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.”

As we said in the previous verse, Humankind are unique. We are free to choose between two very different alternatives.

Because we are human, we can choose not to follow the Tao. That is a downside to being human. The way of Humankind naturally runs counter to the Way of the Tao. We have talked about the downside of being human. We see ourselves as distinct. We are “self-aware.” We see ourselves as separate from all other beings. This results in competing. We want to end up in front, and on top. And we will use force, it just comes naturally to us, to get what we want. Of course, we are never quite satisfied once we get to the front and on top. Because the struggle to remain in front and on top must continue. You can’t take a holiday from that competing.

However, because we are human, we do have an alternative choice. Life doesn’t have to be a competition. It doesn’t have to be a struggle. We can choose to follow the Tao. But, to do this we are going to have to overcome some of our natural predispositions. Like the predisposition to resort to the use of force. To intervene. To interfere. To try to control. We need to practice not competing. And that word practice is important. For it will take practice.

Today’s verse shows us the Way.

Lao-tzu says the best are like water. Water is a favorite metaphor of Lao-tzu’s for the practice of the Way.

If you can be like water, then you approach the Tao.

What is water like?

Water brings help to all without trying to. It doesn’t require any effort, or struggle, to be itself. It nourishes all things, without trying. Water also chooses what others avoid. It always seeks the lowest places. Water flows downhill, naturally. It requires force of some kind to make water flow up hill. Lao-tzu will liken this attribute of water to humility.

And humility is a pretty good word to use for it, when you are using it as a metaphor for humans to use to approach the Tao. Lao-tzu says the best are like water. They bring help to all without competing. They choose what others avoid.

Dwelling in harmony with, rather than being antagonistic toward, the Earth. Humankind are unique in that we see our place as somehow against the natural order. We spend hours on end trying to overcome nature. We are at war with nature. That is what makes life such a struggle. Better, it would be for us, if we would stop competing with nature, and start working with it.

Thinking with depth. You are going to have to delve deeper to get to the inner reality inside of you. Being human, it is easy to limit ourselves to shallow thinking. But shallow thinking will keep us competing with others, with nature, with our true selves.

Helping with kindness. Don’t try to be kind. Kindness, as a motivation, leads to all sorts of evil being perpetrated on the Earth. But, if you can be like water, you will help without trying, without competing, and you can’t practice a greater kindness than that.

Speaking with honesty. Do I need to say it? This doesn’t mean saying the meanest, most cruel things, with the excuse that, “I was just being honest.” Speaking with honesty means your words aren’t contrary to the truth.

Governing with peace. This one is huge! Governing with peace means not using force. Not trying to control. Not intervening. Not interfering. Let people take care of themselves.

Working with skill means always doing your best. Don’t be sloppy. Shoddy workmanship is not a good sign of character. If you don’t care enough about your work to do your very best, find another line of employment.

Moving with time means going with the flow. Not rushing ahead, or trying to lag behind.

If you don’t compete, you won’t be maligned! How could you be maligned? You are operating in a completely different realm of existence. One very different from the way of Humankind.

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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