‘If a person is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with their own boat, they won’t get offended or angry. But if the boat is occupied by someone, they will flare up, shouting and cursing, because there’s a person in the other boat. If you realize that all boats are empty as you cross the river of life, nothing will offend you.’ – Zhuangzhi (Chuang-tzu)

When I read this quote from Zhuangzi, I thought, yeah, sounds good, how do I do it? I remembered times when I stubbed my toe on the leg of a chair or the foot of a bed and though there was nobody “riding in that boat”, I cursed pretty well. I suppose Zhuangzi would say that a boat I was riding in had bumped into the boat I was riding in.

That’s where I find Taoism and Chan/Zen part ways. Zhuangzi doesn’t tell me how to empty my boat, though poetic, the image of being bumped into by an empty boat alone doesn’t help me change the way I respond to being negatively impacted by the world around me. Koan practice generates opportunities for me to notice what’s in my boat and what’s in the boat that’s bumped into me.

It is in engaging the question of how do I empty the boat that I am riding in, without jumping out of the boat myself, that leads to transformation. Engaging that question, not in an intellectual or conceptual way, but finding an embodied response in my life, here in this moment is the crucible of change.


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