Well, Inexhaustible: Spring, Inexhaustible
On Richard Berengarten’s “Welling, Replenishing”
As a metaphor for the power of nature, water appears in different ways in different traditions. It is “the great flood” in the Epic of Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia and the Story of Noah of the Old Testament. It is “a flowing river” in Greek philosophy (“No one ever steps in the same river twice”) and in classical Confucianism (“Such is its passing, is it not? It ceases neither day nor night”). It is “a well of water” in the Gospel of St. John (“a well of water springing up into everlasting life”) and in the I Ching (“In the well there is a clear, cold spring, from which one can drink”). In its various guises, water can be violent and destructive, benign and nurturing, hidden and enriching.
In the I Ching, the motif of “a well of water” appears in hexagram 48 (井Jing, “Well”). Following hexagram 47 (困 Kun “Oppression / Exhaustion”), Jing is full of hardship and danger, suggested by the two trigrams that make up the hexagram: ☴ (巽Xun “wood”) below, and ☵ (坎Kan “water”, or a bucket of water) above. The authors of the Judgment (one of the Ten Wings, the earliest commentaries) solemnly warn readers that despite relentless efforts, no substantial result will be achieved if one is in the situation of Jing (“It neither decreases nor increases”). Worse still, in Jing, one will face severe challenges in achieving one’s goal: “If one gets down almost to the water, and the rope does not go all the way, or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune” (Wilhelm 1967: 185).
If we look at the line statements, Jing tells a similar story of hardship and danger. In lines one and two (counting from the bottom), the well is desolate because it has been idle for a long time. It is full of mud at the bottom (line 1) and the jug that carries water to the surface is broken (line 2). Things begin to change in lines 3 and 4 when the well is cleaned up (line 3) and strengthened with lines of new stones (line 4). Yet, despite the renovation, the well remains useless because “no one drinks from it” without a jug to bring up water. Finally, fresh water is brought up to quell the thirst of the people. But, as lines 5 and 6 tell us, the challenge is to make certain that fresh water is continuously brought to the surface “without hindrance.” In the end, the tone of Jing remains dark and somber. “Supreme good fortune” will come only when there are concrete results (Wilhelm 1967: 187-188).
By a stroke of genius, Richard Berengarten captures the paradox of Jing—being at once full of potential and full of danger—with two simple words “Welling, Replenishing” (C48: 383-390). In gerund form, these two words imply continuous effort, deep-seated commitment, and the will to succeed despite setbacks and disillusionment. Together, these combined qualities symbolize the long and treacherous process of cleaning the well, firming up its walls, enabling the underground water to flow, and above all, bringing fresh water, bucket by bucket, from the bottom of the well to the top.
Departing slightly from the line statements, Berengarten sees the challenge of Jing as particularly severe at the beginning rather than at the end. In the first three numbered poems in this small set of seven, he compares the heavy burden of cleaning the well to a person’s self-doubt—similar to Moses’s question of “Who am I?” in Exodus and Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Speaking from the perspective of a well-cleaner, Berengarten keeps asking “Who drinks from an old well?” Daunted by the heavy burden of cleaning an old well, the speaker’s self-doubt is real and inevitable because the obstacles seem insurmountable (“Our well has dried / up. Not even birds / circle or settle here”); support is lacking (“Our clerks have been / corrupted by one regime / after another. Even // lawyers and judges / have sold out”); and resources are scarce (“Can // we find a dowser / with forked hazel / or willow branch?” 48/1: 385). Yet, even though the prospect is bleak, there seem to be promising signs for the future (“Sometimes they answer / even though I’ve asked / no question”); so there appears to be hope in a hopeless situation (“Sometimes they say / nothing, and appear to / smile and look away” 48/2: 386).
Thus, the paradox of Jing is the gap between what is and what will be. On the surface, the old well is useless; but it is full of potential, waiting to be tapped. Opportunity is clearly available; but the question is how to turn the potential into reality and how much work is needed to complete the task. To Berengarten, the biggest challenge in Jing is not external but internal. The critical moment in Jing appears when the cleaner decides to replenish the well and to bring fresh water up to the surface. Once this decision has been made, there is no return. The task must be completed despite hardship, setback, disillusionment and dissatisfaction. Here, Berengarten is at his best, using poetic language to express—vividly and powerfully—the cleaner’s commitment to finishing the tedious and filthy task.
We clambered down ladders
and ropes. Workmates at the top
let down shovels, sieves,
buckets, poles, mallets.
We dredged up a mountain
of mud and waste fallen
in and mulched down
there over years. Hauled out
rich stinking vegetables stuff
and rotten wood. Separated
it from clay to fertilise fields.
Hammered in new
stepping brackets and
handles as we relined walls.
Deepened and widened
entire cavity to hold more
water pooled from underground
streams than ever before. (48/3: 387)
For Berengarten, the whole process of replenishing the well is a test of the will. Each step in cleaning the well is an expression of one’s commitment, and each step in fortifying the well is an externalization of the will to succeed.
But when fresh water is finally drawn up from the replenished well to quell the thirsty people, the cleaner’s success is both personal and communal. It is not only the triumph of the will of the cleaner, but also a great service to the community, who need fresh water in order to live. To Berengarten, this communal significance is even more important than any sense of mere personal achievement. And precisely for this reason, he regards the “well of water” not only as the theme of Jing, but also as the central motif of the entire I Ching. In what seemingly is an abrupt change in focus, in the rest of ‘Welling, Replenishing’ Berengarten stops discussing the refurbishing of a well and turns his attention to the meaning of the I Ching itself.
