May 8, 2016 at 11:35 pm #46538
Note: This is an excellent discussion of water as Taoist principle, here applied to Tai Chi, but applicable elsewhere. I like his question, “What would water do?” (as a hat tip to jesus by a Taoist) – Michael
UNEDITED CHAPTER FROM John Starr’s BOOK ON TAI CHI CH’UAN
-TO BE LIKE WATER-
“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.”
“To have faith is to trust yourself in water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water because
if you do, you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax, and float.”
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.
That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend”.
-Lee, Bruce (1966). Pierre Barton Show. Hong Kong: Pierre Barton.
The Great Wave off Knangawa, Hokusai’s most famous print. Notice that the majestic and what in
Japanese culture is the revered Mount Fuji is dwarfed by and overpowered by the forces of water, not
to mention the small boat and the people in the boat.
Ever stood in the ocean and have a wave lift you up and displace you causing you to lose your
balance, your center and your root with the floor of the ocean? That is the ocean exerting the equivalent
of Peng energy or force on you.
Waves exerting the equivalent of Peng Energy. The water need not be very deep, nor the wave very
large to sweep you off of your feet.
Ever surfed? If you were successful in doing so, that was you demonstrating Peng energy through
relaxation, maintaining root with your surf board. It was as well, your sticking, adhering, and listening
energy capabilities allowing you to follow and flow with the ocean’s Peng energy. You balance out and
neutralize the oceans An (push) energy and you maintain your center whilst the ocean would otherwise
compromise it. A wave is formed by a mechanism that is contrary to popular belief. The water is only a
medium through which the energy is transferred. This concept is depicted here, this time using a
Whether the force is delivered to the spring or “Slinky” by a push or by a bit of an up and down motion at one end, the result is the same. The energy is transmitted through the “Slinky”, yet the
slinky itself remains relatively stationary.
Like the extremities as well as your core in TCC, the water actually does not move. The wave is an
expression of the energy or Chi and it is that energy that knocks you over or delivers the punch. The
energy insofar as the water is concerned, results in the waters internal jin, which in turn leads to the
expression of jing, the actual force that knocks you over. Believe it or not, your hard bony skeleton,
along with your ligaments, tendons and fascia, in the case of TCC, take the place of the water being the
medium through which this energy is allowed to be transmitted resulting in the force delivered at the
point of contact. Anyone who has studied basic physics is familiar with this wave phenomenon.
Remember that in Tai Chi Chuan it is said, “4 ounces deflects 1000 pounds”. Though I am not a
bumper sticker sort of guy, my bumper does carry the Chinese character for water. This character finds
its origin in the ancient Chinese character pictogram for water. Observe the modern and ancient
characters, obviously representing the flow of a stream or creek, stream or river. The Chinese internal
martial arts, particularly Tai Chi Chuan, are based on the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching (or any other
mystical tradition, be it Eastern or Western, for that matter). In chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching, it is stated
“Water is like the highest good”. Note the characteristics of the character for water and its similarity to
the Yin Yang sign. In the ancient character and modern character there is the center line.
The center line
in the ancient character is curved in the same fashion as that in the Yin Yang sign. In both the ancient and
modern characters, on either side of the center line are the two poles representing Yin and Yang (see
chapter on Yin Yang symbol). In the modern character, one starts writing the character with a small
slightly curved dot at the top of the character representing unity of the two poles and the center. The dot
could be considered as the dimensionless point, i.e., the singularity at the beginning of the universe before
the Big Bang. That was when all things were at one, before there were things as we know them or as
expressed in the Tao Te Ching, “The 10,000 Things”.
Reference Tao Te Ching; chapter 8
Drawn characters for water ancient and modern.
I discussed the metaphor of water in this book to add some additional insights into the
characteristics of Tai Chi Chuan. These metaphorical analogues have implications the psyche, emotions,
physical well-being, practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and particularly the martial aspect of Tai Chi Chuan. It is
the metaphorical characteristics that define the attributes of the internal martial arts, and to a lesser
extent, even those of the so-called hard styles or external martial arts. These characteristics make the
internal martial arts more beneficial physically and mentally and, yes, spiritually than the hard styles and
make the internal martial arts more appropriate for those coming along in years.
Some people would say, “What would Jesus do?” Books written, that asked the question “What
would Buddha do?” By the same token, I might ask, “What would water do?” For the most part the
group that would ask this last question, are adherents of Taoist philosophy. In essence, despite what the
vast majority of people think, there really is no difference between what Jesus would do and water
would do. Tai chi Chuan having its basis in Taoist philosophy, might ask the question, “What would
So what are some of the characteristics of water? Let us start with humility. Water tends to flow
to the lowest level. This is by its very essence. The oceans, because they are lower than all bodies of
water, are the most humble. Yet, they rule, so to speak, over streams and rivers. Streams, rivers, lakes,
springs, also find their source being the most humble of all, the oceans. Through the water cycle which
we all learned about in earth science class in middle school, the ocean creates these other bodies of
water, and these other bodies of water return to the oceans, their source. Waves are a common
metaphor. Waves are transient manifestations as are our thoughts and as are other material
manifestations. Yet these waves are manifestations of the underlying stillness of the ocean below.
