Confucius and his students went on a hike out in the countryside. He was thinking of using the opportunity to engage the students in a discussion about the Tao when one of them approached and asked: “Master, have you ever been to Liu Liang? It is not far from here.”
Confucius said: “I have heard about it but never actually seen it with my own eyes. It is said to be a place of much natural beauty.”
“It is indeed,” the student said. “Liu Liang is known for its majestic waterfalls. It is only about two hours’ trek from here, and the day is still young. Master, if you would like to go there, I would be honored to serve as your guide.”
Confucius thought this was a splendid idea, so the group set off toward Liu Liang. As they were walking and chatting, another student said: “I grew up near a waterfall myself. In summertime, I would always go swimming with the other children from the village.”
The first student explained: “These waterfalls we will see aren’t quite like that. The water comes down from such a great height that it carries tremendous force when it hits the bottom. You definitely would not want to go swimming there.”
Confucius said: “When the water is sufficiently powerful, not even fish and turtles can get near it. This is interesting to ponder, because we are used to thinking of water as their native element.”
After a while, they could see the waterfall coming into view in the hazy distance. Although it was still far away, they could see that it was indeed as majestic as the first student described. Another hour of walking brought them even closer, and now they could clearly hear the deep, vibrating sound it made.
They topped a rise and were able to see the entire waterfall. Then they gasped collectively, because at the bottom of it, they saw a man in the ferociously churning water, being spun around and whipped this way and that by the terrifying currents.
“Quickly, to the waterfall!” Confucius commanded. “He must have fallen in by accident, or perhaps he is a suicide. Either way, we must save him if we can.”
They ran as fast as they could. “It’s useless, Master,” one the students said. “By the time we get down there, he’ll be too far gone for us to do him any good.”
“You may well be right,” Confucius replied. “Nevertheless, when a man’s life is at stake, we owe it to him to make every effort possible.”
They lost sight of the man as they descended the hillside. Moments later, they broke through the forest to arrive at the river, a short distance downstream from the waterfall. They expected to see the man’s lifeless body in the river. Instead, they saw him swimming casually away from the waterfall, spreading his long hair out and singing loudly, evidently having a great time. They were dumbfounded.
When he got out of the river, Confucius went to speak with him: “Sir, I thought you must be some sort of supernatural being, but on closer inspection I see you are an ordinary person, no different from us. We sought to save you, but now I see it is not necessary.”
The man bowed to Confucius: “I am sorry if I have caused you any grave concerns on my behalf. This is merely a trivial recreational activity I enjoy once in a while.”
Confucius bowed back: “You say it is trivial, but to me it is incredible. How can it be that you were not harmed by the waterfall? Are there some special skills that you possess?”
“No, I have no special skills whatsoever,” the man replied. “I simply follow the nature of the water. That’s how I started with it, developed a habit out of it, and derived lifelong enjoyment from it.”
“This ‘follow the nature of the water’ – can you describe it in greater detail? How exactly does one follow the nature of water?”
“Well… I don’t really think about it very much. If I had to describe it, I would say that when the powerful torrents twist around me, I turn with them. If a strong current drives me down, I dive alongside it. As I do so, I am fully aware that when we get to the riverbed, the current will reverse course and provide a strong lift upward. When this occurs, I am already anticipating it, so I rise together with it.”
“So you are working with the water and not just letting it have its way with you?”
“That’s right. Although the water is extremely forceful, it is also a friend that I have gotten to know over the years, so I can sense what it wants to do, and I leverage its flow without trying to manipulate it or impose my will on it.”
“How long did it take for you to make all this an integrated part of your life?”
“I really can’t say. I was born in this area, so the waterfalls have always been a familiar sight to me. I grew up playing with these powerful currents, so I have always felt comfortable with them. Whatever success I have with water is simply a natural result of my lifelong habit. To be quite frank, I have no idea why this approach works so well. To me, it’s just the way life is.”
Confucius thanked him and turned back to his students. He smiled, because he suddenly knew exactly what they could talk about on their trip home.
Tao Living; Waterfall Analogy
This is one of Chuang Tzu’s many stories featuring Confucius in a central role. It depicts Confucius as a wise teacher and a humble student of the Tao. This may come as a bit of a surprise, because sometimes we come across the notion that Chuang Tzu uses such stories to ridicule and criticize Confucius. The more we study Chuang Tzu, the more we see that this is just another one of the many misconceptions about the Tao.
