The time of the autumn floods came and the hundred streams poured into the Yellow River. Its racing current swelled to such proportions that, looking from bank to bank or island to island it was impossible to distinguish a horse from a cow. Then the Lord of the River, also known as the god of the Yellow River and as P’ing-i, was beside himself with joy, believing that all the beauty in the world belonged to him alone. Following the current, he journeyed east until at last he reached the North Sea. Looking east he could see no end to the water.
The Lord of the River began to wag his head and roll his eyes. Peering off far in the direction of the god of the sea, Jo, he sighed and said, “The common saying has it, ‘He has heard the Way a mere hundred times but he thinks he’s better than anyone else’. It applies to me. In the past, I heard men belittling the learning of Confucius and making light of the righteousness of Po Yi. (Po Yi relinquished his kingdom to his brother and later chose to die of starvation rather than serve a ruler he considered unjust. He was considered a model of righteousness) though I never believed him. Now, I have seen your unfathomable vastness. It is as if I am only a disciple of this great sea that lies before me. If I had not come to see for myself your gate where I meet the sea, I should have been in danger. I should forever have been laughed at by the masters of the Great Method.”
Jo of the North Sea said, “You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea – so you realize your own pettiness. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle. “
“Of all the waters of the world, none is as great as the sea. Ten thousand streams flow into it – I have never heard of a time when they stopped – and yet it is never full. The water leaks away at Wei-lu where sea water is said to turn to steam – I have never heard of a time when it didn’t – and yet the sea is never empty. Spring or autumn, it never changes. Flood or drought, it takes no notice. It is so much greater than the streams of the Yangtze or the Yellow River that it is impossible to measure the difference. But I have never for this reason prided myself on it. I take my place with heaven and earth and receive breath from the yin and yang. I sit here between heaven and earth as a little stone or a little tree sits on a huge mountain. Since I can see my own smallness, what reason would I have to pride myself?
“Compare the area within the four seas with all that is between heaven and earth – is it not like one little anthill in a vast marsh? Compare the Middle Kingdom with the area within the four seas – is it not like one tiny grain in a great storehouse? When we refer to the things of creation, we speak of them as numbering ten thousand – and man is only one of them. We talk of the Nine Provinces where men are most numerous, and yet of the whole area where grain and foods are grown and where boats and carts pass back and forth, man occupies only a fraction. Compared to the ten thousand things, is he not like one little hair on the body of a horse? Is this not what the five emperors of antiquity of whom the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun are the most famous and the Three Kings (the founders of the Hsia, Shang and Zhou) fought over, what the benevolent man grieve about, what the responsible man labors about – all is no more than this! Po Yi gained a reputation by giving it up; Confucius passed himself off as learned because he talked about it. But in priding in this way, were they not like you a moment ago priding yourself as on your flood waters?”
“Well then,” said the Lord of the River, “if I recognize the hugeness of heaven and earth and the smallness of the tip of a hair will that do?” “No indeed!” said Jo of the North Sea. “There is no end to the weighing of things, no stop to time, no constancy to the division of lots, no fixed rule to beginning and end. Therefore great wisdom observes both far and near, and for that reason recognizes small without considering it paltry, recognized large without considering it unwieldy, for it knows that there is no end to the weighing of things. It has a clear understanding of past and present, and for that reason it spends a long time without considering it tedious, a short time without fretting at its shortness, for it knows it has no time to stop. It perceives the nature of fullness and emptiness, and for that reason it does not delight if it acquires something nor worry if it loses it, for it knows there is no constancy to the division of lots. It comprehends the Level Road, and for that reason it does not rejoice in life nor look on death as a calamity, for it knows that no fixed rule can be assigned to beginning and end.”
Jo of the North Sea continues, “Calculate what man knows and it cannot compare with what he does not know. Calculate the time he is alive and it cannot compare to the time before he was born. Yet man takes something so small and tries to exhaust the dimensions of something so large! Hence he is muddled and confused and can never get anywhere. Looking at it this way, how do we know that the tip of a hair can be singled out as the measure of the smallest thing possible? Or how do we know that heaven and earth can fully encompass the dimensions of the largest thing possible?”
The Lord of the River said, “Men who debate such matters these days all claim that the minutest thing has no form and the largest thing cannot be encompassed. Is this a true statement?”
Jo of the North Sea said, “If from the standpoint of the minute we look at what is large, we cannot see to the end. If from the standpoint f what is large we look at what is minute, we cannot distinguish it clearly. The minute is the smallest of the small, the gigantic is the largest of the large, and it is therefore convenient to distinguish between them. But this is merely a matter of circumstance. Before we can speak of coarse or fine, however, there must be some form. If a thing has no form, then numbers cannot express its dimensions, and if it cannot be encompassed, then numbers cannot express its size. We can use words to talk about the coarseness of things and we can use our minds to visualize the fineness of things. But what words cannot describe and the mind cannot succeed in visualizing – this has nothing to do with coarseness or fineness. Therefore the Great Man in his action will not harm others, but he makes no show of benevolence or charity. He will not move for the sake of profit, but he does not despise the porter at the gate. He will not wrangle for goods or wealth, but he makes no show of refusing or relinquishing them. He will not enlist the help of others in his work, but he makes no show of being self-supporting, and he does not despise the greedy and base. His actions differ from those of the mob, but he makes no show of uniqueness or eccentricity. He is content to stay behind with the crowd, but he does not despise those who run forward to flatter and fawn. All the titles and stipends of the age are not enough to stir him to exertion; all its penalties and censures are not enough to make him feel shame. He knows that no line can be drawn between right and wrong, no border can be fixed between great and small. I have heard it said, ‘The Man of the Way wins no fame, the highest virtue wins no gain, the Great Man has no self.’ To the most perfect degree, he goes along with what has been allotted to him.”
