Empty Your Boat

Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE)

In yesterday’s post, I quoted German philosopher Karl Jaspers as saying, “the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it.” That reminded me of a passage in Chuang Tzu, the writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

In the “Mountain Tree” chapter, I-liao, an officer of Shih-nan, tells the Marquis of Lu, “If a man is crossing a body of water in a boat, and an empty boat comes along and crashes into him, even though he is a hot-tempered man, he will not get angry. If there should be someone in the other boat, however, he will shout out to him to haul out of the way. If his shout is not heard, he will shout again; and that is not heard, he will shout out a third time and follow up with a lot of curses. In the beginning, he was not angry, but now he is; before, he thought the boat was empty, but now he sees a person in it. As he makes his way in this world, if a man can empty himself of himself, who can harm him?”

Thomas Merton, in his translation/interpretation of the same passage, put it this way:

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 . . .

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Merton (1965). The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions.

We stand on a shore facing the river of the world, the sea of suffering. There is a boat. But it is not empty. It is filled with living beings that we have rescued. Our goal is to cross over the sea of suffering in this boat filled with others. We want to reach the other shore of Nirvana, the shore of happiness and bliss, where everyone will be enlightened and free.

There’s only one problem: we cannot see this other shore. We can journey on and on but we will never find it. We will see nothing but mirages, islands of illusion. We may think that as we journey along we will go through different stages, various phases, and that we will attain certain attainments, but these are only dreams in our mind.

We are already standing on the shore of Nirvana. We think it is a shore that borders the sea of suffering but that is only because we do not see clearly and we cannot distinguish what is truly before our eyes. Our mind is not yet free. We see attainments but there are no attainments, only change. There is nothing to attain and everything to change. The goal was never to attain anything or go anywhere, but simply to change ourselves where we are, and to rescue other living beings.

In order to accommodate passengers, we have to empty our boat. To liberate others we have to liberate ourselves, empty ourselves of ourselves. That is changing things where you are.

Ryokan was a Zen priest during the Edo era. He lived from 1758 to 1831. In Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut . . . he had boundless love for all living beings and all of nature . . . Ryokan lived by begging and was untempted by worldly things . . . He was completely indifferent to public criticism . . . To him there was neither beauty nor ugliness, good or evil, truth or falsehood, delusion or enlightenment, for he looked on everything without discrimination . . . Ryokan had only the bare necessities, for he had gone beyond all temptations of fame and fortune . . . Though Ryokan was a priest, he never preached or explained sutras. When he talked with friends or played with children, his pleasant smile impressed them with his goodness. This in itself was the true power of his Zen . . .

Like the idealized Taoist sage, Ryokan led by example. He taught by not teaching. His life was his teaching and the way he lived his daily life was his attainment. But he did not start out like that. He had to change himself, empty his boat, and once empty, it was then filled with all the people who returned his love, who were touched by his goodness, the people who were rescued, changed, by his presence in their lives.

To liberate someone or to rescue another, sounds like some grand act, but it’s not. It’s actually a very simple thing. A smile is a rescue. A kind word is liberation. If you can see this, then you know that when you empty yourself you also open yourself up to new possibilities.

Karl Jaspers saw existence as a state of being teeming with hope and potential. Each moment is potentially a moment of awakening. There is no attainment because there is no place you can go nor any other person you can be in order to attain. It’s all right here, before your eyes, in the present moment . . . in each potential moment. It is emptying your boat and uncovering your true self and your true mission. It’s change.

To understand is one thing. To realize, another. I think it is very difficult to grasp these simple truths deeply. We may understand intellectually, but it is hard to know them in the depths of our being. Harder than ascending to the stage of stream-enterer or becoming a once-returner, a non-returner, or an arahant. More difficult than fathoming the most profound koan, for this is the ultimate koan and we access its meaning and attain whatever there is to attain, not through attainment but through the way we live this koan called life.

Enlightenment comes when we have purged ourselves of striving and contention, for then we understand enlightenment is nothing more than real change that comes from within, intuitively, without conscious  aspiration toward something external. It does, however, require conscious effort and it’s not about being indifferent about the external world in any literal sense. A duck is not indifferent about water, but the duck does not get wet.

Emptying the boat of ourselves and then filling it with others – this is the action that sparks change. Knowing there is no journey to another shore only the inward journey to ourselves – this is the comprehension that reveals the nirvana shining all around us.

Self-portrait & caligraphy by Ryokan

I’m a fool, it’s a fact,
Living with the trees and plants as I do.
Don’t ask me about illusion and nirvana,
For here is an old man who just likes to smile to himself
As he crosses over streams on scrawny legs,
And when he carries around his bag in the springtime.
Such is my life,
And the world has no claims on me.



2 thoughts on “Empty Your Boat

  1. Lovely post! Deep, resonant, beautifully written!

    I had read the empty boat metaphor before in Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, but never knew it originated with Chuang Tzu. It’s a wonderful metaphor. I also never knew this side of Karl Jaspers before. I’d read his General Psychopathology text, which is a milestone in phenomenological psychiatry, and knew he was an existentialist philosopher as well, but I’m glad to be introduced to his Buddhist side. I’ll have to read more of him! Any recommendations about where to start?

    1. Thanks, Seth. Coming from you, I consider that high praise indeed.

      As far as Jaspers is concerned, the only writing he did specifically about Buddhism that I am aware of was in his book, The Great Philosophers, which has an essay each on Buddha, Nagarjuna and Lao Tzu. Some of the essays were reprinted in 1962 as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus. You can find it here at Google Books.

      The last time I checked, you could read the Buddha essay in its entirety, although it struck me as a fairly standard overview.

      I have not found the essays on Nagarjuna or Lao Tzu online anywhere. I checked The Great Philosophers out of the library some fifteen years ago and photocopied the Nagarjuna pages. Wish I had done that for the other two chapters as well. There’s another abbreviated version of The Great Philosophers called Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus, Lao-Tzu, Nagarjuna. You can get used copy for $4.09 from Amazon.

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