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Zhuang Zi

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 humour. 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 favourites, wonderfully translated by Derek Lin in his book, The Tao of Happiness:

Useful and Useless

One day, Zhuang Zi and his friend Hui Zi were having a discussion about the Dao. At one point, in disagreeing with Zhuang Zi, Hui Zi said: “Suppose I have this big tree called the Shu Tree. Its trunk is all twisted lumps and knotty bumps; its branches are all bent and crooked. It has no straight runs anywhere that can be used as timber, so carpenters and builders pass by without a second look. What you are talking about now is just like that tree – ideas that are big but useless. That’s why people ignore you.”

Sensing the challenge in his friend’s words, Zhuang Zi smiled. “Hui Zi, have you seen the wildcats and foxes? They are certainly not big, and they seem quite useful as they jump this way and that. They may move around with great speed and agility, but then they fall into a trap and die in the hunter’s net. Compare them to the bison, this huge animal with a body that seems as big as a cloud in the sky. It cannot catch mice like cats can, but its strength is far beyond anything smaller creatures can muster.

“This big Shu tree is no different. You consider it useless, but think about what happens when you plant such a tree in an empty field. Everyone will come to enjoy its shade and rest freely under its shelter. As you pointed out, no one will ever chop it down, so it will always be around. It is precisely because it is useless that it will never be harmed. In other words, its uselessness turns out to be its greatest usefulness!”

Derek Lin’s Commentary

The story highlights the difference between the conventional thinking of the typical person and the unconventional thinking of the Dao cultivator. Many people don’t really ‘get’ the Dao because they see only the surface appearance. Those who cultivate the Dao look beyond the superficial for insights that are not immediately apparent.

  1. Spirituality

When this teaching is applied to spirituality, the Shu tree is a apt metaphor for the Dao. It cannot be used in the conventional sense, so people dismiss it as being of no value at all. This parallels the situation in our world, where the Dao is often regarded as not much more than a quaint and exotic notion. People have vague ideas that it has something to do with Buddhism and meditation, but what is it exactly? Can I use it when I go to church on Sundays? Will it make me look more pious to my peers? If not, then this so-called Dao is useless to me, and I am not interested.

Zhuang Zi does not necessarily see the lack of popularity as a disadvantage. If no one wants to use the tree in the conventional sense, then that also means no one will come around to disturb the peace. This is why it does not matter to Dao cultivators that their way of life is not as well known as mainstream religions. The lack of popularity can be a good thing in that no one will use the Dao as their justification for extremism. No wars will be waged over the Dao, no acts of violence or oppression will be carried out in its name.

This does not imply any sort of weakness in the Dao. Dao cultivators are like the Bison. They do not engage in frantic activities like wildcats and foxes. They have no missionary zeal that drives them to proselytize everywhere. They are content to be connected to the power of the Dao without trying to show it off to anyone. Theirs is a quiet strength beyond the understanding of a conventional mind.

2.   Society

When this teaching is applied to society, it gives rears to ‘planting trees’ as a recurring theme in Chinese culture. It means creating something worthwhile that withstands the test of time and brings great benefit to all. The tree may begin as a sapling, but in time it grows big enough for many people. It not only provides comfort and protection under its shade but also becomes a focal point for a community. People meet at the tree to converse, make plans, or just hang out and enjoy one another’s company.

Dao cultivators are inspired by this idea to plant trees of their own. This can happen in many different aspects of life and may not involve actual trees or any plants at all. It can be anything, from building a library to promote literacy, to paving a road to ease transportation, to living a life with total integrity to serve as an example for others. Whenever Dao cultivators see an empty field – an aspect of life that can benefit from the Dao – they think about what they can do to plant the seed.

This is the perfect story to reference when people question your personal path. They may not understand you, and the Dao may seem rather useless to them, but that is only to be expected. Its seeming uselessness, like the Shu tree, is the secret that hides its true usefulness.

3.   Humanity

When this teaching is applied to us, it tells us that no one is truly useless. The Shu tree is like the quiet kids, the loners who cannot hope to compete with the popular kids who are cool or good looking or athletic and therefore ‘useful’ for everything from sports to social activities. The misfits are the ones that get picked on, laughed at, excluded, and ignored, since they are completely ‘useless’ for anything.

Zhuang Zi points out that the truth is more than meets the eyes. These kids learn to deal with setbacks and solitude. They develop their internal resources. They come up with better plans for the future. Before you know it, the ugly ducking has become the beautiful swan; the class geek has become classy and chic; the nerd has become the celebrated inventor or entrepreneur. The ‘useless’ tree turns out to be quite useful indeed, and the misfits have grown up to be distinguished individuals.

Do you see the Shu tree in someone? If so, then treat that person with kindness and respect. Be different from the ignorant ones who taunt or bully or play cruel jokes. Be the friend that no one wants to be. In time, you will see how right you are in following the Dao, and in nurturing the hidden greatness of others.

Do you see the Shu tree in yourself? If so, then take it from Zhuang Zi that you are not as useless as the mundane world would have you believe. A grand destiny like the flight of the Peng bird is not reserved for the jock or the class president or the prom queen alone. It is meant for you.

The greatest Shu tree of all is the one in your heart, where your spirit can rest under its shade. It is the source of your ideas to make the world a better place and the wellspring of your compassion for all fellow human beings. It is also the driving force for your spiritual quest – a pursuit that many would say is useless. Their opinions do not matter to you, for you alone know the truth. The ‘useless’ Dao is a power far beyond anything small minds can imagine… and you are just beginning to explore the infinite ways it can be used.

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

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.