If you’re reading this sentence, it’s probably because your curiosity got the best of you. After all, why would anyone want to intentionally teach uselessness? From the time we’re quite young society conditions us to be useful and promises the more useful we are the more rewards we’ll receive. Chuang Tzu, like other Taoist masters, cared for his own needs, but when he spoke about uselessness, he had something else in mind.
We’ll begin with a short story that reveals the sage’s view of the ‘rewards’ the world offers for usefulness:
Chuang Tzu was fishing when two emissaries from the Prince of Chu found him and informed him that he had been appointed Prime Minister. This was not a post that Chuang Tzu sought, but regardless of how quietly he lived, his wisdom was well known. Instead of responding to the Prince’s order, Chuang Tzu said that he had heard that the Prince worshipped a gold and jewel encrusted turtle that had been dead for three thousand years. When the emissaries agreed that this was true, Chuang Tzu asked them if they would rather be that dead, yet sacred, turtle or a live turtle dragging its tail in the mud.
Of course the emissaries had to admit that the live turtle was better off. They returned to the Prince leaving Chuang Tzu to happily “drag his tail in the mud.” The dead turtle was useful to society, but society had done nothing useful for the turtle. The point, of course, is that we too often accept social conditioning and fail to ask ourselves what is actually going on. Like the parable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” most of us assume what we’re being told is true even when what we see tells a very different story. Many are so indoctrinated, they never figure out the truth behind the façade; others do, but are afraid to speak out. But Chuang Tzu was different; he understood that this world is not our Reality. He called that Reality the Tao and he was determined to have only what was real.
Chuang Tzu was not afraid to point out the difference between what is real and what is not. To society, the live turtle appeared useless and Chuang Tzu appeared foolish, but he knew, “By and by comes the great awakening, and then we shall find out that life itself is a great dream.” He knew that that those who believed the world were real couldn’t understand him, but he said, “The stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things—how dense!” Instead of believing in the illusion of separated forms, Chuang Tzu taught, “ All things become one, whatever their state of being. Only he who has transcended sees this oneness.” He knew that what the world considered useful was as hollow as the gold and jewel encrusted shell of a dead turtle, a fact that even three thousand years of veneration could not change.
As a preamble to the next story, Chuang Tzu tells us, “The straight tree is the first to be cut down, the spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.” In other words, if we are useful to the world, the world will use us up. The problem lies in the exchange, but few realize exactly what they’re giving up. We can live lifetime after lifetime pursuing power, fame and fortune, and we may enjoy that a great deal, but to do this, we give up our memory of our infinite and eternal Self. Now you can see why Chuang Tzu said, “Achievement is the beginning of failure; fame is the beginning of disgrace.”
Next Chuang Tzu asks us to envision several boats crossing a wide river. Imagine that you are happily floating along in a gentle breeze when another boater bumps into you. Do you feel inclined to shout at the person in the other boat or tell them to watch what they’re doing? Are you thinking about how stupid or negligent they are? Now imagine that same scene again, but this time the boat that bumps into yours is empty. Would that bother you? Or would you merely wonder where the boat came from or how it got loose from the dock? In this case, the river symbolizes our ‘dream life’ in the material world. As long as we’re engaged in this world, we stay in a cycle of birth and death, crossing the river again and again. But we can stop this cycle whenever we want.
Chuang Tzu explains, “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…[You] will flow like Tao, unseen.” This empty boat may appear to be useless, but the empty boat is a symbol of our detachment from the unreal, material dream world. When we’ve let go of our attachment to the material world, the body and the accompanying personality, it appears that the boat is floating aimlessly, but it’s actually taking its last useless voyage. Although it appears to be empty to everyone still attached to the material plane, the boat carries the true Self as it floats on the Tao.
When we become an empty boat, Chuang Tzu said we would go thought life without a ‘name,’ and reputation, without distinction or power and our steps will leave no trace in this world. As far as the world is concerned we will have achieved nothing, we will be considered a nobody, useless to the world. But the thinking of this world is upside down. We will have exchanged the truly useless and valueless for the Self that is infinite and priceless. And as Chuang Tzu said, “Such is the perfect man—his boat is empty.”
Detachment from worldly desires is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you—Imam Ali
To what shall I compare this world? It is like the wake vanishing behind a boat that has rowed away at dawn —Manzei
No one looks back and regrets leaving this world. What’s regretted is how real we thought it was—Rumi