Fifty years my
solid yet flowing
firm yet yielding
in plumbing you
This abrupt change in focus makes the poem unique and profound. It no longer follows the original line statements of Jing. Instead, Berengarten embarks on a heartfelt meditation on the meaning of the I Ching itself. Like a well, the I Ching enables its readers to reflect on who they are by asking questions dear to their heart; like a well, the I Ching also nourishes its readers by providing them with thoughtful advice, heart-warming encouragement, and careful suggestions; and, like a well, the I Ching gives life when it is needed most. As such, Jing can be used as a guide to the I Ching, and even, indeed, as an encapsulation or symbol of its entirety, teaching readers how to use this Chinese classic to cope with fear and anxiety in life. So that readers recognize this point fully, Berengarten opens this small set with a head-poem entitled ‘Consultation of the Diagrams’, suggesting how helpful the practice is “in the construction / of hypotheses, buildings / and voyages” or “in the correct / turning of antennae / towards origins” (48/0: 384). For careful readers, the “diagrams” in this poem will be understood to refer to both the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching itself and the six lines of Jing. This double signification makes this opening poem both intriguing and enlightening, because it openly encourages readers to look attentively at Jing as a unit of innerly coherent meanings in its own right, as well as an encapsulation of the entire I Ching.
Indeed, the hexagram Jing is an appropriate and powerful symbol of the I Ching, because it puts emphasis on the give-and-take, the trial-and-error, between the reader and the text. Berengarten tells us that when we, as readers, lower our questions “on a rope / of thought” into the well, we “draw up / water-wisdom” and “drink from a fund / of deep light.” The “water-wisdom” may be auspicious or inauspicious, encouraging or discouraging. But the point is not whether this water-wisdom is “sweet or bitter,” but what we learn from it (CH 48/5: 389). As a “self-replenishing and inexhaustible well,” Berengarten reminds us, the I Ching is even more resourceful:
secret, open face
of Underworld, with
and level gaze – (48/6: 390)
Here, the capitalized word “Underworld” has an implicit suggestion of pagan mythologies, as in the Greek Hades, whose great queen, Persephone, embodies the motif of fertility and renewal. The Underworld in Berengarten’s line is clearly also a fund, a resource for new life. The new life comes from a conversation with the I Ching, or better yet, a conversation with the ambiguity, contingency, and uncertainty of life. In realizing that we are powerless in facing a world that is ever-changing, we transmute our fear and anxiety into the motivation to adapt and respond to our surroundings. In this sense, Jing clearly and simply invokes one of the essential qualities of fresh water. For by flowing, water in itself symbolizes flexibility, fluidity, and above all, moving in accord with changing circumstances.
In his poetic address to the I Ching (CH 48/4: 388), Berengarten compares it to an “ever-fresh well,” which prompts us to be more firmly “grounded, rooted / in this here now.” And if we link “this here now” to the I Ching itself, we find yet another meaning of “a well of water.” Rather than suggesting that we seek help from without (such as from a divine power), the I Ching asks us to take command of our own fates in this here now. By focusing on what is happening in the here-and-now, we are able to diminish, partially if not fully, our fear and anxiety in an ever-changing world. Accordingly, in the ‘Postscript,’ when explaining his aims in writing Changing, Berengarten returns to the image of the well as a metaphor of life:
If any single motif or symbol in the I Ching has most come to represent the I Ching in my own mind, it is that of the well (hexagram 48). […] In the same way that looking down into a well filled with water under sunlight facilitates visual reflection – not to mention mental reflection (on heights, depths, and their relative perspectives) – and just as calling down into a well sets up echoic resonance, so my hope is that Changing may both, reflect and echo itself to a reader while it is being read, and so enable the reader to reflect on it, just as I also hope it may reflect and echo (and enable the reader to reflect on) the material it integrates, the processes of its own making, and its own ‘deep’ source, the I Ching. (527)
Just as the fresh water of a replenished well must be brought up to reach thirsty people, so too the goal of reading the I Ching is not only to transform its readers, but also to enable them to effect change in the world around them. For this reason, as suggested in the sixth line of Jing, “supreme good fortune” comes only when concrete results have been secured for the community, not just for a few sensitive souls. Thus, the key to being at ease in an ever-changing world means taking appropriate action to achieve definite results in changing our surroundings – be it vis-à-vis our family, our neighborhood, or our extended community – or all three. In Berengarten’s words, we must plant our feet deeply and firmly in “this here now.”
Berengarten, Richard. 2016. Changing. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
Wilhelm, Richard and Baynes, Cary F. (trans.). 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Published: Sunday 1 May 2022[RETURN TO CHANGING]
Tze-Ki Hon (韓子奇) teaches at BNU-HKBU United International College in Zhuhai, China, and is a researcher at the Research Center for History and Culture of Beijing Normal University (Zhuhai). Previously, he taught at City University of Hong Kong, Hanover College, Indiana, and State University of New York, Geneseo. Specializing in classical studies and intellectual history, topics of his books and the collections of essays he has co-edited include commentaries on the I Ching, Neo-Confucianism of the Song-Ming period, the social and intellectual history of late Qing and Republican China, the global order after WWI, and the rise of Confucianism since 1979. Current research includes paradigm shifts in I Ching commentaries, the philosophy of divination of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), and the transformation of the I Ching into a global classic since WW1.