generous, be kind and sincere. Now, think of how easy it is for conflicts to be resolved, if even just one of the parties to the conflict were to practice these.
In governing, don’t try to control. Robert Brookes says, “In leading, be just.”
In work, do what you enjoy. How many times have we heard that one before? But Robert Brookes gives it an interesting twist, “Be competent.” How true this is! You can’t just do what you enjoy, if you aren’t any good at it. I enjoy singing; but, I don’t expect to earn a living at it. I am not competent enough!
In family life, be completely present. This, right here, is something I want every one of my followers to take to heart. We all have multiple roles we act out in family life. We are children, siblings, parents, and if we live long enough, grandparents, too. Everyone moans about the condition of family life, today. Much like they have been moaning since the very first families walked upright on the Earth. But, if you want to do something besides just moan, be completely present, in whatever role you have. Whether you wish to believe it, or not, it takes no effort to actually do this.
Okay, we took them all, one by one. I even consulted a second translation just to make sure we had them covered. But, you know what? It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water! It nourishes all things without trying to, it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is the supreme virtue. When you practice it, everybody will respect you.
Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will counter all the ways he said we can practice true contentment (from today), with the ways we practice discontentment. Pay special attention. Lao Tzu is offering the only path to serenity.