the Way of Nature and Live Simply -
Some Taoist Parables for Life
By Gene Sager
Taoism may be
called the original, even the essential, Chinese religion. Along with
Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism have flourished throughout most of Chinese
history. But Confucianism is not so much a religion as a system of ethics.
Buddhism is not native to China, having been imported from India.
Taoism has developed a wide variety of currents in its long history. These currents
include herbology, magic, and divination, as in the I Ching (Book of
Changes); another related current involves meditation, healing arts, and
movement therapies like Tai Chi (which is also a martial art). The most
popular form of Taoism is the worship of a pantheon of gods in elaborate
rituals conducted by a hierarchy of priests.
Alongside the above
popular forms of Taoism, and in great contrast to them, there is a current
of Taoism which is remarkably simple, yet profound. It comes to this: flow
with the Tao (the way of Nature) and live simply. No gods, no rituals, no
priests, no potions, no paraphernalia. The Tao flows in waves called yang
(active) and yin (passive); all is a unity in the Tao.
parables are based on this simple, deep current of Taoism. After each
parable, I offer an interpretation.
Two men were
disputing as to who was the rightful owner of a thin strip of land between
their properties. After much fruitless fighting, they called in the Taoist
sage as mediator.
The sage told them he would ask the land about the matter; he lay down on the ground and
pressed his ear to the earth. The sage remained thus for what seemed an
eternity. The agitated disputants fidgeted and repeatedly asked, “What is
the decision? Who does this land belong to?” Finally, the sage rose slowly
and said, “The land says it does not belong to either of you. You belong to it. No more is needed.”
Interpretation: As in most Taoist parables, the sage moves us, with
a twist, from the mundane to a deep, spiritual perspective. The story is not
about “fairness” and even less about “private property” as a political
issue. When the sage says, “You belong to it” he is telling us about our
place in the scheme of things. As a part of Nature, we follow its laws and
function within its unitary web. We depend on Nature for our basic needs
and, in the Taoist perspective, no more is needed, although more may be
Wanting more makes
life more complicated and turbulent. The anxious disputants fritter away
their lives in pursuit of the more. In Taoist parables, those who do not
know the simplicity of the Tao are agitated and jerky, while the Taoists
move through the day smoothly. Life has a flow.
Chang Wu was
a lowly stonecutter who worked day after day with his chisel and hammer, slowly and steadily – Tssh, Tssh,...Tssh,
Tssh…. He bemoaned his situation, as he saw it – powerless and insignificant
– and he began to lose himself in a sea of self-pity. He gazed out across
the valley to the great mansion of the rich man on the main street and
longed for the life of the rich man. Then, miraculously, he became the rich
man, sitting on his veranda, tended by his servants. “Now I am Chang Wu, a
man of means and meaning,” he thought.
As a rich man, he watched the passing horses and pedicabs; he was much impressed by
the lord of the province as he and his entourage moved slowly through the
street. The lord was lounging in his sedan chair, surveying his properties.
Now Chang Wu wished he were the lord of the province and, miraculously, he
changed into the lord. But even the lord could not control the powerful rays
of the sun which made him perspire and in some years dried up his crops. So
Lord Chang Wu wished he were the sun and attained the limitless power of the
sun. Yet even the sun was limited by the clouds and the clouds were blown
about by the wind. In turn, Chang Wu changed into each of these. As the
powerful wind, Chang Wu could not move the great boulder sitting on the side
of the mountain, still and undisturbed as though in meditation. Having
become the great boulder Chang Wu was finally great in size and power and
sat unmoved in prominence on the mountain. But he felt a tinge or tickle at
his base near the ground. Tssh, Tssh,...Tssh, Tssh…. It was a little stonecutter working
steadily cutting a piece away from the great boulder. At last he wished he
were Chang Wu, a little stonecutter, working away every day, living simply,
satisfied with his niche.
Interpretation: The stonecutter comes full circle and, we hope,
learns multiple lessons; most importantly, he learns that his mind can be
his worst enemy. Whether or not his mind is incarnated into various forms
(rich man, sun, boulder, etc.), the key problem is one many of us face: The
mind continually projects an ideal of a “better life” – be it more power or
pleasure or talent, or whatever. The mind tells us that happiness is a
conditional experience: “‘If only X’ then my happiness will be complete.”
But the mind can always imagine a better X. Such is the mind’s obsession.
The Taoist sage sees the insanity of this obsession. He would have us
simplify our inner life by letting go of the “if onlys.” Otherwise, we shall
find ourselves spinning in circles.
A Taoist farmer
lived alone with his son and spent hard days working the land. One day, he
discovered five wild horses and was able to herd them into a makeshift
A nosey neighbor
got wind of this and came over with a knowing smile: “I have seen good and
bad in my day and this wild horses find is a good thing. You had no horses
before and now you can use them to work the land and pull your wagon. You
deserve this blessing.” In reply, the Taoist farmer said simply, “Who knows,
really, what is good and what is bad.” That was all he would say.
The next day,
the Taoist farmer’s son was taming the horses, was thrown from a horse, and broke his leg. The nosey neighbor heard
about this and came rushing over to apologize, “I was wrong about the
horses. It was a bad thing, the arrival of these horses. Why has this
happened to your fine son?” In reply, the Taoist farmer said simply, “Who
knows, really, what is good and what is bad.” That was all he would say.
The next day, the
recruiter from the greedy feudal lord came around to force the son to go and
fight in a war to expand the lord’s holdings, but the son could not be
drafted into the war. The nosey neighbor was pleased that his first insight
was correct. He declared, “The wild horses find was a good thing. I said it
was a good thing. I am never wrong about being right. I know your good karma
has saved your son.” In reply, the Taoist farmer said simply, “Who knows,
really, what is good and what is bad.” That was all he would say.
Interpretation: The difference between the Taoist farmer and his
neighbor is quite telling. The nosey neighbor feels he must evaluate the
events and speculate about their ultimate cause (being “deserved” or the
result of good or bad “karma”). The Taoist farmer is prepared to flow with
the ups and downs of life. He practices mental simplicity. He does not
clutter and upset his mind with speculations common in other spiritual
traditions concerning karma or fate or challenges or blessings sent from
ordained the construction of a high wall on the border of the realm to block
the entry of unsavory elements and impure races. At first, he was satisfied
with his wall as some suspicious characters were turned back. But over time,
the Emperor’s subjects voiced many complaints. Trade was impeded and
families divided. Time was wasted while waiting at the gates.
troublesome was the chain of problems created because the deer, elk, and
other animals could not migrate across the land with the seasons as they had
done for ages. When too many deer accumulated on one side of the wall, the
people could not cope with the numbers. Hordes of animals destroyed the
trees and bush. Crops were destroyed and erosion problems were rampant.
The Emperor sought
the advice of the greatest minds in the realm but no solution was
forthcoming. Finally, he called upon a Taoist sage for advice. Gently but
firmly the sage said: “Your construction of a wall upsets the balance of
Tao. This action of blockage is far too yang. You must allow the flow of
Nature. Your Great Wall is great indeed. But greater still is the Tao.”
Interpretation: This parable recalls the sagely statement of the
first parable and clarifies its application: “You belong to it.” Failing to
realize that he belongs to Nature, the Emperor upset the flow of Nature with
his Great Wall. He failed to realize that the lives of humans and animals
are interdependent. What is more, the trees and shrubs and crops and all
things are inextricably united with us in a world wide web – that is, the
world wide web in the Taoist sense of the term. Like the sage, we would do
well to press our ear to the earth and listen.
Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues,
and a frequent contributor to Natural Life Magazine.