Your Empty Boat

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He who rules men lives in confusion;
He who is ruled by men lives in sorrow.
Tao therefore desired
Neither to influence others
Nor to be influenced by them.
The way to get clear of confusion
And free of sorrow
Is to live with Tao
In the land of the great Void.

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
If you wish to improve your wisdom
And shame the ignorant,
To cultivate your character
And outshine others;
A light will shine around you
As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
You will not avoid calamity.

A wise man has said:
“He who is content with himself
Has done a worthless work.
Achievement is the beginning of failure.
Fame is beginning of disgrace.”

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

–Chuang Tzu

This parable, possibly my all-time favorite, comes from the Chinese Taoist master Chuang Tzu, whose works had a strong influence on early Zen schools. You can read it hundreds of times over the course of your practice and continue to find something new to consider each time.

What does it mean for your boat to be empty? For me, it means to be formless, ambitionless, to have no labels for yourself. It means to approach the self with a completely natural attitude (true self) rather than let the self be reprogrammed by a mad external world (ego). Instead of using the world as a barrier between you and yourself, you can use yourself as a door from you into a transcendent universal consciousness.

In the refusal to empty our individual boats, we fall into various types of weakness across a massive gradient. Some people rely on a sense of nationality or heritage to compensate for a lack of meaning in the world. They create an ‘other’ to blame for problems for which we are actually all collectively responsible. Everyone does this, from urban liberals to rural populists, atheists to Mormons.

Similarly, people who spend their entire lives acquiring material wealth and achieving career milestones often neglect their children or other passions, looking back with regret. Those who spend their time chasing various pleasures like sex and drugs often wake up one day in pure terror, recognizing the emptiness from which they’re trying to run away. Those who rely too much on appearances in their youth are struck by the decay of old age. Those who make friends just to feel less alone eventually recognize that such needy relationships are shallow and unfulfilling.

The point is not to depress you but to illustrate how many ways we can be led astray. Making peace with the void is much easier to do right now than after 20 or 30 years of delusional habit-building. Give yourself that gift. What we learn from these beautiful ancient texts is the power of deep intuition. We know that we gain strength from humility and obscurity, and yet the atomizing force of modern culture is so strong that we often go against our better interests, chasing wealth, fame, narcosis, distraction and attention. These pursuits cause us troubles we are often too afraid to acknowledge despite their near-total presence.

In a broader context, the pop moralizing and self-victimization tendencies of our age can be viewed as a cheap attempt to be a straight tree, to paraphrase Chuang Tzu. In our attempts to be what we’re fundamentally not, we make ourselves into marks. We proclaim over social media to our insular circle that we ‘stand with ___’ when a tragedy occurs, or that we support one crooked politician over another identically crooked one. We take offence to even the silliest jokes and remarks when we identify too strongly with the various labels they allude to. In a word, we take ourselves so seriously because every decade it becomes more difficult to empty one’s boat. The world is moving too fast, the trainwreck of progress forcing itself upon individuals with so much inertia they cannot build up proper defences. The river of Chuang Tzu’s time is now a massive canal teeming not only with billions of our little skiffs, but also cruise ships, mega-yachts, and industrial freight boats. The same way a single individual can’t learn in a lifetime how to invent the internet, we can’t adequately prepare ourselves for the compounded spiritual assaults coming at us from the modern world. This is why it’s so remarkably important to practice, and why the preservation of texts like this are such a blessing.

I’ve heard people say, “perfection is unachievable, so stop trying.” What if perfection is the point at which we stop trying? This doesn’t mean neglecting life or becoming a lazy oaf. It means just accepting what is and fading into reality rather than trying to make oneself both a fast and squeaky wheel. It means emptying one’s boat. If we can continue to learn how to do this, the changes that occur in the river cease to be of any importance. Maybe this is a solitary pursuit, as Chuang Tzu acknowledges (“to all appearances he is a fool”). But imagine how liberating a opportunity this is. If you’re reading this and participating in this dialogue, you are aware of the situation and capable of remedying it. Because there’s nothing to remedy; all that’s required is letting go completely. It takes time, but that’s a small price to pay for true freedom.

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