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The Supreme Goodness is Like Water

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

This week, I visited Niagara Falls with a group of people who study Traditional Chinese Culture (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism). Among the group was an esteemed guest named Venerable Cheng De. I was first introduced to Traditional Chinese Culture around two years ago from his talks on Di Zi Gui: Guide to A Happy Life, which had a huge impact on my life. He is basically my idol, so I was absolutely delighted to meet him in person!

During the trip, I just happened to be near him with the waterfall in the background, and he gestured me over to take a picture with him.

After the picture, he turned around and told me, "Look at that water, charging forward with such force. Water is so courageous."

My first thought was, Wow, everyone is busy trying to take pictures of the waterfall, but he is contemplating the virtues of water. Such a wise person!

My next thought was, Hmm... I've heard of the virtues of water from the Dao De Jing, which mentioned humility and benevolence. But I've never heard of courage before.

I said to him, "Oh that's interesting, I've never heard anyone say water is courageous before. I just remember Lao Zi mentioned that water is really humble and yielding."

He said, "Water has so many virtues. For example, water has great aspiration."

Again, I was surprised. I've never heard anyone say water has aspiration. He saw me frown, and he continued, "When water flows along a river, it must go through so many twists and bends, but it never forgets its ultimate goal: the great ocean."

I nodded slowly and said, "Very true."

He continued, "Like you said, water is very humble. It flows down to the low places. Water is also benevolent. It nurtures all living beings equally without discrimination. Water is also flexible. It can take on whatever shape of its container, and it can be a solid, liquid, or gas based on the temperature. Water is wise. It follows the Dao."

Thanks to that one short conversation, what initially was just a sightseeing trip became a useful life lesson. I decided to study the virtues of water as a way to commemorate this event. Coincidentally, I just wrote about water last week in The Three Treasures of Daoism, so I went back to the Dao De Jing to search up the chapter about water.

Chapter 8 of the Dao De Jing says:

The supreme goodness is like water.

Water benefits all things without conflict.

It resides in the low places that others don't want.

Thus, it is close to the Dao.

An excellent residence counts on the suitability of the setting.

An excellent mind counts on stillness like an abyss.

Excellent relationships count on benevolence.

Excellent words count on integrity.

Excellent governance counts on order.

Excellent handling of affairs counts on ability.

Excellent action counts on timing.

Such an excellent person has no conflict, thus no one finds fault with him.

(Original Text: 上善若水。水善利萬物而不爭,處衆人之所惡,故幾於道。居善地,心善淵,與善仁,言善信,正善治,事善能,動善時。夫唯不爭,故無尤。)

From the above passage, we can see many virtues of water:

  1. Benevolence: Water benefits all things without discrimination, no matter if you are a fish, a plant, an animal, or a human.

  2. Harmony: Water does not have conflict with others. If water meets a rock, it just flows around it. If it meets a river bend, it turns with it. Thus, no one faults it.

  3. Humility: Water resides in low places that others don't want, just like a humble person is willing to do the non-glamorous but important jobs.

  4. Integrity: Clear water does not hide anything. It reflects the truth.

  5. Orderly: Water follows natural order. It flows according to the river. It evaporates and then rains down to nourish all places.

  6. Ability: Despite its humility, water actually has great ability. It can erode rock with its soft persistence. It can take on the form of any container. It can nurture all living beings.

  7. Wisdom: Water flows to find the most suitable location for itself, such as the ocean. Water is tranquil and clear. When the mind is tranquil and clear, wisdom arises. Water always does things with the right timing. Spring rain comes in time to nourish growing seedlings. Winter snow only happens in winter.

I'm a very by-the-book type of a person, so normally, I would try to memorize these seven virtues. But Venerable Cheng De showed me the importance of going beyond the book and inspecting the real situation at hand.

Lao Zi didn't talk about waterfalls specifically, but Venerable Cheng De was able to see the virtue of courage in a waterfall. He also observed the great ambition of water, flowing from small rivers to the great ocean. In his talks, he always emphasizes the importance of applying philosophy in daily life. I speculate that one reason he was able to notice these characteristics about water is because he's had to practice courage and aspiration in his own life. Another reason is probably because his mind is calm and tranquil, which gives rise to wisdom.

I've only just started on my journey of seeking wisdom and cultivating virtues, and I feel so fortunate to have received such a profound lesson from my idol teacher. I hope to emulate the goodness of water and become more kind, harmonious, humble, and wise.

What virtues of water inspire you? Are there any virtues I missed? Let me know!


Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #188

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