Rivers and oceans are like rulers to valleys. Just as subjects pay tributes to the king, the water in all the valleys of the world flow into rivers and oceans. This is the way it is, simply because rivers and oceans occupy the lower position.
Taking a cue from nature, sages know that if they want to be in a higher position of authority, they must assume the lower position of the rivers and oceans. Similarly, if they want to be in a leading position in front of everyone, they must dedicate themselves to a supporting role in the background.
In this kind of leadership, it’s always about service, and never about power. Therefore, when a sage occupies a higher position, he or she can do so without becoming a burden to those who are below. When a sage takes the leading position, he or she can do so without creating problems for those who follow.
If you can be like the sage when called upon to lead, people will be more than glad to put you in charge. You will not contend against anyone, so no one will contend against you. Thus, your leadership will be harmonious — to everyone’s benefit!
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百谷王 means “a hundred valleys’ king” in a literal transcription, or “king of a hundred valleys” in a more readable rendering. In some ancient variants such as the Guodian Chu Slips, a character meaning “valley stream” occupies the middle position, so it says “king of a hundred valley streams” instead.
Either way, the central concept is the same: small streams of water in the valley flow into larger streams, then into rivers and eventually into the ocean. Whether it’s valleys or valley streams, rivers and oceans lie below them in terms of altitude, and therefore receive abundantly from them.