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The Empty Boat


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A monk decides to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He takes his boat out to the middle of the lake, moors it there, closes his eyes and begins his meditation. After a few hours of undisturbed silence, he suddenly feels the bump of another boat colliding with his own. With his eyes still closed, he senses his anger rising, and by the time he opens his eyes, he is ready to scream at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation. But when he opens his eyes, he sees it’s an empty boat that had probably got untethered and floated to the middle of the lake. At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization, and understands that the anger is within him; it merely needs the bump of an external object to provoke it out of him. From then on, whenever he comes across someone who irritates him or provokes him to anger, he reminds himself, “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger is within me.”

I received this story via WhatsApp from my classmate Aranjit today. It’s derived from a famous Zen anecdote based on the stories of Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu, revitalizing the 3000-year-old Taoist message of self-realization.

At first, I said that anger is just anger. It isn’t good nor bad. What you do with it is what matters. You can use it to build or to destroy. You just have to make the choice. Then I thought what to do when the other person evokes anger in me even when I am not at fault? From the parable of The Empty Boat by Chuang Tzu, I quote an excerpt:

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.

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Anger, in any form, is caused by frustration of a desire. In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 62), Lord Shri Krishna says:

One develops attachment for the sense-objects by thinking about the sense-objects. Desire for sense-objects comes from attachment to them, and anger comes from unfulfilled desires.

In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 5, Verse 26), Lord Shri Krishna says:

Those who are free from anger and all material desires, who are self-realized, self-disciplined and constantly endeavouring for perfection, are assured of liberation in the God in the very near future.

“If you can empty your own boat… no one will seek to harm you.” I know, it’s easier said than done. Then again, it’s not impossible though. Every little thing we do, say or think, every thought we brood over, every emotion we harbour adds to the weight. You may not be able to entirely empty your boat, but don’t keep it overloaded either. Heavy objects sink faster!

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