“The best are like water
bringing help to all
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned”
(Taoteching, verse 8, translation by Red Pine)
WU CH’ENG says, “Among those who follow the Tao, the best are like water: content to be lower and, thus free of blame. Most people hate being lower and compete to be higher. But when people compete, someone is maligned.”
LI HUNG-FU says, “How do we know the best don’t compete? Everyone else chooses nobility. They alone choose humility. Everyone else chooses the pure. They alone choose the base. What they choose is what everyone else hates. Who is going to compete with them?
KUAN-TZU says, “Water is the source of creation, the ancestor of all living things. it’s the bloodstream of Earth” (Kuantzu: 39).
HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Mencius says, ‘People cannot live without water and fire’ (Mencius: 7A.23). In terms of cultivation, when fire warms water, ‘pure yang’ arises. When water cools fire, ‘sweet dew’ appears.”
WANG P’ANG says, “Water is the chief of the five elements [see verse 12]. It comes from space, which is not that far from the Tao.”
WANG PI says, “The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The best people have a nature like that of water. They’re like mist or dew in the sky, like a stream or a spring on land. Most people hate moist or muddy places, places where water alone dwells. The nature of water is like the Tao: empty, clear, and deep. As water empties, it gives life to others. It reflects without becoming impure, and there is nothing it cannot wash clean. Water can take any shape, and it is never out of touch with the seasons. How could anyone malign something with such qualities as this?”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who free themselves from care stay low and avoid heights. Those whose minds are empty can plumb the depths. Those who help others without expecting any reward are truly kind. Those whose mouths agree with their minds speak the truth. Those who make demands of themselves as well as others establish peace. Those who can change as conditions change work with skill. Those who act when it is time to act and rest when it is time to rest move with time.”
LI JUNG says, “Water has no purpose of its own. Those who can remain empty and not compete with others follow the natural Way.”
YEN TSUN says, “If a ruler embodies this and uses this in his government, his virtue is most wonderful. How could he be maligned?”
HAN FEI says, “If a drowning man drinks it, he dies. If a thirsty man drinks it, he lives.”
The greatest of virtues is being like water. Lao-tzu will teach us this, again and again. It nourishes all things without having to compete. It doesn’t compete or try to be higher, being content with the lowest place. Thus, it chooses what others avoid. So, no one competes with it. How do we practice being like water? By following its ways.
Red Pine introduces these additional sages with today’s verse:
LI HUNG-FU (FL. 1574). His commentary can be found appended to a reissue of Su Ch’e’s commentary. In his preface, he says the differences between Confucius and Lao-tzu are no more significant than the preference for wheat in North China and rice in the South.
KUAN-TZU (D. 645 B.C.). Prime minister of the state of Ch’i. The voluminous work that bears his name more likely incorporates the views of the Chi-hsia academy that flourished in Ch’i capital at about the same time.
LI JUNG (FL. 670). Taoist master and proponent of the Chunghsuan (Double Darkness) approach to the truth, which first uses darkness to break through the dialectic of darkness and light then renounces darkness as well. His commentary has been recently reedited from portions that survive in the Taoist canon as well as from several Tunhuang copies.
HAN FEI (D. 233 B.C.). Student of the Confucian philosopher Hsun-tzu. His collection of rhetoric and anecdotes, known as the Hanfeitzu, is noted for its legalist philosophy. Chapters 20 and 21 consist of quotes from the Taoteching and include commentaries on verses 38, 46, 50, 53, 54, 58, 59, 60, and 67. Although Han Fei often misconstrues phrases to support his own ideas, his is the earliest known commentary.