There is a story in Zhuangzi (a Taoist book named after Zhuangzi, a 4th century BCE Chinese philosopher) that goes something like this…
A master carpenter Shi and his apprentice are walking through the woods in search of a good tree. The apprentice sees a great big old oak tree and asks his master why he walked past it paying it no attention. “Oh, enough with that,” the Master exclaims, “don’t even talk about this one!” The Master Carpenter then explains: “This tree… it’s so bad that if you made a boat, it’d sink; and if you made a coffin, it’d rot; and if you made a roof, it’d leak… This tree is good for nothing and it’s exactly because it’s so useless and worthless that it’s been standing here so long…”
Are the Master and the Apprentice looking at the same tree? Not likely.
It’d seem that this parable is about stereotypes. The Master is right: the tree he is describing used to be no good, after all, he has seen it so many times while in these woods, looking for a good tree to work with. With time, the Master has come to ignore the tree — and, ignored, the tree has been spared to grow into a great big tree that the Apprentice is noticing. The Apprentice — free from the perceptual stereotype – is seeing the tree for what it is…
But what is the Master actually seeing?
The Master is seeing his own thought: the stereotype of the tree is super-imposed onto the actual tree. The Master has projected a thought of an ugly, good-for-nothing tree onto an actual tree. And, instead of seeing the actual tree, he is staring at his own thought as if he was staring at a tree, unaware of the difference.
Mindfulness (meditation) is when you see a thought as a thought without confusing a thought of a tree with an actual tree.
This parable, as I interpret it, is not about the tree but about the so-called Self. Here, in the West, we are used to thinking that we have a Self. In the East, in Buddhism and Taoism, Self is seen as an illusion.
When we think of a Self, we think of a thought that somehow summarizes and encapsulates our essence. But that is, of course, nothing but a stereotype. Like a tree, we constantly grow and change. And any self-defining, thought-long description of our Being inevitably reduces and over-simplifies our nuanced complexity.
What are we referring to when we are referring to our “Selves?” Are we looking at what is or are we “seeing” our own projections of what once was?
As the Master Carpenter who looks at his own thought thinking that he is looking at a tree, you may look at your Self and judge it as “good for nothing,” “useless,” “worthless.” Yes, these are familiar paths of self-deprecation that we have treaded in the woods of our minds so many times that these paths now tread us…
But, hold it: take a look at this thought about your Self, look past it, look through it: perhaps, beyond this perceptual veneer of a stereotype that you have of you, the actual you have changed…
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011