Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

This short chapter, one of my favorites, and one of the most enigmatic, attempts to describe the indescribable Tao by using three images.

Tao is empty, yet in use is inexhaustible

The first is an image of emptiness, like a hollow bowl or an empty vessel. The emptiness of the Tao is not a barrenness, but is dynamic with potential. This image also has a connotation of a welling up, as an inexhaustible spring bubbling up from the ground.

Unfathomable, as the source of ten thousand things

The second is an image of bottomless depth, like an abyss. The phrase “ten thousand things” represents manifested creation. The Tao is often described as the origin of the manifested universe, and also the place to which the ten thousand things return. An endless cycle of creation into being and return to non-being. Think of the cycle of water, manifesting as rain, creating the ten thousand forms of water on the earth, then returning as water vapor to the heavens.

Pure stillness, enduring forever

The third is an image of profound tranquility. Not in a stagnant way, but in the sense of a deep, clear pool with a mirror surface reflecting the heavens, yet teeming with life in the hidden darkness. I described the practice of martial arts in my last post as movement within stillness, and stillness within movement. In an eternal dance of beauty and mystery.

The secret treasure of this chapter is found in the Chinese characters used for these three images. Chinese characters are broken down into parts. Each character is based on a radical, what we might think of as a root, which provides meaning. The other part of the character might enhance the meaning or might simply suggest a pronunciation.

So here is what I think is the coolest thing about this chapter. The three characters used for these images of the Tao all have water radicals, even though their meanings in English aren’t specifically water related.


See the little lines on the left side of the character? Those are the water radical. The right side of the character 中 means center or middle.


There is the water radical again on the left. The right side of this character is a bit more complicated. The three vertical lines taken by themselves 川 mean river. If you take the outer vertical lines away, the middle part 米 means rice, which, in Chinese, symbolizes sustenance and fertility.


Again, the water radical on the left. The right side 甚 means extremely.

While the Tao is very connected to nature in all its forms, the element most closely associated with the essence of Tao is water. Think for a moment of water’s qualities. What is its nature? How does it behave?

It doesn’t struggle. It flows around obstacles. It can’t be grasped. It yields to force (think of your hand pushing through water), yet nothing is stronger (think of the Grand Canyon). It follows the laws of gravity, not exerting energy, but simply flowing downhill. It joins together (think of drops of water touching and merging). It changes form – liquid, solid, vapor – yet never loses its basic structure. You might think of other qualities.

So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate the nature of water, and thus the wisdom of Tao, into our own lives?

Here is a recent example from my own life. I crossed cyber paths not long ago with someone I never knew well, and had not had any contact with for many years, but was pleased to reconnect with. A brief email exchange followed – the hey, how have you been, synopsis of decades, friendly but superficial sort of communication one might expect.

I was taken aback, then, when I received a lengthy email attributing motives and beliefs to me that I did not recognize as my own, and to which she reacted very forcefully.

I was tempted to push back with a sort of WTF reaction, because my feelings were hurt, and anger often emerges to protect such vulnerability. But I paused. I allowed the force of her message to move through me as I flowed around it and moved on. I responded with an acknowledgment of her feelings, and I sincerely wished her well.

Thinking that would be the end of it, I was surprised by the next message. She apologized for the misunderstanding on her part and the accompanying defensiveness. She said I “practiced what I preached.” Equanimity was restored.

Wow, I thought. I don’t know what I’m preaching, but life gives us countless opportunities to practice, doesn’t it?

Be water, my friend. ~Bruce Lee

6 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4”

  1. The imagery of water in the Judeo-Christian faith is so powerful, too, Galen. The parting of the Red Sea, Moses' striking the rock from which water flowed in the desert, baptism by water, the Living Water of Christ. Time and time again, it's water!
    And who should be surprised? We do need water in order to maintain life here on earth. It is precious, it is sacred, and, indeed, we can learn so much from it when we realize the images you have described here. "I flowed around it and moved on."
    Just like the water . . . And oh, what a refreshing surprise!
    Blessings, my friend!

  2. That is so true, Martha. I was just talking to a friend who is thinking of being baptized. We had a great conversation about the sacred symbolism and significance of water. I taught a tai chi class not long ago, and we spent the whole class considering the nature of water and exploring its application in our energy and movements.

    It's interesting to me, as a personal aside, that I live an hour away from the mountains to the east, and an hour and a half away from the ocean to the west. I'm drawn to the mountains more than the ocean, yet my cabin is right on a creek. So water, water everywhere!

  3. I, too, am struck by your statement "as I flowed around it and moved on". Such a great mental image for me to carry forward. Please continue to include your personal examples of how this wisdom teaching relates to your life—so very helpful! Thank you

  4. I have been a bit of a "water mystic" at times as well. When I studied runes, I chose mine from the area that most grounded me to where I lived then- a small stream right behind us. When I decided I was trying to "serve two masters", I returned the stones where I found them. Water ties everything together.

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