Be Like Water

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)

Be Like Water

Water is Lao Tzu’s go to metaphor when nothing else will quite do. “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” It truly is like nothing else in our world.

I have been relearning a lot of physics, the last several weeks, as I have been tutoring a 15 year old girl in physics. And, I am feeling quite accomplished. When she first started working with me, she was getting a very low D in her physics class. But, she immediately began to show improvement, and she got solid B’s on her last two physics tests. Indeed, one on one tutoring can be very helpful. One thing we were recently learning about is how very different water is from just about any other thing. For instance, water, in its liquid state, is more dense than in its solid state. This is why ice floats on water. But, get this, just about every other substance is less dense in its liquid state than in its solid state. The significance of this is, if water behaved like just about every other substance, life on Earth simply wouldn’t be possible. I won’t bore you with further physics lessons today. I only wanted to point out how very different water truly is. And, how Lao Tzu’s teachings line up so well with our modern understanding of how the universe works.

But, Lao Tzu saw a lot more to water, something physics can only point to. Let’s look, once again, at Red Pine’s translation of today’s verse, and its commentaries.

“Nothing in the world is weaker than water

but against the hard and the strong

nothing outdoes it

for nothing can change it

the soft overcomes the hard

the weak overcomes the strong

this is something everyone knows

but no one is able to practice

thus do sages declare

who accepts a country’s disgrace

we call the lord of soil and grain

who accepts a country’s misfortune

we call the ruler of all under Heaven

upright words sound upside down”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet despite such weakness it can bore through rocks. Rocks, however, cannot wear down water.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”

HSI T’UNG says, “You can hit it, but you can’t hurt it. You can stab it, but you can’t wound it. You can hack it, but you can’t cut it. You can light it, but you can’t burn it. Nothing in the world can alter this thing we call water.”

CHU TI’HUANG says, “We can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend, by means of which it overcomes the hardest and strongest things.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spies and traitors, thieves and robbers, people who have no respect for the law, disloyal subjects and unfilial children, these are disgraces. Excessive drought and rain, epidemics and locusts, untimely death, famine and homelessness, ominous plants, and misshapen animals, these are misfortunes.”

PO-TSUNG says, “Rivers and swamps contain mud. Mountains and marshes harbor diseases. The most beautiful gem has a flaw. The ruler of a state suffers disgrace. This is the Way of Heaven” (Tsochuan: Hsuan.15).

SHUN says, “If I commit an offense, it has nothing to do with my people. If my people commit an offense, the offense rests with me” (Shuching: 4C.8).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are not kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as ‘to act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

The lesson is quite clear. We need to be like water, to love weakness rather than strength. to be soft and yielding, to be humble. Stephen Mitchell phrases it in this way: We need to remain serene in the midst of sorrow. Then, evil will not be able to enter our heart. The things the world loves, and the things the world hates, are counter to the Tao. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, yet it is true; and, we know it is true.

3 thoughts on “Be Like Water”

  1. LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”
    Great quote
    Who is Li Hung Fu? Could you send info please?

    1. His commentary can be found appended to a reissue of Su Che’s commentary. In his preface, he says the difference between Confucius and Lao-tzu are no more significant than the preference for wheat in North China and rice in the South.

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