The Best Are Like Water

“The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
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 it be maligned?”

HAN FEI says, “If a drowning man drinks it, he dies. If a thirsty man drinks it, he lives.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Given Lao-tzu’s usual disdain for social virtues, some commentators have trouble accepting the standard reading of jen (kindness) in line eight. For those in search of an alternative, the Fuyi and Chinglung editions have jen (others), while the Mawangtui B has t’ien (heaven), and Mawangtui A compresses lines eight and nine: ‘helping with honesty.’ This is one of the Taoteching’s most quoted verses.”

The first time I heard it, I am pretty sure it was Bruce Lee who was saying it: “Be like water.” This was well before I heard of Lao-tzu, and his Taoteching. And I didn’t understand it, at all, at the time. I was young. And martial arts movies were cool. And, Bruce Lee was a master at them. Moving so swiftly, sometimes faster than my eye could take in. He made it look easy. Like he was exerting no effort at all. I wish I could say that I was inspired by Bruce Lee to get involved in the martial arts. I was a puny little kid. Martial arts could have been very helpful to me. But that was a long time ago. I lived in a small town. And, martial arts seemed to be something only practiced in far away countries. It was just one more thing which made people who looked different from me seem even more different. They looked different. They spoke a completely different language. They even ate differently. And they knew things, secret things, like the martial arts, that I could never know. The world was a lot bigger back then. Bigger and scarier. But, great oceans separated continents, and people, from each other. I was safe and secluded, in my small town in the middle of my own continent of people who looked, and sounded, and acted the same as me. I was far away from those oceans.

Those oceans don’t seem quite so large now, nor so far away. But the water in them is still the same. “Be like water,” he said. “The best are like water.”

What does it mean to be like water? Lao-tzu takes us through it, line by line.

Bringing help to all. Without competing. Choosing what others avoid. Thus, approaching the Tao. Dwelling with earth. Thinking with depth. Helping with kindness. Speaking with honesty. Governing with peace. Working with skill. Moving with time.

Content to be lower, and thus free of blame. Most people hate being lower and compete to be higher. But, as we all have come to know, when people compete, someone is always maligned.

Choosing humility, rather than nobility. Choosing the base, over the pure.

Water gives without expecting anything in return. You can’t change it, it is forever the same. Water doesn’t know it is water. And it wants nothing. It has no purpose of its own. It just is.

Be empty. Be clear. Be deep. Be like water.

Red Pine introduces the following 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. Lao-tzu-chieh.

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 Chi-hsia Academy that flourished in the 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. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

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.

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