Monday, June 21, 2021

Taoist Tale: A Bowl of Rice

This is a story from ancient China. Once upon a time, there was a Taoist master who was known for his uncanny ability to solve tricky problems for people. Two young men, who worked together at a certain company, decided to go and see him as they both had a question in their hearts that  they just couldn’t figure out by themselves.

A bowl of wisdom

Once inside the master’s dwelling place, one of the young men said: “Teacher, our problems are alike. We are both employees of the same firm, and we are both being treated badly at work. Please tell us whether we should resign from our jobs.”

The wise man closed his eyes. Then he meditated for a while. The two men waited calmly until finally, he opened his eyes, and said his answer in just five words: “Only a bowl of rice.”

After thanking the sage, they left. They pondered on the words of the sage as they walked back to the city. After a while, one of them said: “What do you think the teacher meant?” A little while later, the other one said: “Well, it’s quite apparent that the bowl of rice signifies our daily meals.”

“I agree,” said the first man. “I think he was telling us that our jobs are nothing more than a means to an end.” The other one said: “I agree, the truth of the matter is, that’s what we get for our work; our daily meals.” Satisfied with the answer they received from the teacher, they went back to their workplace.

He learned about importing high-quality seeds from his previous firm and achieved success. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)
He learned about importing high-quality seeds from his previous firm and achieved success. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Consequently, one of them stayed with the firm, while the other resigned. He left the city for the countryside where he learned to farm. After working hard for a number of years, he became a successful farmer. He learned about importing high-quality seeds from his previous firm and achieved success. His fruits and vegetables were known to be the best in the region.

The one who remained at the company also did quite well. He became a changed man. He took on difficult assignments and demonstrated great forbearance in handling conflicts. He went from strength to strength and was promoted to a managerial position.

A difference in perception

One day, the men bumped into each other again. They recognized that their paths were very different from each other’s, but their decisions were based on the same answer the teacher had given. They both were successful, so they began to ponder on which of their paths were more correct.

“Why did you quit?” asked the manager. “Isn’t it obvious?” the farmer replied. “I accepted his words instantly. My job was to work for my daily meals, so why push myself to stay in a situation I didn’t want to be in, for just a bowl of rice? Leaving was for me the right thing to do.” He then asked his friend why he stayed back.

The farmer did well according to what he understood. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)
The farmer did well according to what he understood. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The manager smiled and said: “I also think it’s clear; a job is just a job and it’s no more than a bowl of rice, so why was I getting so anxious about it? I understood there was no need for me to get so anxious. I did not have to take work-related conflicts personally, So I stayed on. Didn’t the teacher mean it that way?”

“Now, I am completely puzzled,” the farmer said. “Which path did the teacher say we should take, yours or mine? Let’s go see him again to get some clarity.”

Off they went to see the teacher again. They explained why they were there. Again the teacher closed his eyes and meditated. The two men waited calmly as before. After a while, the teacher opened his eyes. He said his answer, again in just five words: “Only a difference of thought.”

The Tao

It seems like the teacher gave them a rather peculiar answer. Why didn’t he specify which one was the right path? The two men took two different paths yet both achieved success. Could it be that the sage was giving them a hint? The truth is, nature has no agenda, and the Tao allows things to happen naturally.

Just like the rivers that surge over the land toward the sea, in a similar way, our lives can also be compared to the rivers that naturally yearn to flow back to the source. Even though our paths appear to have little in common, they can nevertheless lead us toward the same destination, that is, the origin.

Following the course of nature makes one invincible. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)
Following the course of nature makes one invincible. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Was the teacher saying that one way is more correct than the other? The Way, according to ancient Taoists, is as impartial and sublime as nature and does not look at the specifics of your way.

One small difference in thought can make a huge difference in the outcome. Both men in the story made the right decision, and they were blessed with good fortune. However, it does not automatically mean all paths are equally correct.

Although we can take many different roads toward the same destination, there are just as many roads that can take us further away from the goal.

Taoists believe in letting things unfold naturally. An impulse results in an idea that then proceeds to form a thought, eventually manifesting as an action. From this action, virtue or karma, depending on the outcome, is gained. This is why cultivating tranquility of mind is so crucial in life.

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Emma Lu
Emma Lu is an author who specializes in Cultural and Historical myths and stories.
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