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“best to be like water”: tsunamis, religion and non-human agency

By: James Miller

Image from National Geographic

It’s been three weeks since the devastating tsunami in Japan, and I am still haunted by the familiar phrase from Daode jing ch. 8:

Best to be like water,
Which benefits the ten thousand things
And does not contend.
It pools where humans disdain to dwell,
Close to the Tao.
(Trans. Addis and Lombardo, Hackett: 1993).

For those devastated by tsuanmis, floods and other water disasters, to make an analogy between goodness and water seems at the very least grotesque. In what sense can the wild and untameable powers of nature be used as an analogy for what’s best? In English, such natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God”, meaning that they are far beyond the power of humans to grasp, and essentially mysterious and unknowable. Insurance companies may refuse to cover such “acts of God” because they represent risks that are so enormous and so incalculable that they resist any attempt to bring them within a familiar economic rationality. An “act of God” is simply beyond human comprehension.

Although ancient Chinese philosophers did not, so far as I know, have any experience of the devastation brought by tsunamis, they were undoubtedly aware of the dangerous power of water. Spring floods have for millennia wrought havoc on the plains of China. To harness water’s power has been the dream of China’s rulers from ancient times to the present. Indeed it would not be going too far to suggest that the present rulers of China have staked their future on hydropower dams as the way to generate low-carbon electricity, and also to divert water from south to north.(In so doing they are providing interesting data for Karl Wittfogel’s famous “hydraulic civilization” theory of Chinese power.)

In the Daode jing, the essential quality of water is that it is fluid. The key difference between fluids and solids is that fluids have a kind of agency to them: they move and act independently of human will. Try as we might, water always runs downhill and “pools where humans disdain to dwell.” Humans fear being in low places because there they cannot see what is coming. Being in a low place threatens human agency, the ability to exert control over our situation, and to be a master of our own domain.

When the Daode jing suggests that it is “best to be like water,” it is making the counter-intuitive suggestion that human beings should relinquish some of their desire to be in control of everything. In Daoism this is known as “wuwei” variously translated as “non-action” or “non-assertive action.” Although scholars have endlessly debated the meaning of his term, my interpretation is that the Daode jing is advocating recognizing the limits to human agency: we just can’t do everything. But at the same time it is advocating recognizing the value of other non-human agencies: there is power, fluidity and dynamism to the world that is independent of human will. To be like water is thus to embrace a different kind of agency from the familiar instrumentality that would have us always “be in control.” Far from suggesting that we give up power and do nothing, it is suggesting that we recognize the existence and power of other agents in our environment, and learn to co-operate rather than contend with them.

Lately my students have been looking at James Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis—the notion that the earth is a single self-regulating organism. Such a view is shocking to conventional science because it suggests that the earth may be considered as some kind of agent: it is not simply passive matter upon which we humans act (with disastrous consequences) but has some kind of ability to regulate itself. As the healing of the ozone hole demonstrates, when left free from human interference (in the form of CFCs), the ozone layer seems to be “healing itself” quite nicely, thank you. This is a powerful and difficult message to those environmentalists who would have us “save the world” (as if we actually could!) and to those anti-environmentalists who would have us wage war upon it.

In the end, I don’t think that it is too grotesque to consider the message of the Daode jing in a time of flood and devastation. While it is our natural instinct of survival to head for the high ground, it is all the more necessary to think about the possibility that humans co-operate with, rather than fear or fight, the myriad forms of non-human agency that inflect our universe. Sometimes, fight or flight may well be necessary, but this does not have to be our only response, our only Way of action. Maybe in other situations a kind of “non-action” or co-operative engagement may be the way forward. But all of this depends on entering into a post-humanist mindset where we are comfortable in recognizing forms of non-human agency, whether the benign power of the earth to heal itself, or the cognitive and moral reasoning of non-human animals, or even the destructive power of tsunamis and earthquakes.

Categories: Blog, Opinion


  1. Very interesting article, and certainly the best one I have read on this subject.

    It reminds me of some verses in the Zhouyi cantong qi (the main text of Chinese alchemy, but in itself not an “alchemical” text). On the one hand, this work says that “Water is the axis of the Dao”, being the first agent generated in the cosmogonic sequence — as we are also reminded by the now-famous statement, “The Great One generates Water”. This is, essentially, one of several testimonies in Taoism to the view that Water is at the origin of life.

    But on the other hand, the Cantong qi also repeatedly warns about the dangerous powers of Water, which must be controlled. For example, it says that “Water treats Soil as its demon: when soil invades, water cannot rise”. And, in its own obscure language, it mentions the need of controlling the rampant spread of Water by the firmness of the central Soil, saying: “Metal transforms into Water, water by nature flows everywhere; when Fire transforms into Soil, water can proceed no further.”

    Of course, the Cantong qi is later than the Daode jing, its views are strongly influenced by the Chinese cosmological system, which the Daode jing ignores, and so forth. But this work provides a glimpse on other aspects of the Chinese view of water, in addition to those mentioned in the Daode jing. (Let alone the fact that, as you say in your post, water control has been one of the obsessions—in both senses of the word—of Chinese civilization from immemorial time.)

    Needless to say, this has very little to do with the tragedies that have happened in Japan and elsewhere in recent years. Mine was only a short and trivial note about the Taoist (if so we may call it) view of Water.

  2. Hi James,

    I’ve been enjoying your writing in “lurker” mode for some time and thought this post as good a time as any to join in the conversation more actively…

    From my readings of the Taoist classics I’d add a couple of extra points regarding “being like water”:

    1) The Daoists were impressed by the humble persistence of water in quietly achieving its ends by small degrees over a long period of time – think of the erosive power that created the Grand Canyon in Arizona – and thought this a worthy trait for emulation. Being seen as neither a threat or challenge, goals can be achieved despite the will of the powerful and without the risk of direct confrontation.

    2) They also used water as a model for how to deal with obstacles, problems, or challenges. Think of how a river flows around a mountain rather than attempting to climb over it. It naturally takes the path of least resistance and still manages to achieve its ultimate “goal” (reaching the sea) but in the way that involves the least effort and resistance. In Western, scientific terms (my background is in the environmental sciences) we’d say it takes the path of lowest energy. No wasted effort; ends reached by the most efficient (but not necessarily the most direct or fastest, a point of confusion to many modern people) means possible.

    Thinking more specifically about events like the tsunami, it brings up the interesting contrasts between Western and Eastern thought on disasters in general: Western thought is more likely to see such events as “evil” since there is a strong dichotomy between “good and evil” in the Western tradition, while my understanding is that Taoist thought, while not denying that the event is tragic, would see the event as also a symptom of lives lived out of touch with the Tao / out of balance with nature. Building in a floodplain is a calculated risk, and building levees to control the flow of nature is accepting a bet that you’ve built your levee high enough. Instead of “good and evil” Taoism seems to me to take the viewpoint of “wise versus foolish” and “healthy versus unhealthy.” Putting too much trust in levees would be seen as being on the “foolish” and “unhealthy” side of the ledger.

    I’m also reminded of fung shui in this regard as well, in terms of the rules for siting a building. What might seem like mumbo-jumbo on first reading after reflection reveals at deeper levels a distillation of hard-learned folk wisdom (with a flashy patina for “marketing” purposes): for example, advice to build a house on a hillside, neither at the bottom (prone to flooding) nor the top (prone to wind damage or lightning, colder in winter, and easily seen by potential attackers).

    Anyway, thanks for another thought-provoking posting.

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