So last week after some quality time cultivating my garden of mindfulness at Deer Park, I packed up the camping gear and slowly drove out of the hidden mountain valley. Playing was Neil Diamond’s glorious Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack CD , rolling slowly across bouldered hills into the fog of Escondido. Still on my mind consciousness was young brother’s talk, which included reference to the ancient Chuang Tzu story of an empty boat. Chuang Tzu was a Taoist sage, living sometime before 250 B.C.
“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. “
(20:2, 4, pp. 168-171) Chuang Tzu. The Way of Chuang Tzu. Translator/Editor Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965.
Embracing that thought of the empty boat as a koan I began the drive home with clear, blue southern California skies and end of summer heat. Recalling the front tire blowout (mentioned on my “finding the key” post) on the way down I was planning on taking it easy driving the interstate back. As I first met cars an intentional remembering that these cars are empty. Empty of anger, ill will, and ultimately, empty of having a separate existence. We are flowing on this river of time and space together. Cooperating like the cells of my body, and not competing. Even though my quickly judging mind might think, “hey, these people are in a hurry, seem impatient and my slow mindful driving is not making them any happier”, I adjusted best I could to support harmony on the road out of Escondido. Breathing and smiling holding the wheel of my empty boat. Fortunately the early morning traffic was light and spacious. No tailgater, no tailgatee.
On the way down it seemed, in my memory, that the air was mostly clear. So as I approached the high San Gabriel mountains which were obscured by smog I sighed to the air that could be seen. Over the grapevine my empty boat journeyed through the San Joaquin Valley farmland with fruit and nut trees next to the roadway and an occasional fruit stand with fresh produce. Sometimes the freeway went across the California aqueduct, a canal which brings water from the north into the valley and southern California bringing it life, keeping it from returning back to its natural state of being a desert.
Empty boats of different colors, dancing up the interstate at the speed that is not too fast, not too slow, but just right for them. Well sometimes the big truck passes the other big truck and goes kind of slow, relative to the vehicles that were doing 90 until forced to go 60 while the big boat was in the fast lane. But knowing that it’s an empty boat I felt happy. Seeing truckloads of bright, red tomatoes make me happy. Seeing an occasional bunch of tomatoes that bumped off and smashed on the freeway made me happy. Cruise control made my leg happy. When the afternoon heat kicked in the a/c made me happy. Missing the large pieces of rubber tire retread across the highway made me happy, also. I was mindful to help my empty boat not hit anything, this time.
May all beings be happy and safe, be aware of obstacles and arrive alive. After awhile I notice a vehicle on the side of the road with a flat tire. Having been in that situation a couple of weeks earlier I had understanding and compassion. So I pulled over and offered to help. She seemed nervous at my presence and told me that triple A was called and already on the way. Wishing her well I smiled and got back into the boat. After several more hours, getting close to the Bay Area, I spotted smoke and soon approached a fire engine on the opposite side of the road. It was just finishing putting out the fire on a completely burnt out shell of a car. Couldn’t even tell what kind of car it used to be. No evidence of the occupants but I was sending metta that they are free from injury. The traffic was backed up a couple of miles slowly passing that scene. Instant reminder of how fragile we are. How quickly life goes by. After taking my time driving it was wonderful to regain my land legs and do some walking meditation through my neighborhood. Perhaps a step closer to realizing the empty boat inside myself. Although it will take many more rivers, that’s ok. One breath in awareness at a time, still a happy and imperfect man.
Perhaps the talks from that retreat will end up as a podcast along with other insightful talks at: http://deerpark.libsyn.com/iamhome/2012