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The Water and the Dao de Jing

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              Man could learn many things from water which is one of his basic needs to live. Out of the four basic elements believed in the early times of China, water was the one chosen by Lao Tzu to be his object for teaching. In his Dao de Jing, water was often used to describe how man should exist in his Tao. In fact, one of the 81 chapters in Dao de Jing was solely devoted for this purpose. Looking ahead…

In The Unfathomable Tao

Based on the Dao de Jing’s translation of Stan Rosenthal, the word water was first used in the fourth chapter, The Unfathomable Tao. Generally, Tao is considered to denote different meanings. As the word unfathomable implies, Tao cannot be sounded or measured. Water was used then to add additional description for the understanding of the Tao’s concept. In the second stanza of the Unfathomable Tao,

“It is the manner of the Tao that even though continuously used, it is naturally replenished, never being emptied, and never being as full as a goblet which is filled to the brim and therefore spills its fine spring water upon the ground. The Tao therefore does not waste that with which it is charged, yet always remains a source of nourishment for those who are not already so full that they cannot partake of it.”,

water was transfigured to be the manner of the Tao. Water is the right object to describe something that though continually consumed, it does not deplete as long as its natural cycle is maintained. Considering the second statement above, the Tao thus not waste this “water” and will always serve as a source of nourishment for the mind full of desires. Continuing in the third stanza,

“Even the finest blade will lose its sharpness if tempered beyond its mettle. Even the most finely tempered sword is of no avail against water, and will shatter if struck against a rock. A tangled cord is of little use after it has been untangled by cutting it.”

water is further used to describe what Tao really is but now on a different context. Water here is used as one of the obstacles for the Tao. But according to the subsequent stanzas of the Unfathomable Tao, through patience, obstacles could be surpassed; problems could be resolved.

In the Way of Water

The Dao de Jing’s Way of Water, is the chapter wherein the water’s natural flow was associated to Tao. Here is the first stanza:

“Great good is said to be like water, sustaining life with no conscious striving, flowing naturally, providing nourishment, found even in places which desiring man rejects.”

Water follows the contour of its container. Water obeys the law of gravity thus water lies to the ground as much as possible. Lao Tzu had used this water characteristic to symbolically teach to the people that the one who wants to teach like him should not select who he only wants to learn from him. Anyone who wants him to be his teacher could avail his service regardless of stature. For other ways of living, this water characteristic was also related to the succeeding stanzas:

“Like water, the sage abides in a humble place; in meditation, without desire; in thoughtfulness, he is profound, and in his dealings, kind. In speech, sincerity guides the man of Tao, and as a leader, he is just. In management, competence is his aim, and he ensures the pacing is correct.

Because he does not act for his own ends, nor cause unnecessary conflict, he is held to be correct in his actions towards his fellow man.”

In the last stanza, Lao Tzu states that if someone does a task to attain something that would not be of conflict to other people, then he would maintain his uprightness towards his community.

In The Manifestation of the Tao in Man

In this chapter, the man that has in himself the Tao was described. Someone that has the Tao in himself is profound, alert, perceptive and aware. He desires nothing for himself and not for a change for his own sake. He had no fear of danger if he would be watchful and he would not need to fear if he would be responsive. He is also courteous as well. He also always thinks deep. Water then was again used,

      “Pure in heart, like uncut jade, he [the sage of old] cleared the muddy water by leaving it alone.”

to metaphorically state what would a man manifested with a Tao reacts to the unclean ones. By waiting the mud to settle at the bottom, the man with a Tao could then take the water at the top that is then clean of mud. The chapter ends with “By remaining calm and active, the need for renewing is reduced.”, to give justification to the behavior of a man manifested with a Tao.

In Retaining Integrity

Being open-minded is the opening topic in this chapter. It is not bad to develop one’s thoughts in a certain subject area. The one that is bad is prohibiting oneself to know the basic of other thoughts. This was again figuratively stated in Dao de Jing with the use of water but now being compared with the mind of a child.

“Whilst developing creativity, also cultivate receptivity. Retain the mind like that of a child, which flows like running water.”

In Sincerity

The last chapter that used water was the Sincerity. This last used of the word water suggestively gives conclusion why Lao Tzu had used it to figuratively describe the concepts revolving in the Tao.

“There is nothing more yielding than water, yet when acting on the solid and strong, its gentleness and fluidity have no equal in any thing.”

In Other translations

            There are other translations that use water in other chapters besides the cited above.  To get more information with the other translations, just check this site: Taoism Information Page <http://www.religiousworlds.com/taoism/ttc-list.html>


The existence of the object water in most of the chapters in Dao de Jing proved its significance in this Lao Tzu’s way of teaching. Lao Tzu had used the fact that water is very much important not only to human beings but to all livings as well. Lau Tzu had emphasized this fact and then transforms the different characteristics of water to figuratively state how man should behave in his surroundings.


Rosenthal, Stan. The Tao Te Ching, An Introduction by Stan Rosenthal.

            28 Oct. 2007. < http://web.telia.com/~u89000917/Tao%20Te%20Ching.pdf>

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