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As many of you know, I love the stories from Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humor. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.

Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.

I have a client that was diagnosed with GBM – an aggressive malignant tumor affecting the brain. Nancy’s courage and outlook are most impressive to me and Nancy always came across to me as a natural Daoist. I shared this book with her, The Tao of Happiness as I thought she would enjoy it, and this time I proved to be correct. From a life well-lived, I asked Nancy for her favorite story from the collection. Nancy commented that she loved many of them, but this one in particular stood out and strongly resonated with her life journey.

Chaotic Currents

Confucius and his students went on a hike in the Liu Liang area, to explore its natural beauty. They saw a waterfall from a distance, so they began walking toward it. They could see that is was huge, and its water fell from such a great height that it splashed down with tremendous force. They could hear a deep rumble and see the mist generated by the splashing torrents.

Confucius remarked: “That water at the bottom of the fall is so powerful and dangerous that not even fish and turtles can get near it. That is all the more interesting because we actually think of water as their native element.”

When they got close enough for a better look, they were all surprised by the sight that greeted them. They saw a man in the waterfall being spun around in the ferociously churning water, whipped this way and that by the terrifying currents.

“Quickly, to the rescue!” Confucius commanded. “He must have fallen in by accident, or perhaps he is suicidal. Either way, we must save him.”

They ran as fast as they could. A moment later, they arrived at the river downstream from the waterfall. They expected to see the man seriously injured or dead. Instead, they saw him swimming casually away from the waterfall, spreading his long hair and singing loudly, evidently having a great time. They were dumbfounded.

When he got out of the river, Confucius went to speak with him: “Sir, I thought you must be some sort of supernatural being, but on closer inspection I see you are an ordinary person. How can it be that you were not harmed by the waterfall? Do you possess some special skills?”

“No, I have no special skills whatsoever,” the man replied. “I simply follow the nature of the water. That’s how I started with it, developed a habit of it, and derived lifelong enjoyment from it.”

“This ‘follow the nature of water’ – can you elaborate? How exactly does one follow the nature of water?”

“Well… I don’t really think about it very much. If I had to describe it, I would say that when the powerful torrents twist around me, I turn with them. If a strong current drives me down, I dive alongside it. As I do so, I am fully aware that when we get to the riverbed, the current will reverse course and provide a strong lift upward. When this occurs, I am already anticipating it, so I rise together with it.

Although the water is extremely forceful, it is also a friend that I have gotten to know over the years, so I can sense what it wants to do, and I leverage its flow without trying to manipulate it or impose my will on it.”

“How long did it take for you to make all this an integral part of your life?”

“I really can’t say, I was born in this area, so the waterfalls have always been a familiar sight to me. I grew up playing with those powerful currents, so I have always felt comfortable with them. Whatever success I have with water is simply a natural result of my lifelong habit. To be quite frank, I have no idea why this approach works so well. To me, it’s just the way life is.”

This is one of Zhuang Zi’s stories featuring Confucius in the central role. It depicts Confucius as a wise teacher and a humble student of the Dao. This may be surprising to those who have been taught that Zhuang Zi often ridiculed and criticized Confucius.

The more we study Zhuang Zi, the more we see that this is just another misconception. A true sage would have no need to ridicule and criticize anyone, and twenty-five hundred years ago there were no such labels of Daoism or Confucianism. What all the masters studied and taught was simply the Dao. These masters, including Zhuang Zi and Confucius, learned from one another with courtesy and mutual respect. It was their students in later generations who started rivalries and strayed far away from the teaching of harmony.

In this story, the majestic waterfall of Liu Liang is the metaphor for life, and the fearsome force of this waterfall is the chaos we all go through from time to time. The water carries so much power that there is nothing one can do to stop it or slow it down. In the same way, we often find ourselves propelled by the progression of events, heading toward a certain outcome and powerless to avoid it. The sheer force of fate, like the waterfall, can be overwhelming.

There are beginners in Dao cultivation who like to say we all live in the Dao and can never be apart from it, so everything is already perfect as it is. With the waterfall story, Zhuang Zi points to a higher level of understanding. While we are indeed immersed in the Dao like a fish in water, that water is not necessarily perfect. Because life is dynamic and constantly changing, it can often push us in unexpected directions. In this sense, it is more like a waterfall than a peaceful pond.

