Tao Te Ching


Tao Te Ching
Chapter 8

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

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.

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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 or other.

       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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