The Analogy of Water in Tao Te Ching

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In Tao Te Ching, Tao is described as a “deep pool that never dries” (ch.4). In some places, it appears that Tao, though incomprehensible, refers to an Ultimate Reality behind all existence; in other places it appears as a way of life or ‘the highest good’ that individuals are encouraged to inculcate by imbibing the power of the former Tao. For me, the most interesting metaphor in Tao Te Ching was the analogy of water to describe Tao and to illustrate the model of ideal Taoist behavior.

I identified two, distinct yet interrelated, facets of the aforementioned water metaphor. Hence, water becomes a symbol of: i) virtues of humility, benevolence and inactivity ii) leadership and governance methods, and the ability to overcome obstacles.

  1. i) “The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near to the Way” (ch.8). Thus, selflessness and willingness to be indiscriminately useful to others can be considered one of the highest goods. Moreover, highest good entails not being over-assertive, not striving to appear on the fore, or not obsessing with getting ahead, but effortlessly adapting to one’s surrounding and surrendering oneself to natural forces (force of gravity in case of water) and being satisfied with being on a low ground, ever-humble, at the same time effectively providing essential support to everyone. The sage avoids positive action “working only through the power of Tao, which alone cuts without wounding” (ch.2). From this I understood to mean that the wise person avoids acting in attention-seeking ways but still manages to make a significant mark in the world. Nonetheless, letting oneself go does not entail being ineffective or purposeless: “The sage just because he never at any time makes a show of greatness in fact achieves greatness” (ch.34) and “By this very inactivity, everything can be activated” (ch.48).[1] Thus, from water, one can learn virtues of a soft yielding nature that seem to bring inner contentment at the personal or individual level. Fascinatingly, stillness of water is concomitant with its clarity: “which of you can assume such murkiness, to become in the end still and clear” (ch.15), which can be correspondingly seen as a reference to the stillness of mind and senses, as in meditation, leading to clarity of thought.
  2. ii) The second aspect of water metaphor seems to have a firmer quality and a social dimension to it in that it seems to teach about the ability to overcome obstacles (by flowing around them) and an effective method of governance (following or remaining low). “What is of all things most yielding, Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.”(ch.43). “Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it” (Ch. 78). This verse highlights the fascinating paradox of water that despite being the most yielding substance, it can cut through mountains through perseverance. For instance, in case of an obstacle in its way, the water continues to flow around it forming new channels at the same time eroding the edges of the obstacle and altering its shape in the process, and in the end it is the water that prevails. Attempting to translate this symbolism into human social conduct, the first example that strikes to me is that of overlooking or forgiving a person even if he advertently caused the most serious damage or loss to you, which may perhaps melt his heart and make him regretful of his actions and desirous of being friends with you (deeply reminiscent of Quran 41:34). Water can also be instructive in demonstrating leadership qualities: “How did the great rivers and seas get their kingship over the hundred lesser streams? Through the merit of being lower than they; that was how they got their kingship” (ch.66). This chapter explains that in order to be above the people, one must act in ways whereby one appears lower than the people. Also, a good general “fulfils his purpose but without violence” (ch.30). Thus a good leader can emulate the non-arrogant and non-violent qualities of water and still be able to achieve his purposes; a humble and kind ruler will draw the love of his followers which is arguably more enduring than evoking fear (though Machiavelli would disagree).

In conclusion, water seems to illustrate virtues with both a soft/individual and a firm/social dimension, although the latter appears to be derived from and built on the former. Taoist advocacy of inactivity cannot be seen either as an end in itself or as a resigned passivity, but as a means towards the end of activating inner powers that affect the world in imperceptible ways. This appears to be a world quite different from our own which increasingly values continuous perceptible activity as a sign of progress.

[1] I could not help but be reminded of these verses, which now strike as quite Taoist, from my favourite poem by Robert Frost: “Beware of coming too much to the surface / And using for apparel what was meant/ To be the curtain of the inmost soul.”

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