Remember that the waves are events and things, they are merely manifestations of energy as in E=MC2.
Waters is nourishing to all living things, and is responsible for formation of essentially all things,
such as deep canyons and mountains, and yet, all done without taking credit. It exemplifies action taken
without action, and effort taken without effort, known in Chinese as “Wu wei”. We see that water,
without striving accomplishes all things. Although over used and frequently misused, the expression “go
with the flow”, is still poignant when used appropriately. Unfortunately, when it is used, the implication
is that of passivity which is so far from the truth. TCC, either as an exercise or as a martial art, is far from
being a passive activity. Water epitomizes this concept, not only by going with the flow of its
environment, but also in that water molecules adhere to one another. The molecules of water are also
demonstrated to adhere not only to one another but also to other objects as demonstrated by the
meniscus that forms at the side of a glass with water in it. So not only do they flow with each other,
water acts as one coherent unit, not only of itself, but also with its environment. This brings to mind the
concept of “unity”, pervasive in all mystical thought, despite its origin or religion. This will be discussed
further, when going into the concept of Yin and Yang, in another chapter.
Water is soft. It demonstrates the concept of the weak overcoming the strong, the soft
overcoming the hard. Have you ever seen the effects of a flood or of a tsunami? Have you ever visited
the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? Have you ever seen the grandeur of mountains and their shapes?
These are all demonstrations of water, the soft, overcoming the hard. Even in the case of man’s best
engineered, best constructed, and most powerful dams, the results could be devastating. Without
opening the floodgates, the water will prevail. The dam may break, there may be flooding upstream, or
there may be flow over the top of the dam resulting in flooding downstream. There must be give-and-
take between man and Nature. Otherwise, the water and Nature will prevail. Ultimately, the water is in
control despite its soft and yielding character.
Other characteristics of water include leading by following. Observe a large log floating down a
river. The water accomplishes this by adhering to and becoming one with the log. As a result, it has
control over the log. Water listens to what’s happening around it, and listens with its whole being. It
becomes one with objects by molding to their shape and character. It adapts to obstructions by taking
on the shape of the obstruction and becoming one with the obstruction. It becomes one with that which
it sustains, thusly, becomes life-giving in the process. Remember, living things for the most part are
composed of water. Some of the molecules of water that you consume today might have been urinated
by some dinosaur millions of years ago, and the water molecules that you urinate today will be
consumed by someone or something in the future. In this sense, water is demonstrating how you are
tied to the past and the future.
As demonstrated through the water cycle, water constantly recycles and goes to rebirth. It is
able to change its form easily, instantaneously, and in an infinite number of ways. This quality is
desirable in practicing the martial art Tai Chi Chuan, as well as in our responses to all of the situations
we are presented with in life in general. As in Tai Chi Chuan, water enters where apparently there is no
space to enter. It is capable of entering where nothing else except air and other fluids can enter. As a
result, with the slightest opening in an opponents defense, it readily gains access. In the Illustrated
Canan of Chen Family Taiji Quan it is succinctly and poignantly put as follows. If the smallest gap exists
which you can penetrate, you must use this opportunity to break through the opponents defense, for it
may not occur again. Using patience, water gently carves away. En masse, it can clear an entire
landscape of seemingly resistant entities.
If still, like the mind, sediment settles out and water becomes clarified, therefore the metaphor
for thoughts and emotions. If still, its surface becomes accurately reflective of its environment. Throw a
pebble into a still pond, and the once clear reflection of the moon becomes distorted. When what we
see becomes distorted, we cannot deal with it appropriately because we are seeing something else
other than what it really is. Water is transparent, particularly if still. Others cannot detect its thoughts,
in a sense, rendering it invincible. Undercurrents and forces cannot be detected. It does not let the
objects of its process know what it’s doing. It is elusive, yet another characteristic of the internal martial
Water follows a course. It has a purpose without purpose. It has a destiny without having a
destiny. It is able to change course, but not its destiny. Following this course, it is into the process,
without its sights set on results or outcomes. Nevertheless, it accomplishes its goal. What it does, it
does without judging. Judging your opponent, will result in you losing. If it carries a log downstream, it
does so without judging the log. It treats all things as “straw dogs”. The origin of “straw dogs” comes
from the sacrificial rite of dogs made out of straw. They were sacrificed without being judged. In the
Tao Te Ching it is stated that “heaven and earth treat all things as straw dogs”. In Taoist thinking the
Tao, and the Sage do the same. What water does, by forming a canyon or washing away a home, or
what have you, it does not take credit for nor take blame for. It does what it does, and that is it. It does
not take joy in destroying an opposing force or creating the mountain or canyon.
Soft Water carving away at hard rock to form the Grand Canyon.
