Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Chapter 8
Like Water

True goodness is like water
Bringing benefit and giving life to the 10,000 things.
It doesn’t compete but like the Tao
Immediately flows to the lowest place.
Everyone else always wants to be first
But the wise only want to be last,
To live on solid ground,
To think deeply,
To be gentle and kind,
To speak with honesty,
To govern with peace and order,
To work with skill,
To act at only the best time.


“Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.”

Odysseus Ὀδυσσεύς via Homer
c. 1100 BCE
Trickster lineage hero and symbol
from Odyssey, Ὀδύσσεια

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“The highest form of goodness is like water... In making a move, know how to choose he right moment.”

Lao Tzu 老子 via John Wu, chapter 8
604 BCE -
from Tao The Ching

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“Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat.”

The Buddha गौतम बुद्ध
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
563 – 483 BCE
Awakened Truth

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“As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances.”

Confucius 孔丘
(Kongzi, Kǒng Zǐ)
551 – 479 BCE
History's most influential "failure"

Themes: Water Wisdom

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“the form of the military is like water. Water in its movement avoids the high and hastens to the low. The military in its victory avoids the solid and strikes the empty. The water determines its movement in accordance with the earth. The military determines victory in accordance with the enemy.”

Sun Tzu 孙武
(Sun Zi)
544 – 496 BCE
HIstory's supreme strategist

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“The sound of water says what I think.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周
369 – 286 BCE

Themes: Music Water

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“Water – If a drowning man drinks it, he dies. If a thirsty man drinks it, he lives.”

Hán Fēi 韓非
280 – 233 BCE

Themes: Water

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“The best people are like water… empty, clear, and deep…Water can take any shape, and it is never out of touch”

Heshang Gong 河上公
(Ho-shang Kung or "Riverside Sage”)
202 – 157 BCE

Themes: Water

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“Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness.”

Epictetus Ἐπίκτητος
55 – 135 CE
from Discourses of Epictetus, Ἐπικτήτου διατριβαί

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“I beat giving and taking into a unity.”

Ḍeṅgipa ཌེངྒི་པ། via Keith Dowman
(“The Courtesan's Brahmin Slave”)
9th Century CE
Mahasiddha #31
from Masters of Mahamudra

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“Drive all blame into one.”

Atisha ཨ་ཏི་ཤ་མར་མེ་མཛད་དཔལ་ཡེ་ཤེས་ via Chögyam Trungpa
(Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna)
980 – 1054 CE
from Seven Points of Mind Training, Lojong བློ་སྦྱོངས་དོན་བདུན་མ;

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“Like madness is the glory of this life.”

William Shakespeare
1564 – 1616 CE
from Timon of Athens

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“All victories breed hate, and that over your superior is foolish or fatal. Preeminence is always detested”

Balthasar Gracian
1601 – 1658 CE
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Victory

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“Those whose main concern is food and clothing are untrustworthy in an impasse… complaining against heaven and blaming people.”

Liu Yiming 刘一明 via Thomas Cleary
(Liu I-ming)
1734 – 1821 CE
from Taoist I Ching, , Zhouyi chanzhen 周易闡真

Themes: Complaint

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“Timeless wisdom draws us on”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
1749 – 1832 CE
from Faust, part II

Themes: Inspiration

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“When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears”

William Blake
1757 – 1827 CE

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“When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it.”

Mark Twain
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
1835 – 1910 CE

Themes: Karma Victory

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“Man at his best, like water… loves living close to the earth, living clear down in his heart.”

Witter Bynner
(Emanuel Morgan)
1881 – 1968 CE

Themes: Water Virtue

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“The moment you meet a teacher, you should leave the teacher, and you should be independent.”

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
1904 – 1971 CE

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“Because you flow like water, you can neither win nor lose.”

Timothy Leary
1920 – 1996 CE
Pioneering psychonaut, performing philosopher, and counter-cultural hero
from Tao Te Ching – Psychedelic Prayers

Themes: Water

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“The simplicity or singleness of the Way is that of water which always rejoins itself.”

Ursula Le Guin
1929 – 2018 CE

Themes: Simplicity Water

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“The more you see that it is very ordinary, the more that becomes an extraordinary case, which creates a further veil.”

Chögyam Trungpa
1939 – 1987 CE
from Illusion's Game

Themes: Ordinary Mind

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Comments (3)

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  1. Shan Dao
    “Everyone else always wants to be first” is a quote from Chuang Tzu: “Everyone else wants to be first, I’m not only one who wants to be last.” This would normally go into the Comments section; but, because it seems to express so clearly Lao Tzu’s meaning here, it’s in the text itself.
  2. Shan Dao
    The first line, “True goodness is like water” is Ursula Le Guin's direct translation.
  3. Shan Dao
    In the last paragraph, “Competiveness is a psychological disorder, a neurotic disease” is this translation “reading between the lines” more than probably anywhere else. Given our particular cultural context though, possibly Lao Tzu would approve this stronger language.