"Supreme good is like water."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 8
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Supreme good is like water.
Water greatly benefits all things, without conflict.
It flows through places that people loathe.
Thereby it is close to the Way.
A good dwelling is on the ground.
A good mind is deep.
A good gift is kind.
A good word is sincere.
A good ruler is just.
A good worker is able.
A good deed is timely.
Where there is no conflict, there is no fault.
Clearly, this chapter continues the reasoning of the
previous one, concerning the nature of good deeds. The unselfish
one makes good deeds out of reflex, without thinking.
That's automatic, when following the Way. For the rest of us,
it's more complicated.
But we don't need to concern ourselves with the
intricate fabric of ethics, when we try to make good deeds.
What is far more important is that we discover what action is
really for the better, and what might be for the worse. We
need to understand the mechanics between action and
consequence, in order to choose the former wisely.
Lao Tzu uses the example of water, one of the basic
elements of nature, existing in tremendous abundance.
Because it's such an important part of nature, it cannot do wrong.
It shows what is natural. So we should follow its example.
The essence of water is its yielding. It flows
downwards, as if constantly aspiring to be the lowest of all, and it
does so with a minimum of force, rounding obstacles instead
of striking at them, caressing its surroundings instead of
tearing at them. Water willingly floats downwards, and there
is no place too low for it. Still, it's essential to all living things.
Although we all drink from it, the water of the world
is continuously replenished, from above and from
below. Without it, we would perish. Indeed, for something of
this magnificent importance, it's right to be modest and
yielding, not to provoke all of those who are dependent on it.
The Primordial Sea
Lao Tzu's choice of water as an example to us all
makes additional sense, when we consider the significance of
water in ancient myths and beliefs.
In most cosmologies of old, the sea was regarded as
the original and eternal element of the world. The
primordial sea occurs in many creation myths, and the act of
creation is often one of emergence from that sea. The Earth and
all its creatures are born out of the sea. This is true for the
biblical creation in the first book of Genesis, as well as in
many other myths around the world.
When Lao Tzu describes Tao, the Way, as
something akin to water, this might be based on creation myths old
already at his time, where the world was believed to
have emerged from a primordial sea. If so, it could almost be
said that Tao actually is that primordial water, at least in
essence. The Way is the principle of water, the mother of all.
Indeed, present science agrees that the ancestors of
all the living creatures on Earth emerged from the sea.
That was the initial womb of life on Earth. So, we cannot
go wrong if we make it our teacher of how to live our lives.
Complicated Matters Made Easy
Now, Lao Tzu uses the example of water, when listing
what is to recommend for man in several important aspects of
our lives. These recommendations are straightforward
enough, mostly self-evident. But we should not be fooled by the
simplicity of these advices. They are profound, and not
that easy to follow.
To make our dwellings on the ground is making
sure that they will stand, so that we can trust them to protect
us. To keep our minds deep is to respect that there is no
such thing as a simple problem and a quick solution to it.
About gifts, we must understand that no matter
how grand they are, they need to be beneficial to the receiver
of them, and they should be given without ulterior
motive, only out of kindness. Otherwise they are not gifts, even
if that's what we call them.
When we speak to each other, we need to have an
honest intent – even if circumstances force us to lie.
Especially, we should not misuse our praise. We must always mean
it, or we rob ourselves of words to use when that's indeed
the case. It may be polite of us to greet everyone we meet
with a compliment, but this is just decoration that must be
used with care, or we are blinded by it. There are so many
moments in life when words are precious, so that's how
they should always be treated.
Any ruler needs to be just, no matter how difficult
that may be at times. Any ruler. That includes a parent
settling an argument between the children, as well as an
emperor deciding the fate of his captured enemy. Ruling is an act
of responsibility, never to be taken lightly.
Sometimes very grave decisions have to be
made, maybe so much so that no compassionate man or
woman can bear to make them. But there is no blame if the
decisions are just. Then, the unfortunate ones who had to make
them will be able to live with the memory.
On the other hand, if such a decision is unjust, it
will forever gnaw on the one who made it. No matter if we
call it conscience or something else, this gnawing is a
malady with little hope of a cure. The unjust ruler may survive
such decisions, maybe even seemingly profit tremendously
from them, but at length the gnawing will take its toll. It can
easily plague a whole life, all the way to the very bitter end.
A worker who is not competent at his craft, whatever
it is, will not be very pleased with the result, nor will he
enjoy all those daily hours spent on it. We need to cultivate
our abilities and try to excel at our work, or there is no
satisfaction. Since we all spend most of our days at work, it's
very important to us that we feel fulfilled by it.
Sadly, there are so many professions nowadays,
where people are regarded as little more than machines,
expected to produce the simplest things in high quantities, as if
that's all they can. Lao Tzu would not approve. We need to
be able, and to feel able, which means that we must be
allowed the chance to explore our abilities properly. Otherwise
we cannot take pride in what we do, and we fail at
being pleased with how we participate in society.
If there is one thing of primary importance with a
good deed, it has to be its timeliness. Neither too early nor too
late will do. But timeliness also means that we are alert to
the needs of others, so that we can help them when the
time comes. To be timely is to always be compassionate. It
does not at all mean that we should postpone a good deed
until we are certain that the time is good for it. We should
always be eager to help each other. Then we will do so just in
time, without thought.
If we practice such a compassionate alertness instead
of constantly watching the clock, it will be fine. That's true
also for other considerations. The important good deeds
usually need little planning, but they need to be done even
when there are obstacles. That's timeliness, as well. It's done
when it needs to be done, no matter what.
The final line of this chapter returns to the principle of
the water and its yielding nature. It finds its way through
any terrain. This is possible also for our actions. There is
always a way to act that doesn't collide with the intentions of
others. If there is not, then we have already traveled far
too long down the wrong path.
The ideal for any solution should be that everyone
involved is pleased with it. Otherwise, it's probably not
the final solution. In the world of business, this is called a
win-win situation. Any business deal should be such, or
the price of it will rise for all those involved, in one way
The essence of a conflict is that some want to get
what others don't want to give up. This really means that we
focus on the other one's loss, rather than on our own gain.
If we concentrate on the gain, we are sure to find a
solution where it is shared. If we don't have that goal, we are just
as sure to share the loss.
Therefore, the very best way to find a solution is not
to search for one's own gain, but for that of the others
involved. If you begin by understanding and respecting
that, you will be surprised by how easy it is to reach an
outcome beneficial to you, as well. If all people do the same,
the world will shine.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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