Water will quench the fire. In Tai Chi Chuan, movements represented by the element water,
neutralize those represented by fire. In this diagram we see how, different movements in Tai Chi Chuan,
representing other elements, interact with other movements, i.e., elements. Each of these elements in
Chinese, as well as most other indigenous mystical traditions is capable of both creating and supporting
or of destruction of each of the other elements. Once again, I refer the readier to the chapter on
Paradox and the Yin Yang symbol Defined.
Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, went to bed, clearing his head, and had a dream of the elements he
previously considered. He describes dreaming that these elements in his dream were in an ongoing
dance together. The very next day he awakened only to write on the back of an envelope the original
periodic table of the elements, and this table demonstrated the inter-relationship of most of the
elements that comprise our known universe as well rendering an order to the universe. We have a
tendency to smirk at the Ancients who believed, in many cultures that the five elements as portrayed in
the diagrams in this chapter comprised the entire universe. Though they did not come up with the
periodic table, per se, they were absolutely and unequivocally correct. The element earth contains gold,
silver, iron, and so forth. Air contains all of the elements nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and so forth. Then
there is a fire and water that allows all of these things to come together to form molecules and the
world as we know it. By clearing their heads, they came to these epiphanies as Mendeleev did.
Diagram of the elements and their interaction
Slice water, and it remains whole. Strike it with a hammer, and it remains intact. It is changing,
yet unchanging. Put your hand in a stream twice. It is still the same stream each time you put your hand
in it, and yet, it is not the same each time. So we see that water provides a model for both transience
and continuity, occurring concomitantly. It is unrelenting. Confucius said, “Standing by a river, it never
lets up”. And yet water is formless. This is as stated in the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be told is
not the true and eternal way”. Even if you were to try to define by the shape of a container that
contains water, it is ever-changing by its physical and chemical qualities, so the shape cannot be defined.
The same is the case for movements in Tai Chi Chuan, and the same is true of its martial applications.
First 2 lines of the Tao Te Ching translated using the Traditional (as opposed to Simplified) Chinese
Charaters. Website: 031cae9.namesecurehost.com/wuwei05.htm
Ancient Chinese characters, read from the right and down. The first line down (containing 5 characters) reads : Lao Tze (the stated author), Tao Te Ching. The second line to the right, (consisting of 6 characters) is translated as is the first line in the above graphic. The third line in is translated as is
the second line above.
Reference: Confucius Analects CMXVII
Reference: Tao Te Ching
Reference: the Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue by Sarah Allen State University Of New York Press
Discussed in another portion of the book, is the fact that the soft and round is comprised of
infinite numbers of linear forces, and this is the case with water as well. This concept is considered in Tai
Chi Chuan as in mathematics and in physics. It is suggested that the reader look at the discussion of the
Roman Arch which though rounded in configuration, and though the sum total of the forces is non-linear
or rounded, the rounded force is the total of an infinite number of linear forces. It is from the rounded
form that Tai Chi Chuan obtained its power for jin, resulting in Jing. Because of its rounded nature, the
possibilities of response become limitless, or in other words, infinite.
Finally, a few other characteristics include receptivity of objects it encounters, once again
demonstrating that water becomes one with that which it encounters or receives. Solids on the other
hand, reject objects they encounter. Therefore they have no real control over objects encountered. If
the hard encounters the hard, one or the other or both will be damaged or destroyed. Water gives in to
gravity. That which falls into it is absorbed and taken in. By being receptive, water is saying “yes” to
what we might call an opponent. Water, as a Tai Chi Chuan player, allows the opponent into their space
to become one with the opponent, resulting in her having better control over the opponent, without
actually controlling. The two hard objects flying at one another, is the same as saying “no” to one’s
opponent. The two hard objects are attempting to protect their respective space. This concept can be
extrapolated not only to fighting an opponent, but also to life in general. Many a book, so-called self-
help books which by the way, have a tendency to tell us what we already know deep down inside, had
been written on this concept of saying “yes” as opposed to “no”. It does not fight against Nature, a
component of which is gravity.
“You may hate gravity, but gravity does not care.”
You may be an atheist, but G-d does not care.
“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the earth. But man has
only to SINK beneath the surface and he is free.”
– Jacques Yves Cousteau
In Tai Chi Chuan, we maintain root and center by relaxing in letting gravity help us develop a root and
stability. If we were to fight against gravity, we would be unstable, and in more sense than one. If you
are unstable physically, you’re also unstable emotionally and spiritually, also is discussed further in this
So, in life, as in the practice of your Tai Chi (Chuan), BE LIKE WATER, and it will all flow naturally
Photograph of push hands in front of Fountain Hill fountain capturing in the late afternoon the
rainbow cast by the spray.
The following is an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 78:
“Nothing in the world is more soft and weak and water
But for attacking the hard and strong
Nothing can surpass it.
And therefore nothing can take its place.
That the weak can overcome the strong
And the soft can overcome the hard
Is well known to the world
Yet no one can carry it out…”May 9, 2016 at 1:13 am #46539
on a slight tangent, it seems water has qualities being uncovered. Video link to interview of scientist author on 4th state of water and implications. Seems water acts as a gel in our cells. Lots of other qualities with future potential.
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