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Flow with the Way of Nature and Live Simply - Taoist Parables

Flow with 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.

The following parables are based on this simple, deep current of Taoism. After each parable, I offer an interpretation.

Land Dispute

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 wanted.

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. Yin Yang symbol - Taoist parables

The Stonecutter

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.

Wild Horses

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 corral.

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 divine sources.

The Wall

The emperor 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.

Most 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. 


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