A great story to teach us about life and how we can live with the many under-currents that we cannot see. We have to learn and understand why life is such and the truth in order to survive in this world peacefully and happily.
by Derek Lin
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!