Parable of the Chinese Farmer

Parable of the Chinese Farmer

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

Alan Watts telling the parable

What is good arises with the bad. What is bad arises with the good. There is no in without an out or an up without a down.

Each depends upon the other, follows the other, is within the other, changing from extreme to extreme, and from nuance to nuance, in an intricate web.

Life is a changing process with no definite end. Things happen to people and then people judge those events as right or wrong, good or bad. They make divisions in the world of symbols and act as if those divisions are true. Separating the whole into an innumerable number of parts and clinging to specific parts, while denying the rest of life.

It is easy to make judgements about life. When something unpleasant happens, a person claims that it is terrible, clinging to an idea of terribleness. When something appears to be good, then someone will claim it as good and cling to an idea of good, but will suffer when it goes away.

Those who are wise are not attached to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, ugliness and beauty. They patiently watch without judgement, aware of change, and open to what may come. They are not as fixed on conclusions about the answer in life, but rather, live in the mystery. They listen in stillness, not overflowing with opinions about how something appears, or should be, or what they believe about it. Mindfully, they accept what is arising and passing. They do not hide from their fear or anxiety or uncertainty. They flow with what comes, not stuck to their thoughts, open to unfolding nuances.

Tao: The Watercourse Way

without an inside,
there is no outside,
by taking away evil,
there is no good,
without black,
there is no white,
without joy
there is no suffering,
there is no before
without an after,
no feminine
without masculine,
ugliness without
life without death:
both are inseparable
like poles on a magnet

everything relates to everything
and then returns back to itself,
from one to two to three to
the ten thousand things,
one is not one without
the ten thousand things

when there are
no opinions,
no purpose,
no action,
things come and go
of themselves

when there is mystery
in what cannot be named,
to name it is to not know it,
to know it is not to talk of it

people take care of themselves
when they are not forced,
snow cracks the most rigid pines
while the willow yields and bends

a great warrior doesn’t need to fight
even though a weapon is available

the most powerful ruler is not free
but is burdened with worry, fear, isolation

the truly powerful have
no ambition, no status,
they do not hold themselves above anyone,
they do not praise or blame,
they act by not acting,
they do not force others,
and everything is still accomplished

the wise ones behave righteously
with no thought of good and bad,
they decide on what to do and do
but do not preach to others

when striving for peace,
there will be war,
when seeking pleasure,
there will be suffering,
when there is youth,
there will be old age,
when there is health,
there will be sickness,
from trying to control,
there is a lack of control

there are transformations
along the path of life to death:
not minding what comes or goes,
there is joy in every change

to desire or strain not to desire,
one is still in the Tao,
not a part of it, but It

let the mind alone
and it will harmonize,
force the mind
and it will resist

We Are Not Alone

“Whenever we throw something away, whether in the garbage can, the compost, or the recycling, it can smell terrible. Rotting organic matter smells especially badly. But it can also become rich compost for fertilizing the garden. The fragrant rose and the stinking garbage are two sides of the same existence. Without one, the other cannot be. Everything becomes a part of the garbage. After six months, the garbage is transformed into a rose. When we speak of impermanence, we understand that everything is in transformation. This becomes that, and that becomes this.

Looking deeply, we can contemplate one thing and see everything else in it. We are not disturbed by change when we see the interconnectedness and continuity of all things. It is not that the life of an individual is permanent, but that life itself continues. When we identify ourselves with life and go beyond the boundaries of a separate identity, we shall be able to see the permanence in the impermanent, or the rose in the garbage.”

Thich Nhat Hanh


In a universe of many things, there is interconnection.

From the many, there is one.

Out of one, there are many.

We may organize our life into categories and feel as though we exist apart from everything else, but we do not. We may use our language to conceptualize, categorize, and systematize all of this existence into differences, but fundamentally, everything is in relation to everything else. There is no true separation.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said, “The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth. The named is the mother of the ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.”

Our lives are dependent on the lives of others—not merely on our fellow human beings, but on the network of plants and trees, on the fish in the water and the birds in the wind. Without clouds, there would be no rain. Without the sun, there would be no flowers blooming. Without one, there would not be the other.

We are not alone.

