More than any other material substance, Daoism has chosen water as symbolic of the way of harmony. There are many ways in which the metaphor of water exemplifies the attitude of one in harmony with reality; one of these is the willingness to occupy 'the low ground', that place despised by humanity generally. Before considering what this means, as I propose to do here, we need to remember the critical importance of two words used above, 'symbolic' and 'metaphor'. These terms remind us that we cannot truly appreciate how water illustrates Daoist thought until we have understood something of the spirit of that thought. Every metaphor eventually breaks down, of course, but it cannot even begin to teach until we understand that which it proposes to illustrate.
It is related that the 'hillbilly' guru Richard Rose, when asked about whether he agreed with the concept of "going with the flow" (this was the Sixties), replied that, where he came from, what went with the flow ended up in the sewer. Daoism would, of course, answer, Yes, so? Rose's point of view was clearly based on a popularized idea of the principle, one found on bumper-stickers, and not on an understanding of the principle as understood in Daoism.
The sewer and the despised 'low ground' are essentially the same. Only by denoting it a sewer, one seeks to cast it in a morally deficient light; Daoism intends no such moral meaning. But the sewer as the abode of the morally deficient has a long history in Chinese thought, and one that predates Daoism. The Daoist appropriation of the trope was, in fact, an answer to that negative assessment; it is a favorite technique of Daoism to embrace such things after turning them on their heads. In this way it seeks to shake us out of our habitual ways of thinking. (Another example of this is found in the first chapter of the Daodejing where we are told that the "dao that can be dao-ed (spoken) is not the eternal Dao"; but it is precisely the spoken dao that is the Confucian dao; Daoism appropriated Dao, but gave it an altogether new meaning.)
Waley (The Way and Its Power) tells us, "to the early Confucians, the 'low ground' is the 'collecting-place of all the impurities under heaven' (Analects XIX) and hence the symbol of all iniquities'". But for Daoism, the trope is entirely amoral; it is not a question of taking the easy way, a morally deficient way, but quite the opposite; it is taking the most difficult path of yielding emptiness. Does that seem easy? Try it. That which resists in you is that which obstructs your harmony.
The ‘low ground’ is the place of egolessness, powerlessness, non-assertiveness, non-intentional doing — it is natural equivalent of emptiness. And Daoism understands this as among all places, the most powerful.
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