“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”
(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)
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 mean to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).
MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are no 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.”
This is something everyone knows, but no one is able to put into practice, We all know the properties of water. It is what it is. Nothing in the world is weaker than it. But, against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it. Nothing can change it.
We all know it. But, how to put it into practice? That evades us. Why is that? Because, in spite of what we know of water (that being soft, it overcomes the hard; and being weak, it overcomes the strong) we simply aren’t willing to be soft and weak. We want to be hard and strong.
We don’t even want to be perceived as soft and weak. Those who are soft and weak are terrorized by those who are strong and hard, after all.
Those who are soft and weak don’t know their own power, though. They are like water; they just don’t know it, and they don’t know how to use it.
This is what gets us. We think there must be some magic formula to use. But, water is just water. It doesn’t try to be soft and weak, it merely is soft and weak. What a country considers disgrace and misfortune, that is the very thing we should accept and emulate.
But, be careful here, trying to accept and emulate isn’t the same as accepting and emulating. You can expend a whole lot of effort trying to be like water, when what you should do is simply be like water.
Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:
CHU TI-HUANG (1885-1941). Ch’ing dynasty official and early revolutionary. After fleeing China, he returned to devote himself to Buddhism and philosophy.
PO-TSUNG (FL. 8TH C. B.C.). Minister at the court of Chin. His views are reported in the Tsochuan: Hsuan.15.
SHUN (CA. 2250-2150 B.C.). Early sage ruler noted for his filial piety and noninterference in public affairs.
KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of Hanlin Academy. In addition to providing several unique interpretations of his own, Kao’s commentary cites passages of the Taoteching that appear in other ancient texts.