Why emptying your boat, choosing to be a nobody, makes sense

A Chinese philosopher teaches us the value of being a nobody.

Chuang Tzu, a.k.a Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 4th Century BC, has written a poem called The Empty Boat’. Here are relevant excerpts from that poem:

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.

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.

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The moral of the poem applies in all situations to all of us in Life. Most of the time we are reacting to imaginary perceptions we have of people. We feel slighted or hurt when people say something. We feel such people have motives. We conclude that everyone does something good to you, or to anyone, only if they see a gain for themselves in it. If someone is very nice to you, you begin to wonder why they are that way. We analyze people and situations in a zillion different ways to see if there isn’t any catch or any fine print that we are missing in any transaction or relationship. All this hyper activity in our mind makes us all very edgy, suspicious and causes us to suffer!

So, one way to rid us of all this wasted energy is to see ourselves as nobodys – as empty boats. And treat others also the same way – as empty boats! If you can empty your boat, if you can lose all your cravings and trappings of power, respect, recognition and ego, you too can be free and sail through Life – experiencing its beauty and magic – with no grief or suffering! No one can react from an empty boat nor can anyone react to an empty boat! Period.

Go easy with Life – Oh! Yes! Abhi!

Don’t take yourself or Life too seriously. At the end of the day, Life’s but a dream!
A couple of years ago, a young lady came to meet me and my wife, feeling totally despondent about Life. She was separating from her husband, she had two young children and her business was just not working out. She had accumulated a lot of debt – most of it from family. She was wondering if there was any meaning to Life. She asked me: “What’s the point of Life if there’s so much pain in going through it?” I am sure this is a question each of us has asked ourselves at least once in our lifetime so far.
I shared with her a story from the Life of the great Chinese mystic, Chuang Tzu (a.k.a Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi, 369 BCE ~ 286 BCE).
One morning, sitting in his bed, Chuang Tzu looked very sad. His disciples had never seen him so sad. And never after waking up had he remained in his bed, sitting. What had happened? Was he sick?
They gathered around and asked him, “Master, what is the matter?” He said, “The matter is really difficult, I cannot solve it; perhaps you may be of some help. I will tell you what is the matter. In the night I dreamed that I had become a butterfly, and I was moving from one flower to another flower.”
One of the disciples said, “This is nothing to be sad about. In dreams we all do strange things; and this is not a bad thing, to be a butterfly – colorful, beautiful, moving from one juicy flower to another juicy flower. Why are you so worried?”
He said, “You have not heard the whole thing. The problem is, now I am awake and I am wondering whether Chuang Tzu dreamed that he is a butterfly, or now the butterfly has gone to sleep and is dreaming she is Chuang Tzu.”

This may well be ‘koan’a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment. So, are you who you are? Or is this Life that you lead a dream? In Sanskrit and Pali literature, in the ‘Vedas’ and ‘Puranas’, there’s this concept called ‘maya’ which really points to Life (and everything) as an ‘illusion’, and if you don’t get it and don’t understand Life’s true nature, well, ‘maya’ can also mean ‘delusion’ in such a context!

As Chuang Tzu shared his dilemma, his disciples remained silent. They understood the import of Chuang Tzu’s poser. This is what all the scriptures have been saying – that everything is maya’. Everything is a dream. So, why the strife? Why worry, why the anxiety, grief, guilt, anger and sorrow? Chuang Tzu taught his disciples this: Continue easy with Life and you are on the right path. He didn’t say this way or that way was right. He said, whatever you are going through, go through it with ease, don’t resist, don’t fight, don’t aggress. Just go easy. Because whatever is happening to you is just a dream. It will soon be over. So, don’t gloat over your riches or your successes. It’s a dream that’s soon to die. Don’t bemoan your sorrows. But it too is a dream and will be over soon.
I met that young lady recently. We had been mentoring her, holding her hand and helping her understand Life better, over these two years. But in the past quarter we had not met her. So, when she came over, I noticed how much she had evolved. I saw a twinkle in her eyes, a radiance on her face and an enthusiasm in her step. I asked her how things were. And she replied: “Nothing’s changed – the marriage is still going through the final rites, the kids are a handful and the business is deep in the dumps. But I am taking it all easy. And so, I am at peace and I am very happy.”
Sometimes, Life can weigh you down. Things just won’t go the way you want them to. That’s the time to learn to take Life easy. As the famous song from the Tamil movie ‘Kadhalan’(1994, Shankar, A.R.Rahman; Hindi – ‘Hum Se Hai Muqabla’) goes, (have a), “….Take it easy, policy!And have it now – Oh! Yes! Abhi!