“How much ‘ego’ do you need? Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.”
“Whatever happens in your life, joyful or painful, do not be swept away by reactivity. Be patient with yourself and don’t lose your sense of perspective.”
~ Pema Chodron
“Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I was cleaning out my oversized bag, getting ready for my trip across country. As I discarded old receipts and empty stevia packets, I found a note to myself that said, “write about loving without the judgment, the non-self—the empty boat.” I was delighted to remember the story of the empty boat and decided to take my own suggestion and write about these three things. To begin, I must write about the story first. I loved this story the first time I heard it in one of Jack Kornfield’s dharma talks. It is also included in a book by Tibetan nun, Pema Chodron. Searching a bit more on the internet, I found that that the seed of this story originally came from the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, who lived in the 4oo BCE.
The story goes that a fisherman is out in the early morning on the river. As the sun comes up, he sees another boat further down the river. As the boat approaches, the fisherman can see it is steering directly towards his boat. He shouts a warning as the boat gets nearer. The boat continues to come closer. Again, this time with anger, he yells to steer the boat away from his. The approaching boat doesn’t turn, and the fisherman watches embroiled in rage, as the boat crashes into the side of his vessel. Screaming curses, he glares into the interior of the immobile boat. There is no one in it. All his rage and judgment vanish at the sight of the empty boat.
When I heard this story, I wanted to carry it with me in my pocket to remember that the acts I imbue with vicious intent, all the wrongs done to me, are really mistaken perception. I wanted to see the empty boat in the moments when I was on hold with my health insurance being transferred to a specialist for the third time and when the kids didn’t clean up after making late night macaroni and cheese. I wanted to know the impersonal nature of life and remember that these actions are not done “to me” when I was disappointed that I didn’t get the email, or the acknowledgment I was longing for. The empty boat lets us experience the spaciousness of non-self and just as the fisherman’s blame and judgment evaporated seeing the lack of malice, so may we become empty of our righteous rush to condemn.
Chuang Tzu spoke about this as a protection, “If a man could succeed in making himself empty, and in that way wander through the world, then who could do him harm?” This way of seeing brings us the willingness to stop the dance of victim and perpetrator. There is a paradox that comes about when we empty ourselves of our desire to punish and blame, we become harmless to others—and as a result, we lose our fear of others.
When we can look at our lives with the reminder of non-harming and blamelessness, we can touch into the joyful aspect of not being a small self. And recognize that we are more than the trembling ego who reacts with temper tantrums when we don’t get our way, or when we are not considered. The idea of the empty boat releases the other person from the weight of our judgment and frees us both. Practicing emptying our boat, we can begin to see that our desire not to harm is rooted in integrity and caring. This is the love that we hoard and ration out to those who are worthy—the select few who agree to our rules of conduct, don’t irritate us, or cause problems.
There is a phrase in Buddhism, The Bliss of Blamelessness. This is the joy that comes from following our precepts and mindfulness trainings. Living in accord with our highest and best desires, we can rejoice that we are living lives dedicated to caring for living beings, generosity, kind and wise speech, sexual responsibility, and compassionate consumption.
When we live with an empty boat, it doesn’t stay empty for long. It naturally fills with concern for the quality of our consciousness and care for others. Our vessel becomes greater as we jettison our righteousness, our pride, and blame. We make room for what comes next—the love that values the purity of our own hearts and our own peace above the need to be right. Once we experience the spacious happiness of non-fear and are free from the confines of condemning and punishing, our boat has no room for war.
May we all trust our light,
B. Watson, trans. (1964, 1999). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York, NY: Columbia University Press