Be like water


“In motion, be like water… at rest, like a mirror. Resound like the echo; be subtle, as though non-existent.” Tao wisdom


This saying is translated from the spiritual classic Tao Te Ching written by Lao Tzu, a Chinese sage believed to have lived in the 6th century BC and a contemporary of Confucius and Buddha. According to legend, Lao Tzu served as a record keeper at the imperial archives at Luoyang, the ancient capital of China. He became disillusioned with life and sad that his government had become corrupt. He set out on a pilgrimage and met a guard at the city wall. The guard recognized him from a dream and asked him to share his wisdom, which he wrote down in this text of 81 poetical verses contemplating the nature of existence. The title literally means the way (“tao”) and its power or virtue (“te”), with “ching” signifying a classical text.


The Tao advocates a life path of natural simplicity in harmony with the universe, aligning with the ebb and flow of yin and yang energies which are the very basis of life. The Tao suggests that struggle is unnecessary and the more one acts in harmony with the universe, the more one will achieve, and with less effort.

Even if you have never heard of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, you will probably be familiar with the Chinese symbol of yin and yang. The symbol is one of two fish encircling one another, representing the complementary natures of yin and yang energies in life. Yin relates to the feminine, passive, soft, low, colder and darker elements of nature while yang relates to the masculine, active, hard, high, warmer and brighter elements of nature. The two eyes of the fish of contrasting colour show that there is some feminine energy in the masculine and vice versa. Although they have opposing natures, yin and yang cannot exist without each other and should not compete with one another.

The Tao stresses the importance of balance and the often disregarded and less obvious yin element. Water is the supreme yin image in Taoism. It is essential to life, flexible and submissive – yet also irresistible, indestructible and tremendously powerful. It adapts easily and settles with humility in low places, thus avoiding conflict. When water in a stream is confronted by a rock, it flows over it and around it. The corresponding yang image is one of fire. Nature is considered the greatest teacher.

Practices related to Taoism that you may have encountered include divination using the I Ching (The Book of Changes), qigong (breath control), tai chi (a form of martial arts), and feng shui architecture and design. Working with chi, or energy, is a central theme.

Taoism was once adopted as a state religion by China. Today, the People’s Republic of China is officially atheist and allows a limited degree of religious freedom. Taoism is practiced by millions of followers living mainly in China and Taiwan, sometimes blended with other religions and philosophies.


This article was first published on the Metavarsity blog on 23 March 2009.
It was also published here on August 6, 2011

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