March 15, 2009


The highest good is like water.
The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things
And yet never strives.
It dwells in places the masses of people detest.
Therefore, it is close to the Dào.
In a home, it is the site that matters.
In quality of mind, it is depth that matters.
In giving, the good thing (is being like) Heaven.
In speech, it is good faith that matters.
In governing, the good thing is order.
In affairs, the good thing is ability.
In activity, the good thing is timeliness.
It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.

COMMENTARY by Koeng S. Wan:
Water, which descends from Heaven and ends up in an abyss that covers the Earth, symbolizes the Dào's greatest goodness. Water symbolizes the selflessness (Division 7) and impartiality (Division 5) of the Dào in that it nourishes all life and, thus, benefits all things no matter what people think of it. Water also symbolizes humbleness in that it always seeks the lowest of places (Division 39). By inference, water underlies every idea of being beneficial. Finally, water acts effortlessly and without conflict, the very essence of wú wèi.

Division 8 is a logical continuation of both Divisions 3 and 4, in which the former discusses what an ideal society should be like and the latter refers to the Dào as a watery abyss. Division 8 is also a continuation of both Divisions 5 and 7, in which the former characterizes the Dào as impartial and the latter characterizes the Dào as selfless. In seeking the lowest places, water symbolizes humbleness (Division 39).

The goodness of a home is not the house, but in its situation on Earth where the environment enables people to grow food and become physically strong (Division 3), and presumably, build and maintain a good house that appears to thrive like a tree rooted in the watered ground.

The goodness of mind is depth beyond knowing like a watery abyss (Divisions 4 and 15), which is enlightenment (Division 16).

The goodness of giving is being generous as water falls from Heaven[1].

In relations with others, i.e., speech, goodness is good faith and trust that promotes social harmony and minimizes conflict like water, which doesn't contend.

The goodness of government is in that it benefits the people ruled at large with peace and order, which is symbolized by water's inability to contend. The government of the shèng rén is described in Division 3.

In an endeavor the goodness is the skill and competence in which it is done; and in deciding to act the goodness is in the timing at which it is done. Skill, competence, and timing are necessary for acting by wú wèi, which again, is like water.

[1] This line is translated by Henricks from the Mǎ Wáng Duī Text B. The comparable line from the Wáng Bì commentary is about good associates or allies being rén (Confucian benevolence; see the commentary in Division 3 on rén). The Wáng Bì version was rejected on two grounds. First, by holding rén to be good, it strongly contradicts other divisions within the Lǎo Zǐ, particularly Division 18. Second, the Mǎ Wáng Duī text is about four centuries older than the Wáng Bì commentary's text. While this doesn't mean the Mǎ Wáng Duī version is actually that much older than the Wáng Bì commentary's text, I speculate that rén was inserted by some Han dynasty official who wanted the Lǎo Zǐ to portray Confucianism in a more positive light or fell victim to the Han synthesis. By Wáng Bì's time, the Han dynasty had just collapsed, and with it the Confucianism formed the basis for Han governance.[2]

[2] Hooker, Richard, “The Chinese Empire: The Former Han”, World Civilizations: An Internet Classroom and Anthology, Washington State University, Richard Hooker and Paul Brians (principal editors), 1996 (June 6, 1999 update).