UNDER HEAVEN XLVI

“In motion be like water, in stillness like a mirror, in responding like an echo.” (p 123)

This ostensible quote from Guan Yin reflects three common Daoist tropes—water, the mirror, and the echo. All three suggest a way of being in the world.

Water is the essential Daoist metaphor. It represents the way of yielding and accommodating. It only flows into welcoming spaces (from the spaces’ point of view). It seeks the lowest places, those rejected by humans—swamps and bogs. (Let’s drain that useless swamp and make it useful.) It represents the quintessentially useless—non-existence, not-knowing, the unknowable—that thereby becomes the most useful thing of all.

Yet by its very yielding water transforms all things. Even the hardest rock is shaped by the flow of water. Water is the embodiment of wuwei, the not-doing that does so much. “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.” (Laozi 37)

We are mostly in motion—living and being (becoming) are verbal. We cannot be like Shen Dao’s “clump of earth”. But in our motion we can be like water.

Yet when water is still it acts as a mirror. In our motion we can also be still. We can be like a mirror. This has both inward and outward implications. Both are found in Zhuangzi. “The Consummate Person uses his mind like a mirror, rejecting nothing, welcoming nothing; responding but not storing. Thus he can handle all things without harm.” (7:14)

A mirror “sees” things just as they appear, but it remains unaffected by them. Though the sage is aware of the world’s messes—and is even engaged in their remedy—they do not “enter her Numinous Reservoir”. She remains still in the midst of her motion.

And she is in motion. She “responds”. She responds like an echo. She hears what is said, and returns it illuminated. She enables a better understanding of what is said without imposing her opinion of what should have been said. And, of course, she remains unaffected by what is said.

Outwardly, this stillness has the power to still others: “People cannot see their reflections in running water, but only in still water. Only stillness can still the multitude to the point of genuine stillness.” (5:9) Thus says “Confucius” with reference to “the wordless instruction” of a sagacious ex-con.

I cannot speak of these attributes without sensing how far removed they are from my own way of being the world. Thus they best serve me (at least) as an invitation to take an imaginative excursion into the realm of the ideal.

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