Last night, during my evening walk with my housemate Tony, Tony brought up the parable of the Empty Boat. I have heard this parable used in various Zen books, including Charlotte Joko Beck’s “Everyday Zen.” But I did not discover its true source until quite recently. It is from the book of Chuang Tze:


This is the English translation:

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.

This is an amazing story. Chuang Tze was a very astute observer! Even an irritable person would change his behavior, depending on his perception of whether certain unfortunate event is intentional. If he feels that it is intentional, then he will likely blow up. But if it is not intentional, or if it is an accident, he will not over-react. Much depends on one’s perception of the nature of an event and one’s judgment of whether malice is involved. Natural disasters, for example, can cause a lot of damages to someone’s life and property. But few people will get mad over natural disasters.

In my book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, I wrote a parable of the Malicious Train. It is based on my own experience. I was still working on Wall Street then. I used to commute to Manhattan and used the subway all the time. There were instances when the subway train was delayed for 15 minutes, half an hour or even longer. I remember getting furious while waiting on the subway platform. I started cursing. But then I remembered what I learned about mindfulness. I was learning about Vipassana meditation at the time. I asked myself, “Why am I getting angry?” The train is delayed for a reason. Perhaps there was some accident. Perhaps there was a sick passenger. There might also be signal problems. The reason why I got angry is that I assumed that the train comes late deliberately, out of malice. Why on earth would I think that? Upon realizing that, my anger immediately dissolved.

Can you manage your anger? It is all about mindfulness. Chuang Tze has his empty boats. I have my malicious train. It is about becoming aware of what is happening. This is the core of spirituality. Awakening.

Towards the end of our walk with Tony, I remind him what Jesus said when he was betrayed and crucified. He said, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they are doing.” Most of the time, we don’t know what we are doing. And we are not aware of the consequences of our actions. We may think there is a conscious being who is steering the boat or the train. But it may well be just empty boats and empty trains.

Buddha said that the cause of suffering is ignorance, not sin. I think Jesus was a Buddhist.

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