Water is the most pervasive and powerful molecule on earth. It is the life-blood of the earth and every living thing on it. It is as delicate as the petal of a rose yet more powerful than a nuclear bomb. Softer than a newborn’s hair yet harder than granite. The properties of water defy the laws of physics. What else expands as it’s atoms and molecules crowd together upon freezing? Yes indeed, there is a certain Magic and Awe about water.
In Taoist practice, purity and stillness are its defining qualities: purity signifying the watery body, and stillness as firing mind. The body must be pure to become receptive and productive, and mind must be still to be creative and transformative. This is why Lao Zi characterizes water and fire as the primary elements for cultivation. To be more precise, Lao Zi is a water-type person with a firing character. He refers to himself as “I am a fool at heart, as a water droplet is to the spring.” (20:5)
The “fool at heart” is the passion of fire, the emptiness of ego, and the character of selflessness, while “a water droplet” is the value of life, the direction of planning and the hope for the future.
Lao Zi also uses water to represent the goodness, the kindness, and virtue of the Tao. He says that “Eminent goodness is like water. Water is good at benefitting all things, yet it actively completes. It retires to undersirable places. Thus it is near to Tao.” (8:1, 2) Mistakenly, however, the standard text of Tao Te Ching defines the water as “uncompetitive”, rather than “actively completing”. The sentence “it is uncompetitive” has many scholars interpreting Laoism and Taoism as being passive and quiet. This is a misleading conception.
There are passions in Laoism and there is madness in Taoism. We do not understand the nature of water thoroughly if we say that its character is inactive, and that its motion is passive. Water is the most active element on earth and in the sky. It is everywhere on earth and circulates constantly in our organism. It is active in its performance and competitive in occupying it own position. Water never ceases to battle with fire and light over the space it occupies. It peacefully competes against the chaos caused by fire, and actively transforms the resulting murkiness, poison, and contamination.
Lao Zi further explains that “nothing in the world is softer and more supple than water. When confronting strength and hardness nothing can overcome it.” The he advises that “Using nothingness simplifies. Using water overcomes hardness.” Using weakness overcomes strength.” In reality, as Lao Zi indicates “there is no one in the world who does not know it, but no one can apply it.” Finally, Lao Zi concludes that the usefulness and meaningfulness of water can be explained by “Whoever can bear the disgrace of the country is the ruler of the country. Whoever can bear the misfortune of the world is the ruler of the world. Truthful speech seems paradoxical.” (80: 1- 4)
This final truth awakens us to the heart of spiritual practice as well as the richness of life. Normally, everyone expects the outcome of situations to be good, yet few people realize the value of working through the bad things that happen. Everyone hopes to reap the benefits of teaching without learning the power of mastering the bad. Everyone knows the difference between good and bad, yet no one embraces the deeds occurring between them. Whoever understands the paradox knows the game of life. Those who remain in the paradox have yet to awaken to the mystery of life.
~ From LAOISM: The Complete Teachings of Lao Zi
Ascending Hall Taoist Temple