The Empty Boat

Many thanks to Gene for his timely post. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally (I don't want to open that can o' worms right now!), I had planned to write something about Buddhist views of anger today, and then logged on to find Gene's eloquent discussion of the same topic. And coincidentally/not-so-coincidentally, I had planned on quoting Zhuangzi's Buddho-Taoist simile of the empty boat: ...if he sees a man in the boat/ He will shout at him to steer clear/ ...if the boat were empty/ He would not be shouting, and not angry.

The spirit behind Zhuangzi's simile is echoed in Chapter 6 of Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara, "The Perfection of Patience". Here are some key verses:

24. A person does not get angry at will, having decided 'I shall get angry', nor does anger well up after deciding 'I shall well up'.


25. Whatever transgressions and evil deeds of various kinds there are, all arise through the power of conditioning factors, while there is nothing that arises independently.

31. In this way everything is dependent upon something else. Even that thing upon which each is dependent is not independent. Since, like a magical display, phenomena do not initiate activity, at what does one get angry like this?

33. Therefore, even if one sees a friend or an enemy behaving badly, one can reflect that there are specific conditioning factors that determine this, and thereby remain happy.

39. If it is their very nature to cause others distress, my anger towards those fools is as inappropriate as it would be towards fire for its nature to burn.

I think you get the idea. Shantideva makes masterful use of the Buddhist principle of dependent origination (which later evolved into the Mahayana concept of emptiness) to pull up the roots of our anger. If nothing is self-generated, if everything causes everything, then who or what is there to blame? This is perhaps one of the hardest truths to swallow, especially concerning such atrocities as the bloodshed in Gaza. But even genocide is just another example and another expression of the truth of emptiness.

As Buddhists, situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict force us to tread a very fine and treacherous line. Do we want peace? Yes, of course! But if our activism is fueled by anger, we begin spinning off endless and dangerous dualities, perpetuating the very "us & them" mentality which, as Buddhists, we have vowed to transcend. Once we have begun to objectify and demonize individuals or groups of people, all is lost. "Hitler is the anti-Christ! George W. Bush is Hitler! The Israelis are barbarians! The government is a bunch of selfish, evil bastards!" We should know better. Name-calling, labeling, demonizing -- such two-dimensional thinking is ignorance, and IGNORANCE IS THE ONLY EVIL.

I was motivated to write this today not only because of the inescapable public concern and anger generated by the Gaza invasion, but by the much smaller events of my own life. A confluence of factors made today quite irritating for me. The world seemed to be stacked against me, everything was going wrong, and of course, my mind wasted no time seeking someone or something to blame for each and every irritant. But being a little older, a little wiser, a little more aware, I caught myself in the act of creating delusions, and I pulled back into my only refuge: the oneness of everything, and the emptiness of oneness. By being peace, I will create peace. And creating peace can only happen here and now, in love and openness to what I see before me, in my AFFIRMATION OF EVERYTHING.


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.

2 comments:

gene said...

Great post, and thanks for the earlier citation of the empty boat story.

I continue to work on my patience and understanding, in my own interactions with people around me, and in my responses to things like global news events.

It's very satisfying, personally, when I observe myself NOT getting upset about something. It opens up alternatives that just weren't possible before.

Mu D said...

Agreed, Gene.

"In gaining power you save unlimited power, in saving power you gain unlimited power."