A true sage would have little need to ridicule or criticize anyone, and 2,500 years ago there were no such labels as Taoism or Confucianism. All the masters including Chuang Tzu and Confucius studied the Tao, and in that pursuit they learned from one another with mutual courtesy and respect. It was only later generations that started rivalries, disregarding the teaching of harmony and straying far from the Tao.
In this story, the majestic waterfall of Liu Liang represents life. The fearsome force of this waterfall represents the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that we withstand in life. The water carries so much power that there is nothing one can do to stop it or slow it down. In the same way, sometimes we feel ourselves propelled along by the progression of events, heading toward a certain outcome and completely powerless to avoid it. The sheer force of fate, like the waterfall, can be overwhelming.
Some people who study the Tao at the superficial level like to say that we all live in the Tao and can never be apart from it, so everything is already perfect as it is. With the waterfall imagery, Chuang Tzu points out the error in this way of thinking. While we are indeed immersed in the Tao like fish in water, that water is not necessarily tranquil. Because life is dynamic and constantly changing, it can often push us in unexpected directions. In this way it is much more similar to the chaotic currents of the waterfall.
Most of us attempt to survive the waterfall of life with limited success. Sometimes the water slams us against rocks or tosses us around like rag dolls. Sometimes we try to fight the water, but the effort is draining, and soon we are exhausted. We rail against such injustices, but no amount of rage seems to make any difference.
Then, just like Confucius witnessing the man emerging from the river without a scratch, sometimes we see a few people who, unlike most of us, seem to handle life with effortless ease. Strangely, the mighty current of misfortune does not have the same effect on them as it does on us. When they come out of this current, we can see that they have suffered no harm or fatigue. Not only that, but they actually seem to be having fun! How can this be?
The man in the waterfall represents the sage who has mastered the art of living life to the utmost. Such is his mastery that his skills have become completely natural to him. They go far beyond “techniques” or “strategies” that one can learn from self-improvement books; they become totally integrated with his instincts and reactions.
There are two major elements in the sage’s mastery. The first is perceptive awareness. Just as the man in the waterfall follows the nature of the water, the sage is keenly aware of his environment and the forces at work in it. He brings observations and insights to the present moment to understand exactly what is going on. This means he does not merely “let go” in living the Taoist life – that would only be yet another misconception – instead, he is actively interested in his surroundings and curious about current events. This is how he follows the nature of life.
The second major element is proactive involvement. Once the sage understands the direction and velocity of a life current, he works with it. Rather than to let himself be thrown around by the current, he rides it. Just as the man in the waterfall sees water as a friend and knows where it wants to go, the sage embraces life and intuitively senses its tendencies and inclinations. Thus, rather than to fight the tremendous power of the water, the sage leverages that same power to his own benefit.
Some of the currents drive us downward. Such currents represent setbacks in life, and we all encounter them from time to time. The sage’s understanding of the Tao informs him that no current can sustain the downward push forever. Sooner or later, it must reach an extreme and turn back around. Those who are able to anticipate this, like the sage, can take advantage of the upward movement; those who cannot, may very well miss the opportunity.
How can we learn to become masters of the waterfall, or expert surfers riding the waves of life? Chuang Tzu tells us that first we must get to know life and become familiar with its many currents. As we become increasingly comfortable, we should start practicing with them while remaining observant and sensitive to changing conditions. When the currents change direction or speed, we must adjust ourselves to match.
The most important direction from Chuang Tzu is that we need to make a lifelong habit out of this practice. This is because the Tao is not a passive or inactive pursuit. Instead, it is full of vitality and dynamism, and embodies an action orientation. Therefore, mastery of life cannot happen all by itself without proactive involvement on our part.
How long will it take for us to gain this mastery? Chuang Tzu cannot tell us, because it really depends on the individual. Some of us may need an entire lifetime to master life itself.
We do know one thing for sure though, and that is if we take proactive steps to start developing the habit as Chuang Tzu suggests – in other words, cultivate the Tao in a consistent daily practice – then we, like the man in the waterfall, will also find ourselves enjoying every minute of it!
The swimmer has learned to go with the flow
but also must discern where the flow is going.
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