“She who knows life flows, feels no wear or tear, needs no mending or repair.”

When I Googled this quote — “She who knows life flows, feels no wear or tear, needs no mending or repair” — the first ten results all said it was by the Buddha. Many people would take that as confirmation that it was a genuine Buddha quote, but that just goes to remind us that lots of people making a false claim doesn’t make it true. We can also remind ourselves how unwise it is to assume that something must be true because you read it on the internet.

Incidentally there’s a “He who knows life flows…” version as well, although it’s far less popular.

On the grounds of content and style it seemed very unlikely that this would be from the Buddhist scriptures. It turns out to be from the Tao Te Ching, although I doubt it’s a very good translation.

It can be found on page 44 of “The Way of Life According to Laotzu,” by Witter Bynner (1944). It’s part of his translation of chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching.

How can a man’s life keep its course
If he will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
The need no mending, no repair.

According to Wikipedia, “Harold Witter Bynner, also known by the pen name Emanuel Morgan, (August 10, 1881 – June 1, 1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar, known for his long residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and association with other literary figures there.”

Translations of this work vary enormously, and I’m in no position to make judgements about which translations are best, but Bynner’s version is very different from most others that I’ve seen. Other translators’ versions are much closer to each other. Here are just two alternate translations, taken from this very helpful comparison site:

Gia-Fu Feng’s translation (1972):

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?

J. H. MacDonald (1996):

Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?

I’ve no idea how, or by whose hand, the quote changed form from “Those who flow as life flows…” to “She who knows life flows…” and how it came to be seen as a quote from the Buddha.

This particular part of the Tao Te Ching, in another translation, has also been mistakenly attributed to the Buddha.

When the Buddha talked about life flowing it often was in a negative sense—of us being swept along by our desires:

These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.

And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.

There was also however the concept of the “stream winner” or “stream entrant” who was someone to had attained entry to the stream that flows to awakening.

One of the few references I know of to life as being like a river is not about “flow” in a positive sense, but to emphasize how brief is our time on earth.

Just as a river flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, so that there is not a moment, an instant, a second where it stands still, but instead it goes & rushes & flows, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a river flowing down from the mountains — limited, trifling, of much stress & many despairs. One should touch this [truth] like a sage, do what is skillful, follow the holy life. For one who is born there is no freedom from death.

13 thoughts on ““She who knows life flows, feels no wear or tear, needs no mending or repair.””

  1. Excellent piece, but one point: Stephen Mitchell does not read Chinese; he based his version of the Tao Te Ching on other English translations. So the fact that his version of this verse is close to another translation really says nothing about the quality of either rendering.

    1. Thanks for that, Scott. Unfortunately the Tao Te Ching is not even close to my area of expertise (such as it is). I changed the selection so that now one of the other translations is Gia-Fu Feng’s version. Is that one OK?

      1. I assume so. I’m not an expert in Daoist literature either, but I did happen to read Mitchell’s work, and remembered that he took the Coleman Barks approach to “translation.” Having read literal translations of Lao Tzu and Rumi, I get an inkling of how such restatements of earlier renderings can wind up reifying the translation decisions of earlier writers, rather than casting a helpful light on the original work.

    2. That was my impression, looking at his homepage. If he were a translator, then according to his homepage he would be fluent in about 100 different languages. There is also an oddity in his rendition of Ch 15 on the comparison page, linked-to above: he translates one line as meaning the diametrical opposite of what the text says something like “unclear like muddy water” but he prefers “Clear as a glass of water”, which is quite the opposite ! This is not a criticism, just an observation.

      1. One thing that can sometimes happen when you read a number of conflicting translations is that you can come to believe you have an “intuitive” understanding of what the author actually meant: some truth that managed to elude all of those plodding academics and literalist translators who produced the obviously confused versions in front of you. Of course these intuitions are generally bullshit, and so we end up with even more confusion.

  2. Either it is not from Ch 15 or these translations are all wildly off. The Chinese text of Ch 15 makes no reference to flowing. It uses the words for full and empty, and moving and stillness.

    1. Unfortunately I can’t say whether they’re off or not, since I don’t know Chinese, or even the text. Do you have a translation that you think is most accurate?

      1. I’m sorry for the late response. This is the text of Ch 15 :
        Characters with three dots to the left of them, indicate something to do with water, thus 渙 means melt or dissolve and is the closest concept to “flowing” in this chapter (the usual word for which is 流 liu) and there is no mention of anything along the lines of “wear and tear”. There are a few words at the end of Chapter 16 that the originator of the erroneous quotation might have conflated with Chapter 15, but my first impression was that the quotation conflates the “flow” concept of the Hungarian-American psychologist Csikszentmihalyi with the text of Tao Te Ching. Of the translations on the comparison site the Gia-Fu Feng is the closest to the original text.

        Incidentally, and you’ve perhaps already written on this one, Ch 64 has “the journey of a 1000 miles, begins with a single step” [though the text says literally “starts from under your foot”] which I have often seen attributed to the Bhudda. 千里之行,始於足下

        1. Thanks for that. I didn’t actually know that the “journey of a thousand miles” quote was from the Tao Te Ching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone ascribe that to the Buddha, although no doubt someone has!

  3. Witter Bynner wrote The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. He was a student for more than 10 years of Kiang Kang-hu who was his collaborator for that time, on the work, “The Jade Mountain”. Kiang was imprisoned in China for many years, after being invited and teaching in California at the University of Berkeley. He approved Bynner’s translation of the Tao saying it is impossible to translate the Tao into English, while keeping the, “Essence” of Lao Tzu by translating the words exactly, and that Bynner used his, “fore-nature” understanding—or Chinese, hsien-t’ien— that rendered it so simple and yet so profound.” (from the introduction of The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu) I have been a student of this profound work for 53 years and recommend this translation whole-heartedly.

  4. This is a poetic translation and I interpret it a such; I see the description of flow as not to “disturb” the muddy waters that is mentioned in Tao; life will unfold when we are still and let life unfold in the flow.

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