Tag Archives: taoism

The Empty Boat


"Returning Home" Shitao  (Chinese, 1642–1707).  Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Returning Home” Shitao
(Chinese, 1642–1707). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Today, I had a conversation with a friend that reminded me of the Taoist parable of the Empty Boat.  It is a teaching story attributed to Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher who lived 2500 years ago.  Here’s how I tell his story:

Imagine that you are in your fragile boat, rowing across the river at dusk.  Out of the gray darkness, you spot another boat heading straight for you.  You call to it, announcing your presence.  There is no response.  You watch helplessly as the boat floats ever closer to you, on a collision course.  You shout.  You wave your arms.  Your panic rises along with your rage.  You shake your fist at the boat but it comes right at you.  The boat collides with your skiff broadside.  Your boat is shattered and you spill into the water.

Now, imagine that there is a person in that boat.  How do you feel?  What do you do?  You focus all that energy and rage on the one who has done you harm.  You have been wronged!

Then clear your mind.  Imagine the same scene–you on the river at dusk.  Imagine that other boat rushing towards you, but it’s empty.  The empty boat.  There is no one who has wronged you.  There is no one who ignored your plea.  Even as you tip into the shadowy water, there is no one to shake your fist at.

It’s just something that happened.

“It is what it is.”

“Shit happens.”

Many a time I have found myself dumped into the river by that empty boat.  Oh, when I got soaked by Fartbuster…I shook my fist plenty.  I shouted and cursed.  I waved my arms.  I wanted to blow up his boat with him in it to take my revenge.  I considered swearing off boats altogether.

Eventually, I quit focusing all my energy on the REASON I was in the river and just started swimming to the other side.  I let it go.  I remember confessing to my therapist that I didn’t want to give up on him after ten years together because I just KNEW he was about to turn the corner and become the wonderful person that he couldamightashoulda been to me all along.  She said, “No, this is as good as he gets.  He’s doing his best.”  She wasn’t running him down–she was encouraging me to live in reality instead of in the world that might be waiting around the corner.  She was right–he was doing his best and I deserved better.

Sometimes you have to throw a fish back in the river so it can grow some more.

Sometimes you have to swim for your life even when you politely have said, “No, thanks, I’ll stay up here on the bank because I don’t want to get my shoes wet.”

Sometimes you have to quit trying to figure out who is rocking the boat.  Let it go.