The Shape Of Water

The Shape Of Water

In the ancient days of China, there was a Taoist Master who lived in a hut deep within the mountains. 

His was a humble home. Its walls were made of pounded earth, and the door was cut of a single, narrow, plank of wood for which he had braided lengths of hemp-rope to serve as hinges. Two small openings left in the walls at each side of the door served as windows – more to allow fresh air and light to come in, than to offer a view, out. The roof of the tidy hut was tightly thatched with layers of branches, and the earthen floor was smooth from wear and daily sweeping. A simple straw-filled mat made up a bed at a far corner, and under one of the little windows, a hand-hewn wooden table stood between two wooden stools. These simple things were all the Master needed to live and were sufficient for an existence based on what could be given, rather than what was owned.  

As humble as the little home was, it’s door was always open to the many people who traveled from far and wide to seek the Master’s wisdom and advice on the meaning of life.

One year, a rather disheartened young man was among those who made the long journey up the mountain. Not only did he wish to pay the Master respect, but he also hoped to see if he had answers as to how he could find success in life, that up until now, had evaded him.

And so it came to pass that the young man traveled through the mountains for many days on foot, often walking through the pouring rain, and sleeping on the cold, wet ground through the night. 

When finally he arrived at the Master’s hut his clothes were torn and ragged, and his bare feet covered in mud. 

Weary to the bone from his journey, the young man sank to his knees next to a crackling fire over which hung a heavy iron pot. 

“Greetings, kind Master.” said the young man, putting his hands together “ I am grateful to have found you.”

The Taoist Master looked up at him slowly, from where he stood stirring a broth in the pot.

“I have traveled for days with a heavy question weighing on my mind” continued the young man “ May I tell you what it is?” 

The master nodded ever so slightly. Without saying a word, he put a clay bowl of hot broth into the young man’s cold hands.

Warmed by a few sips of the good broth, the young man asked his question: 

“My entire life has been one of struggle,” he said “ No matter what I do and how hard I try, I meet with difficulty. As soon as I think I’ve found a solution to what holds me back, circumstances change and life once again hands me a failure! How, Sir, might I ever become successful?”

The Master let the young man’s question hang in the air at the edge of the warm fire for a while. After some time, instead of giving him an answer he asked him a question: 

“What is the shape of water?”

The young man was confused “The shape of water? But – water has no shape!”

The master reached for a carved wooden cup that was placed nearby and slowly made his way to a large bucket that sat on the ground at the door of the hut. Dipping the cup in, he filled it with water and held it out for the young man to see.

“Oh, I know it now!” cried the young man “Water is in the shape of a cup!”

Ever so slowly again, the master smiled and shook his head. Silently then, he poured the water into a  pitcher which was placed on the ground next to the bucket. 

“Ah!” exclaimed the young man. “Now I understand! Water is in the shape of a pitcher!” Without saying a word, the master lifted the pitcher and poured the water onto the ground. The ground there was mostly composed of sand, and in no time the water had disappeared. The young man pondered a moment further and then said,

“So then I see that… water has no shape, and yet it can be in any shape.”

The master nodded his head and beckoned the young man to follow him to a corner of the hut. Pointing to a hole in the ground, he  spoke: “Tell me – what do you see on the ground?”

“Why, there is a hole. It was formed over time by drops of rain dripping from the roof ” said the young man.

“Ah. So it is!” said the master, smiling again gently.  “Water takes on any shape, and thereby stays close to reality. Yet water is also focused and consistent, whereby it is strong enough to break even the resistance of stone.”

“If you want to work with the ever-changing world, “ he continued “you must be as pliable and yielding as water so that you can stay close to reality.”

”On the other hand,” he said “ you must also remain focused and consistent. Then you can penetrate a rock. This is the principle which underlies the universe and is in harmony with the natural order. This is Tao.” 

The young man was in awe at this simple yet profound lesson. Bowing his head in gratitude, he thanked the master for his insight. 

After finishing his soup by the fire he bade the Master farewell and started on his way back toward his home. His steps were light and his heart was filled with the wise Master’s words, which would change his life completely.

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

– Lao Tzu