Water and Daoism

The image of water is frequently invoked in Daoist texts. Water is of the greatest efficacy because it mirrors the world around it but does not impose onto the world its own values. Think of water filling a jug. Water embraces the emptiness, rapidly, and effectively demonstrates the shape of its container.

In the classical Chinese context this is not a problem. Rather than the body (auton) being distinct from the mind (psyche ψυχή) there is xin 心, heart-and-mind. Mengzi tells us in 6A15:

“It is not the office [guan 官] of the ears and eyes to reflect, and they are misled by things. Things interact with things and simply lead them [our ears and eyes] along. But the office of the heart is to reflect. If it reflects, then it will get Virtue [de 德]. If it does not reflect, then it will not get it.” (Van Norden translation)

Ames and Hall state that xin 心 intimates what we understand as the functioning of “knowing,” “acting,” and “feeling.” (Thinking Through Confucius, 300) They further argue that because of the sheer volume of characters in Chinese that index “thinking” include xin 心 in them, “there are many passages in these classical texts that would not make sense in English unless xin 心 thinks, as well as feels.” (Focusing the Familiar, 82)

Unlike in our own tradition, where “who we are” is a battle between our ability to rein-in or temper our fiery passions through cold reasoning, in the classical Chinese context our feelings are dispositions toward acting.

In Ruist philosophy “who we are” is a matter of skillful and prolonged attention (zhong 忠) to our relationships with others, marked by shu 恕 “sympathetic understanding.” We previously discussed shu 恕 and Analects 15.24, “not imposing on others that which we would not want imposed on us is shu 恕” and dictated by the proper performances of our prescribed ritual activities (li 禮) so that we can become a junzi 君子.

In the Daoist philosophical project what is of utmost importance is cultivating and practicing a deferential disposition that establishes and maintains relationships with the “ten thousand things (wanwu 萬物).”

In the Daoist tradition our task is to allow our xin 心 to mirror the way the world actually is, free from our impositions onto it. We defer to it all and find a dynamic balancing with the way the world is. We see this in the Zhuangzi:

“When the sage is still, it is not that he is still because he says, ‘It is
good to be still’; he is still because none among the myriad things is sufficient to disturb his heart. If water is still, its clarity lights up the hairs of the beard and eyebrows, its evenness is plumb with the carpenter’s level: the greatest craftsmen take their standard from it. If mere water clarifies when it is still, how much more the stillness of […] the heart of the sage! It is the reflector of heaven and earth, the mirror of the myriad things.” (Graham translation)

The world, from the Daoist perspective, is not a jumble of dumb stuff, it is, as Lau and Ames state, “a flow of events which belies any discriminations that would lay claim to fixity or certainty.” What the Daoist sage advises is that we attune ourselves—we become aligned with, one with—and this means recognizing “the parity and continuities that obtain among them [….] reveling in the bottomless particularity and sustained uniqueness of each passing event made possible by the transformation of things (wuhua 物化).” (Yuan Dao, 50)

We see this demonstrated in chapter 16 of the Daodejing:
“Returning to one’s destiny [ming 命] is known as constancy.
To know constancy is called ‘enlightenment’ [ming 明]”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Ames and Hall explain the above passage in the following way:

“It is not through an internal struggle of reason against the passions but through ‘acuity (ming 明)’—a mirroring of the things of the world as they are in their interdependent relations with us—that we reach a state in which nothing among all of the myriad of ‘the goings on’ in the world will be able to agitate our hearts-and-minds [xin 心], and we are able to promote the flourishing of our world.” (emphasis added)

Note the use of paronomasia here. Ming 命 is how the world tends to be. One translation of ming 命 can be “mandate,” or “command,” or “destiny,” but it can also be “the propensity of things.” All four can be valid translations because the situations in which we find ourselves largely determine what is likely to occur. It’s not that anything can happen, but given the constellation of things that are conditioning our present, a certain range of events are more likely to transpire.

Our ability to work with the world as we find it is called ming 明 which can mean “bright” as well as “enlightenment.” The character明 presents us with both the character for “sun” or “day” ri 日 and the character for “moon” and “moonlight” yue 月. Putting together two characters that refer to the brightest objects in the heavens recommends us to thinking with the self-so-ness (ziran 自然) of the Daoist position.

That is, when we come to a relationship with the world that is free and at ease with the flux of the world as it undergoes its changes, we are in a better position to effect our flourishing with the world. To let the world “do its thing” presents itself as the obvious solution, or common sense, to many of us at different times. It’s perhaps for this reason that Ames and Hall translate the selection of Daodejing 16 above as,
“[R]eturning to the propensity of things [ming 命] is commonsense.
Using common sense is acuity [ming 明]…”

If we continue to reflect on the use of paronomasia, if we are willing to riff on the theme of ming, then we might be reminded of Daodejing 1:

“A way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name [ming 名] that can be named is not a constant name [ming 名].
Nameless [wuming 無名], it is the beginning of Heaven and earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Let’s look at this character for name and naming, ming 名 because again there is a moment of ziran 自然 at work here. The character is composed of xi 夕”crescent moon” and ko 口 “mouth.” When it is dark out and there is not much light from the moon (because it’s not a full moon) and we hear something in the darkness we ask, “who’s there?” expecting that the thing we’ve heard will name itself.

If we get too hung up on how we name (ming 名) something, we run the risk of mistaking the menu for the meal. If this transpires, then we’ve lost our way dao 道.