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As many of you know, I love the stories from Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humor. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.

Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.

This is another one of my favorites, wonderfully translated by Derek Lin in his book, The Tao of Happiness:

Secret Formula

Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a family in the Song Kingdom known for being in the cloth-bleaching business for many generations. Every day, the family workers soaked textiles in the a special bleaching solution and then took them into the river to let the flowing currents wash away the bleach. Old clothes and bedsheets ended up looking as good as new. 

When winter came around, most businesses that depended on the the river would close for the season. The weather would get so cold and dry that wading into the river would cause the skin to split into painful cracks, thus making work impossible. This family was the exception to the rule, because they had a special ointment to protect their hands. The ointment was made from a secret formula passed down through the generations, and it allowed them to work through wintertime. 

One day a traveler who had heard about the ointment came to visit the family. He offered to buy the secret formula for a hundred gold pieces. The head of the family was amazed at this offer. Normally, it would take him decades to save up that much money. 

He discussed with family members: “We’ve been working in this cloth-bleaching business for generations, and we barely make ends meet. Now we only need to sell the formula and we’ll get a hundred gold pieces. Surely, it cannot get any better than this!” He looked around the room and saw that everyone was nodding in agreement. It was a deal. 

The transaction took place. The money changed hands; the cloth bleacher brought out the secret formula and made a careful copy. The traveler went on his way, and life returned to normal for the family. 

The traveler went to the palace of King Wu and sought an audience. In the royal chambers, he presented his secret formula and explained how to produce massive quantities for the king’s army. King Wu had been at war with the neighboring Yue Kingdom for many years but could never gain the upper hand. Now, with his entire army using the ointment, he launched the first winter offensive ever in the history of the two kingdoms. 

The armies clashed over the bordering river. The ointment worked as expected and protected Wu soldiers, while Yue soldiers lacked this protection and were fully exposed to the elements. After only a few days, many Yue soldiers developed such painful cracks that they could not even hold their weapons. Soon, King Wu decimated the Yue army and unified the two territories under his rule. 

In gratitude to the traveler who played such a pivotal role in his history, King Wu granted him a large estate and made him a noble. As the traveler settled into his new, privileged life, he reflected on the path that took him there. Endless wealth was his, acquired with the secret formula for only a hundred gold pieces. Surely, he thought, it could not get any better than this! 

Derek Lin’s Commentary

In this story, the ointment represents the Dao. Just as the secret formula was passed down from generation to generation, so too are the teachings of the Dao. Today, many people are still not aware of these teachings, so a genuine tradition of the Dao remains something of a well-kept secret in the modern world. 

As the story shows, the ointment can be used in different ways, but no matter how it is used, its formula is the same. The Dao is similar in that it can also be used in different ways, but no matter how you use it, it is still the Dao. The dramatic difference in results is created by the person using it. 

Some people regard the Dao as a philosophical pastime or an academic pursuit. Using the Dao this way is like using the ointment for cloth-bleaching. There is nothing wrong with it, but there is definitely a lot of untapped potential in this scenario. The better way to use the Dao is to go beyond intellectuality and apply it as a way of life. This is like the travelers way of using the ointment – much more powerful than the way of the cloth-bleacher. 

The king or emperor in a Dao story is usually a reference to you. The absolute power that such a ruler wields is a reference to the absolute power you possess over yourself. Thus, the traveler’s advice for King Wu is in fact Zhuang Zi’s instruction for you. In that advice, he presented the ointment to King Wu, just as Zhuang Zi reveals the Dao to you through this story. 

The Yue Kingdom, the long-standing archenemy of King Wu, is like a long-standing problem in your life. It may be a bad habit you want to break, a dead-end job you want to quit, a co-dependent relationship you want to end, or any number of other possibilities. You’ve been stuck with this negative thing in your life, just like King Wu was never able to conquer his enemy. 

The ointment changed everything. Suddenly, King Wu possessed a power he never had before. He only needed to make sure every soldier applied it to his hands. In a similar way, the Dao is like a power you never had before. You only have to make sure it is applied to every aspect of life. 

The overwhelming victory of King Wu represents the miraculous changes you can achieve with the Dao. The problems you previously regarded as impossible, suddenly become easy. Stubborn issues suddenly fall by the wayside. You triumph over your challenges because the Tao has transformed you into a far more effective individual. The challenges haven’t changed, but you have. 

As the traveler settled in to a life of luxury, the cloth-bleacher continued his work, wading into the river each day to make a meager living. He might not be aware of the dramatic changes that had taken place in the state of Yue, and he still could not envision leveraging the ointment for any purpose other than what he knew. 

In the same way, there is a gulf between those who place at being Dao philosophers and those that rigorously apply the Dao to life. Modern-day “cloth-bleachers” are quite secure in their superficial knowledge. Their lives remain stagnant, while those that cultivate the Dao advance towards greater levels of attainment and enjoyment. 

The key is skillful actions. The traveler not only regarded the ointment from a new perspective, but also took action on his insight. He invested a hundred gold pieces and then sought audience with King Wu. Similarly, once King Wu understood how he could win, he prepared his army, planned strategy, and attacked. The element of action was what transformed the Yue Kingdom into Wu Province, and the traveler into a noble. 

Zhuang Zi’s message is clear: When tilling the field, it is not enough to turn it over in your mind. Actual work must be done. This work, in alignment with the Dao, need not involve any kind of strife or struggle. It does not have to be difficult if you, like the traveler, can look at it from the Dao perspective and take skillful action in a creative way. 

Ultimately, the choice is yours: Bleach cloth or become a noble. You are the ruler of your own life. You alone have the power to decide for yourself. You can dabble in the Dao and be satisfied at that level. Or, you can wield its transformational power to resolve problems, overcome obstacles, and accelerate your progress. 

So… how will you use the ointment – your own secret formula of the Dao? 

  ‘The Tao of Happiness‘ has 18 stories from Zhuang Zi with commentary. Derek Lin does an excellent job! Highly recommended!

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To book an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.