Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Empty Boat

The Empty Boat
by Scott Bradley


I have made frequent reference to the story of the empty boat which appears in the Zhuangzi and Merton's adaptation of the same. Here it is in brief:

If someone is crossing a river in his boat and another boat is drifting down on him, if that boat is occupied by another boatman, he will yell at him to stay clear. If the other boatman does not heed, he will yell even louder and probably include some profanities. If, on the other hand, that other boat is empty, he will simply push it clear with no great ado.

We naturally assume that this story is about the first boatman and picture ourselves in his position, but the author then flips it on its head and asks us to identify instead with the empty boat. If, he tells us, we can become that empty boat, no one will oppose us. And if they do, it won't matter in any case.

I needn't expound on what it is to be an empty boat.

My first response to this story is usually a bit of shame. I know I would yell, not only at the other boatman, but probably at the empty boat, as well. My boat is not empty. I react similarly to the story about a tile falling from a roof and onto one's head. No one would be angry at the tile, it is suggested. I would. I would likely stomp on it and curse it and the builder.

Maybe that's why I like this story so much; it hits the mark.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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