The Empty Boat

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?

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 

Anger, in any form, is caused by frustration of a desire. 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.

Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 62)

Lord Shri Krishna, also, 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.

Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 5, Verse 26),

“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!

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

    1. Very true. We are basically “Gyan Paapi” — a Bangla word (জ্ঞান পাপী), literally meaning “Knowledge Sinner”; it refers to the state where we have the knowledge and yet do not act in accordance with it.

      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

  3. A powerful message. The question is how do we empty our boats ? We can let go of most/ many attachments/ expectations but a few/ some will always remain…and all one needs is a matchstick to stoke a fire. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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