Tao Te Ching Teachings: The Supreme Goodness of Water

dragon water

“Supreme goodness is like water”

Supreme goodness is like water. Here, the word shan refers not just to moral goodness and virtue, but supreme excellence in all its manifestations – excellence in wisdom, excellence in action, excellence in being.

Why do we this say this manifold excellence is like water? Water is fluid, flexible, yielding, and unconquerable. It is immensely powerful because it can adapt to every possible circumstance. If it gets too cold, it simply transforms itself into ice. If it gets too hot, it transforms itself into steam. Nothing can kill it – it just keeps changing form.

The reason water can keep changing its form is because it is essentially formless. Its form is determined by what is around it. Put it in a cup, and it will be cup-shaped. Put it in a ravine, and it will be river-shaped. It needs no form of its own, because it harmonizes with everything around it, taking other beings as its outline, instead of imposing itself upon others.

The sage strives to mirror these qualities. Fluid and flexible too, he adapts to every situation. When faced with untoward events, he simply transforms himself to suit the situation. Because he is selfless, he has no fixed personality, and can take on whatever personality is most appropriate to his needs. If he needs to be wise, he will be wise. If he needs to be silly, he will be silly. If it were better that he remain unseen, he will remain unknown. Like a great actor, he puts on the right mask to fit the mood.

This might sound insincere to some. Isn’t it wrong to pretend to be something you’re not? But, the sage has renounced his identity, so he can have any identity he likes. Knowing that he is part of the eternal, there is nothing he is not. But, in the same way as the celestial design, however he manifests himself, he does not do so out of self-interest, or with personal profit in mind – only with the ideal of helping enlighten other beings. Thus, any act that helps point beings towards the truth is a compassionate act, no matter how strange it may see on the surface.


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