Reflecting the Mind of the
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‘Observing Water is an Art.’ The Bottomless Mystery in Ancient Chinese Thought
“Observing water is an art,” says Mencius (372-289 B.C.), a student of Confucius’ grandson. He clarifies what he means as follows: “Confucius climbed the East Mountain and [the State of] Lu became small; he climbed the Taishan and the world became small. Thus, for those who have contemplated the sea, it is difficult to take notice of rivers; for those who have traveled to study under the guidance of a sage, it is difficult to take notice of discourses. Observing water is an art; one must observe its undulations. When the sun and moon shine, the rays it receives inevitably penetrate it. Flowing water is like that: it cannot advance without first bridging the gaps. As for the path pursued by the good person, unless it is accomplished at every stage, it cannot come to light” (Mencius 7A24).

The beginning of the paragraph notes that to engage in the way of study means to set out, to travel, to climb, thus learning to appreciate true greatness and to judge the rest in relation to the larger viewpoint. The end states that to undertake the way of study consists of underground work, leaving nothing aside, going through each stage rather than advancing too quickly, penetrating the depths, and when everything is searched and probed, the way appears before one’s gaze. From one to the other, a transformation has taken place.

In between lies the art of observing the water. The proposition makes clear the connection between “contemplating the sea” and “studying under the guidance of a sage” (note that the term “sage,” shengren, designates a truly exceptional person, much more than an ordinary teacher). If water is difficult to see, it reveals itself to us in its manifestations, in its movements.
© Union of Catholic Asian News 2023
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