The Empty Boat

The Empty Boat fable is a story that illustrates the wisdom of Taoism, a philosophy of living in harmony with the natural order of things. The fable tells of a man who is crossing a river and encounters an empty boat that collides with his own. He does not get angry or upset, because he realizes that there is no one to blame or fight with. He simply steers his boat away and continues his journey. However, if he sees another man in the boat, he will react differently. He will shout at him to move away, and if he does not listen, he will curse and get angry. He will create conflict and suffering for himself and the other man, because he attaches his ego and emotions to the situation.

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 the abovet fable 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.

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.

Chuang Tzu, The Empty Boat 

The moral of the fable is that we can avoid unnecessary trouble and pain by emptying our own boat of our attachments, expectations, and judgments. We can flow with the river of life, without resisting or interfering with what is. We can be free of confusion and sorrow and live with peace and joy. The fable also warns us of the dangers of seeking fame, achievement, and distinction, which can only bring us calamity and disgrace.

Attachments interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly or rationally. When the person is free from attachments, he becomes equal to attraction and aversion and intelligent (2.57).

Constantly thinking on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them; and from attachment arise the desire to possess them; and desires give rise to anger (when desires are unfulfilled). (2.62)

From anger springs up delusion of mind; and the deluded mind gives rise to confused memory; and the confused memory leads to decay of intellectual reasoning; and due to decay of reasoning one is ruined. (2.63)

A person who takes delight in the contemplation of the Self performs his actions without attachment. By performing his actions without attachment, he attains the Supreme Self. (3.19)

A person who is freed from past attachments, whose mind is established in knowledge, and who engages in desireless sacrificial actions, his actions become neutralized and his karma becomes dissolved. (4.23)

Even virtuous actions such as sacrificial rituals, charity, and austerity which are considered purifiers of the wise, should be performed by renouncing attachment and desire for the fruit of such actions. However, actions as such should not be renounced. (18.5-7)

Shri Krishna, Srimad Bhagavad-Gita

The true sage is one who is content with himself, who has no name and no home, who is simple and humble, who does not judge or get judged by others. Such is the perfect man: his boat is empty.

13 thoughts on “The Empty Boat

  1. This reminds of a famous saying… “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha
    Despite knowing this we can be provoked just within a second…that is the power of negative emotions!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Indro, your views are not very different from what I said to the original post. Relaying once again –

    Isn’t anger always within oneself, it merely gets triggered by external factors on which one doesn’t have control. It also stems from the fact that humans always, without exception wants to control his/her surroundings and when something or some event takes place that is beyond control, the anger erupts.

    And I experienced this in the morning today. As I had told you earlier, I was having connectivity problems without redress from mtnl, so this morning I called up the south zone GM office and narrated my woes to the lady officer (who picked the ph). I had the plan of shouting at the other end for my misery of non-connectivity but while talking realised the boat was empty.

    (The officer assured me of her best effort to restore the service and the same is now functioning.)

    Liked by 1 person

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