Most of us attempt to survive the waterfall of life with limited success. Sometimes the water slams us against the rocks or tosses us around like rag dolls. Sometimes we try to fight the water, but the effort is draining. We rail against such injustice, but no amount of rage makes any difference.

Sometimes, like Confucius witnessing the man emerging from the river safe and sound, we see remarkable people who handle life with effortless ease. The mighty current of misfortune does not have the same effect on them as it does on us. They get through the misfortune unharmed and actually seem to be having fun! How can this be?

The man in the waterfall is like a sage who has mastered the art of living life to the point where his skills have become completely natural. Such skills go far beyond “techniques” or “strategies” that one can learn from self-improvement books. They are totally integrated with the sage’s instincts and reactions.

There are two major elements in this kind of mastery:

1. Perceptive Awareness

Just as the man in the waterfall follows the nature of the water, the sage is keenly aware of his environment and the forces at work in it. He brings observations and insights to the present moment to understand exactly what is going on. To him, living in the Dao is not just about letting go. He is actively interested in his surroundings and curious about current events. This is how he follows the nature of life.

2. Proactive Involvement

Once the sage understands the direction and velocity of a life current, he works with it. Rather than let himself be thrown around by the current, he rides it. Just as the man in the waterfall sees water as a friend, the sage embraces life. Rather than fight the tremendous power of the water, the sage leverages the power for his own purpose.

Some of the currents drive us downward. Such currents represent setbacks in life, and we all encounter them from time to time. The sage’s understanding of the Dao informs him that no current can sustain the downward push forever. Sooner or later, it must reach an extreme and turn around. Those who are able to anticipate this can take advantage of the upward movement; those who cannot may very well miss the opportunity.

How do we become masters of the waterfall, or expert surfers riding the waves of life? Zhuang Zi gives us the following steps:

Step 1: Get to know life and it’s many currents. Think of life as your friend, not your enemy. When something goes wrong, it is not the result of fate working against you but the result of you not knowing it well enough to work with it. Thus, your best remedy is to get better acquainted.

Step 2: Start practicing with the currents. As you become more familiar with the nature of water, start working with it while remaining observant and sensitive to changing conditions. When the currents change direction or speed, you must adjust yourself to match. The more you do this, the better you will get at it.

Step 3: Make a habit out of this practice. Commit yourself to riding the currents everyday, until the skill becomes an integrated part of you. When you get to this point, you no longer have to think about it – you will automatically know the best course of action when you face the powerful currents flowing at you.

Step 4: Enjoy yourself. Like the man in the story who derived lifelong enjoyment from the waterfall, you will find that dealing with the chaotic currents in life can actually be a lot of fun. It is always interesting and never boring. The challenges it throws at you are never the same.

Enjoyment is the final and most important instruction from Zhuang Zi. Sometimes, people think of the spiritual journey as an ordeal, a trial by fire where one elevates spirituality through hardship. Zhuang Zi tells us that is not the case. The journey may seem challenging at first, but Dao cultivators see it as a dynamic process, so they respond to it with their own dynamism. They enjoy the process, like the man swimming with the currents and having the time of his life. To them, there is no ordeal – life is the ultimate fun ride.


  ‘The Tao of Happiness‘ has 18 stories from Zhuang Zi with commentary. Derek Lin does an excellent job! Highly recommended!

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.


  • Tiepermann Patrick says:

    Hi Alex, we met a few years ago while on acupuncture stage in Beijing were we had a cooking work shop en guided tour with you. This was just before you left for America. I remember you saying, Happy wife, Happy life
    I enjoy a lot your monthly comments in the straight bamboo mails Thank you so much for the warm feeling and wisdom you spread. Keep going strong healthy and well.
    Kind regards from Kalmthout Belgium

    • Alex Tan says:

      Patrick, thanks for your comments!
      Yes, 5-years in Arizona and nearly 20-years in Chinese medicine and starting to get the hang of it 🙂
      Upright Qi to you!