The Lord of the River said, “Whether they are external to things or internal, I do not understand how we come to have these distinctions of noble and mean or of great and small.”
Jo of the North Sea said, “From the point of view of the Way, things have no nobility or meanness. From the point of view of things themselves, each regards itself as noble and other things as mean. From the point of view of common opinion, nobility and meanness are not determined by the individual himself.
“From the point of view of differences, if we regard a thing as big because there is a certain bigness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not big. If we regard a thing as small because there is a certain smallness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not small. If we know that heaven and earth are tiny grains and the tip of a hair is a range of mountains, then we have perceived the law of difference.
“From the point of view of function, if we regard a thing as useful because there is a certain usefulness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not useful. If we regard a thing as useless because there is a certain uselessness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not useless. If we know that east and west are mutually opposed but that one cannot do without the other, then we can estimate the degree of function.
“From the point of view of preference, if we regard a thing as right because there is a certain right to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not right. If we regard a thing as wrong because there is a certain wrong to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not wrong. If we know that Yao and Chieh each thought himself right and condemned the other as wrong, then we may understand how there is a preference in behavior.
In ancient times, Yao abdicated to Shun and Shun ruled as emperor; K’uai abdicated in favor of Chih and Chih was destroyed. (In 316BC King K’uai of Yao was persuaded to imitate the example of Yao by ceding his throne to his minister Tzu Chih. In no time the state was torn by internal strife and three years later it was invaded and annexed by the state of Ch’i). T’ang and Wu were the founders of the Shang and Zhou dynasties who fought and became kings. While Duke Po, who was a scion of the royal family of Ch’u, led an unsuccessful revolt against its ruler and was defeated and forced to commit suicide in 479BC. Looking at it this way, we see that struggling or giving way, behaving like a Yao or a Chieh, may at one time noble and another time mean. It is impossible to establish any constant rule.
Jo of the North Sea continues, “A beam or pillar can be used to batter down a city wall, but is no good at stopping up a little hole – this refers to a difference in function. Thoroughbreds like Ch’i-chi and Hua-liu could gallop a thousand li in a day, but when it came to catching rats they were no match for the wildcat or the weasel – this refers to a difference in skill. The horned owl catches fleas at night and can spot the tip of a hair, but when daylight comes, no matter how wide it opens its eyes, it cannot see a mound or a hill – this refers to a difference in nature. Now do you say that you are going to make Right your master and do away with Wrong, or make Order your master and do away with Disorder? If you do, then you have not understood the principle of heaven and earth or the nature of the ten thousand things. This is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang. If men persist in talking this way without stop, they must be either fools or deceivers!
“Emperors and kings have different ways of ceding their thrones; the Three Dynasties had different rules of succession. Those who went against the times and flouted custom were called usurpers; those who went with the times and followed custom were called companions of righteousness. Be quiet, be quiet, O Lord of the River! How could you understand anything about the gateway of nobility and meanness or the house of great and small?”
“Well then,” said the Lord of the River, “What should I do and what should I not do? How am I to know in the end what to accept and what to reject, what to abide by and what to discard?”
Jo of the North Sea said, “From the point of view of the Way, what is noble and what is mean? These are merely what are called endless changes. Do not hobble your will, or you will be departing far from the Way! What is few, or what is many? These are merely what is called boundless turnings. Do not strive to unify your actions, or you will be at sixes and sevens with the Way! Be stern like a ruler of the state – he grants no private favor. Be benign and impartial like the god of the soil at the sacrifice – he grants no private blessings. Be broad and expansive like the endlessness of the four directions – they have nothing which bounds or hedges them. Embrace the ten thousand things universally – how could there be one you should give special support to? This is called being without bent. When the ten thousand things are unified and equal, then which is short and which is long?
“The Way is without beginning or end, but things have their life and death – you cannot rely on their fulfillment. One moment empty, the next moment full – you cannot depend on their form. The years cannot be held off; time cannot be stopped. Decay, growth, fullness, and emptiness end and then begin again. It is thus we must describe the plan of the Great Meaning and discuss the principles of the ten thousand things. The life of things is a gallop, a headlong dash – with every moment they shift. What should you do and what should you not do? Everything will change of itself that is certain!” “If that is so,” said the Lord of the River, “then what is there valuable about the Way?”
Jo of the North Sea said, “He who understands the Way is certain to have command of basic principles. He who has command of basic principles is certain to know how to deal with circumstances. And he who knows how to deal with circumstances will not allow things to do him harm. When a man has perfect virtue, fire cannot burn him, water cannot drown him, cold and heat cannot afflict him, birds and beasts cannot injure him. I do not say that he makes light of these things. I mean that he distinguishes between safety and danger, contents himself with fortune and misfortune, and is cautious in his comings and goings. Therefore nothing can harm him. “Hence it is said – The heavenly is on the inside, the human is on the outside. Virtue resides in the Heavenly. Understand the actions of Heaven and man, base yourself on Heaven, take your stand in virtue, and then, although you hasten or hold back, bend or stretch, you may return to the essential and speak of the ultimate.”
The Lord of the River then asked, “What do you mean by the Heavenly and the human?” Jo of the North Sea concludes by saying, “Horses and oxen have four feet – this is what I mean by the Heavenly. Putting a halter on the horse’s head, piercing the oxen’s nose – this is what I mean by the human. So I say, do not let what is purposeful wipe out what is fated; do not let the desire for gain lead you after fame. Be cautious, guard it, and do not lose it – this is what I mean by returning to the True.”