We depend on the conditions of the world so that we can be. This world mutually rises and falls. It changes like water that flows through rocks. We may try to cling to a rock, struggling in our sweat, bleeding and grasping to security, or we can let go.


In our lives, are we balanced? Our intentions, thoughts and actions, should harmonize with inner and outer nature. We are in this fleeting, changing river. We are this fleeting changing river. All things are dualities, such as light and dark, female and male, life and death. Rather than clinging to one side or another, which causes great suffering, we must discover what lies beyond our conceptualizations.

Beyond the categories of right and wrong, we can discover an inner stillness.

As Chaung Tzu said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”

We are often blocked and cannot see the world clearly. Our past experiences, judgements, opinions, reduce us. We then perceive though a filter of symbols, experiences, preferences, unable to feel this moment. How can we solve the conflicts of humanity if we cannot move past our own biases, fears, prejudices, and judgements?

In Zen in the Age of Anxiety, Tim Burkett said that we often see each other through our past experiences and expectations. Instead of actually perceiving a person for who they are, we are trapped in thoughts about that person. Our thoughts, rather than helping us see clearly, conceal who that person is. Others are placed in certain roles and are judged for who they appear to be, rather than seen as a changing process. Resentment, anger and fear, likewise, cloud our minds. Consumed with such states, we can’t honestly see the goodness in each other.


It is common to look to higher authorities to tell us what to do. We seek the guru, teacher, self-help book, scientist, politician, writer, and follow their advice. Meanwhile we deny our own perceptions, feelings, thoughts, merely following someone who will tell us what to do, how to think, how to live. Don’t become hypnotized with authority. Many charismatic people convince us to neglect our own minds. We can get caught up in their enthusiasm and clever rhetoric. Whenever we deny our own processes, we are not being intelligent.

Instead of relying on ourselves, we memorize the work of others. In them, as Emerson said, “We recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Intelligence is not about following others or about indulging in our own prejudices. It isn’t about adhering to an abstraction of the good life or finding an absolute answer for everything. Genuine intelligence comes from not rejecting our own souls. We must never stop questioning, doubting, investigating. We need to be mindful of life, sensitive to our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.

Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun and author, said “To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. ” When we are not able to clearly look within ourselves, when we are not brave enough to confront our own confusion or pain, when we harden our hearts, we will cause ourselves and others suffering. We cannot live in this world without a gentle awareness of who we are. Our ignorance will be our downfall. We need to be mindful of our own darkness, compassionate toward ourselves and others.

Furthermore, as Chodron said, “feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”

There is no absolute method to find the truth of our lives. We come into self-knowledge through our sensitivity to what changes. Sometimes we are afraid because, deep inside ourselves, we will find no solid answers to our pain, our sorrow, our confusion. There is an uncertainty, a groundlessness, which we are aware of. It is easy to hide, to run, to ignore that uncertain feeling. Most of our patterns in life stem from our fear of not knowing.

Our thoughts alone are limited. We live with a notion of Self—conditioned from experiences, memories, books we have read, teachers we have listened to, commands from our parents, instructions in schools, and so on. Death threatens our notion of Self—an ending to all our memories, to all the conditions that make up our permanent, isolated egos—and we tremble before our own annihilation. We seek security to hide, to not confront our fear. To be free is to be mindful of our fear and hate, desire and resistance, likes and dislikes. In silent awareness, we do not have to believe in anything. We do not have to belong to any group or religion or philosophy. We are not apart from everything else, floating down the river.

We are the river.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “That silence has never been touched by thought, and only then that for which man has searched from time immemorial, something sacred, something nameless, supreme, comes. It is only that mind that is so utterly free from all the travails of life; it is only such a mind that can find the supreme. That means meditation, which is the expression of daily activity.”

When mind understands its movement, its thoughts and feelings, there is no judgement. There is no condemnation. From riding in a bus down a country road to sitting in a yogic pose, from hiking in the wilderness to laying to sleep, every moment is a practice of self-awareness. Life then isn’t merely the abstraction of what is good. It is the sight of our lover’s face, filled with light over their lips and the shadows in their hair. It is the unity of the breath with the birds singing, the plane humming over a mountain top, the leaves curling over grass.

There’s no longer a fragmentation of life, only a transforming world.