“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 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.”
Lao-tzu called it something everyone knows, but no one is able to practice. And I wonder whether it is really a matter of inability, or unwillingness. But before we try to figure that one out, maybe we better make sure we truly understand what the “it” is, that Lao-tzu says everyone knows.
Lao-tzu says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water, but against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it.” Lao-tzu is talking about water, here; but he is talking about it metaphorically. Why is it that the hard and the strong is no match for its weakness?
First, Lao-tzu says it is because nothing can change it. The change Lao-tzu is referring to, here, is its nature. It is the nature of water which nothing can change. 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 its weakness, it can bore through rocks. Rocks, on the other hand, can’t wear down water. And Chu Ti-huang allows that we can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend.
But, remember, I said that Lao-tzu only lauds the nature of water metaphorically. What he is really teaching, the “it” that everyone knows, is that when we become like water, as Bruce Lee taught, we can overcome the hard and the strong. When we are taught to be like water, what we are really being taught is to be soft, and by being soft overcome the hard. And to be weak, and by being weak overcome the strong.
This is what Lao-tzu says everyone knows. Being soft, being weak, enables us to overcome, because being like water, our nature is to stay low, to not struggle, to descend, and nothing can overcome that. Especially if “nothing” refers to the strong and hard. The strong and hard can’t (or won’t) compete with that.
And that brings me back to my earlier question. Is Lao-tzu’s assertion that no one is able to practice this really a question of ability, or is it unwillingness. If Lao-tzu was only talking about rocks, then it is obviously a question of ability. Rocks are rocks. They don’t have the capacity to will anything. So unwillingness on the part of rocks seems a silly notion. But, Lao-tzu isn’t teaching rocks a lesson. He is teaching people, who can be as hard in their unwillingness (in other words, obstinate) as rocks. Even the rocks are metaphors!
And now we really need to be honest, and say the “no one” that Lao-tzu refers to here, as opposed to the “everyone” he referred to in the previous line, are uses of hyperbole on Lao-tzu’s part. Everyone vs. no one. Like, always and never. Lao-tzu doesn’t really mean there can never be exceptions to the rule. And sages are one such exception.
They do have both a willingness, and the ability, to practice it. And that means, my good friends, that so can we.
What is it going to take?
To be like water, we have to overcome the hardness of our own hearts, the strength of our own will and desires. And that is going to take, wait for it, humility.
That is what the sages declared. You have to accept your country’s disgrace. You have to accept your country’s misfortune. Lao-tzu was teaching rulers in the art of governing, so he talked about it on a grand scale. On a more personal level, we might say, you have to accept your own disgrace and misfortune. Accepting means acquiescing to nature’s course. Are you willing to go even lower, to be last? Or, do you have to be on top, above, first? Your ability or willingness to humble yourself is the key to overcoming — if you can practice it.
So, can you? Or, should I ask, will you?
Red Pine introduces the following 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.
SHUCHING (BOOK OF DOCUMENTS). Collection of memorials from China’s earliest historical periods: the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties. Reputedly edited by Confucius, there are two versions, one of which contains twenty-eight chapters and which most scholars think is genuine, and one with an additional twenty-two chapters of debatable authenticity. Translated into English by James Legge (1815-1897).
KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of the 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. Lao-tzu cheng-yi.