The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Every time I have cycled through the Tao Te Ching, and come once again to this chapter, I always experience a certain crisis. Lao Tzu introduces something he calls the supreme good. The crisis I experience comes in trying to understand what Lao Tzu means by the supreme good. Is this just another name for the Tao, the eternal reality? Perhaps it is. He has already said it is called the Great Mother. Maybe, just maybe, the supreme good is another name for the Tao. In the past, my commentaries on this chapter have ignored the nagging doubts I have about this explanation; and simply gone with the notion that the supreme good is the Tao. But today, as I have been reading and meditating on today’s chapter, the doubts have had a heyday with me. I can’t ignore them. Perhaps, it would help if I could better explain my dilemma.
You see, Lao Tzu starts out by saying the supreme good is like water. And then, he goes on to explain the properties of water that make it like the supreme good. It is only then that he says, “Thus it is like the Tao.” If the “it” in that sentence is essentially the Tao, then we have “the Tao is like the Tao.” Not only do I find that not helpful, I find it a bit annoying. Of course, I could always say that the ‘it” is actually water. Then we just have Lao Tzu repeating the first line again, only in reverse order. Now, we have “water is like the Tao.” I like that much better; and in the past, I have chosen to go with that interpretation, in spite of the nagging doubts.
But here is my problem. Lao Tzu has already spent a good amount of time explaining that the Tao doesn’t choose sides. It gives birth to both good and evil. It is neutral. It isn’t good or evil; it is just the way things are. So, why, all of a sudden, call it the supreme good?
Perhaps, I am over-thinking this. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I did that. But I like seeing the Tao as completely neutral, not on any side. When we talk of yin and yang, we certainly shouldn’t think of one as being good and the other bad. I would have as much trouble explaining how the supreme good could give birth to evil, as religious apologists have, with defending their God, when confronted with the problem of evil. So, I don’t think the supreme good is the Tao. Though it is like water; and water is like the Tao.
Now that I have decided what the supreme good is not, it is only left to say what I believe it is. And, for me to answer that question, I have to go back to talking about water. It is like water, after all. Like water, it nourishes all things without trying to. It doesn’t set out to nourish all things. It doesn’t have to do anything to nourish all things. It nourishes all things because of what it is. Also, like water, it is content with the low places that people disdain. We understand that water always seeks out the lowest places. Water flows down, not up; unless something out of the ordinary causes it to do that. But it can only go up, with effort. And the action of water is, by nature, effortless. Sea level is the lowest altitude for a reason. Lao Tzu calls this humility. But attributing humility to water shouldn’t cause us to think that water is trying to be humble. It isn’t trying to be anything, at all. It is what it is. By its very nature it is content with the low places. And we, for reasons that we all understand, disdain the low places. Which leads me to a much better understanding of what the supreme good is.
The supreme good is like the Tao. But that doesn’t mean it is the Tao. The Tao, remember is neutral. It doesn’t choose sides. It is neither good, nor evil. But the supreme good is, well, good. You could even say it is supremely good. Like water. The Tao is the way things are. The supreme good is harmony with the way things are. Thus, it really is like the Tao. It is harmony with it. It is the supreme good to be in harmony with the way things are, the Tao. It is bad to be out of harmony with the way things are. I hope this is making the sense I think it should be making. For, you see, while the Tao is neither good, nor evil, we can be. Being in or out of harmony with the Tao is how we live our lives. Being in harmony with the Tao is the supreme good. This is the life Lao Tzu wants us to choose for ourselves.
To that end, Lao Tzu lists six ways to be in harmony with the Tao, to live the supreme good. So, keep in mind how it is like water, as we look at these six ways.
The first way involves your dwelling. Live close to the ground. Now, I don’t think Lao Tzu is referring to your physical dwelling, here. I think of dwelling as expressing how we live out our every day lives. Not merely where we live, but how we live. Some may prefer a hobbit hole. Others might like to live in a tree. Your home could be a high-rise apartment and that wouldn’t preclude you from living close to the ground. It has to do with our connectedness with the Earth. Our bodies are made up primarily of water, and then the same elements as are found in the ground beneath our feet. It would be supremely good for us to stay connected to that ground beneath our feet. To stay grounded in reality. That is one way that we can be in harmony with the Tao.
The second way involves our thinking. Keep to the simple. Maybe that is something I should have been thinking when I started my commentary today. Have I over-thunk this? Hopefully, my wrestling earlier will end up helping me to keep to the simple, from now on. Don’t make things so complicated. You end up complicating your life. That isn’t harmony with the Tao. Keeping your thinking simple is the supreme good.
The third way involves conflict. Lao Tzu isn’t promising some Utopia, free from conflict. Good and evil coexist. There will always be those who will try and assert control. Conflicts will happen. When they do, how are we to be? The supreme good would be, being fair and generous. Just imagine what a difference that would make in your living. If you are thinking that would mean that others would be running roughshod over you, then you might just need reminding that you have no control over what others do. But you can control yourself. Be fair. Be generous. Conflicts can be resolved. And what if you get the short end of the stick? Let the Tao balance out all the inequities. It will be fair and generous with you; even if others aren’t. That is the supreme good. It is being in harmony with the Tao.
The fourth way involves governing. This is something Lao Tzu will be returning to again and again. Don’t try to control. It is because someone is trying to assert control, that conflicts arise. If, in our governing we were to let go of our desire to be in control, that would be the supreme good. That is how to be in harmony with the Tao.
The fifth way involves our work. We have all heard this advice, especially when we were young. And most of us have gotten pretty sick and tired of hearing it. Especially when, if we are so bold as to actually do it, we then get told, to get a real job. But, in spite of the naysayers, it is still sage advice. And, it is the only thing Lao Tzu tells us to do in this list of ways to be. Do what you enjoy. When you are doing what you enjoy, you will find that your work is not just something you enjoy, but it will involve less effort, as well. That means it is very tied into being in harmony with the Tao. Doing not-doing, effortless action; like water, nourishing without trying to.
The sixth way involves our family life. We all have one. Though definitions of what a family consists of, do vary. You probably have multiple roles in your family life. You might be a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling. The various roles, we may have, go on and on. But however many or few the roles you play, in your family, be completely present. Children grow up far too soon for you not to be, if you are a parent. My own daughter turns 25 this week. I posted a pic of me carrying her on my shoulder when she was perhaps 2, on Facebook, just a few hours ago. Where did all those years go? I couldn’t always be there, physically. But I was always present with her. And she was always present with me. Completely present. We still are; even though she and I live 15 time zones apart.
I started today’s commentary asking the question, “What is the supreme good?” And, I think I understand what it is, now. The supreme good is when you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete. Be content to be you. Don’t worry about what other people say or do. Just be you. That is the supreme good. Everybody will respect you.