The concept of “empty boats” in Zen teachings comes from a story originally told by Chinese philosopher Chuang Zhu and it has much to offer us as a frame for living with emotional balance and equanimity.
As the story goes, a man has freshly painted his boat. He is so pleased with how it looks he decides to take in out on the lake despite it being a foggy day. As he’s rowing along, another boat slams into his and chips the paint of his boat. The man is furious! “Pay attention to where you’re going, you idiot!” he yells angrily but, as he gets nearer, the man realizes there is no one there; it is just an empty boat drifting on the lake.
What happens to the anger, when we see that the rowboat is empty and discover the accident was caused by the wind? The angry and harsh words are likely to dissolve like salt in water and our thoughts change to, “oh well, I guess I’ll have to do a few touch-ups on the boat this afternoon.”
The first time I heard this story I was on a silent retreat at the Spirit Rock meditation centre near Sant Francisco. It made a significant impression on me and has served me ever since.
What if we could respond as though everything in life were an empty boat? Isn’t the “other boat” always empty, even when there is someone steering it? Is there ever really anyone to be angry with, even if the person rowing the boat deliberately rammed into your boat? The person’s behaviour is no different than the wind—it has nothing to do with you. People’s behaviour is a function of their own conditioning and reasons and not about you. Chances are, the person doesn’t even know what those reasons are.
When we can see and experience life as it is, as the unfolding of conditions rather than our thoughts about them, it takes away the need to blame or hate anyone.
Empty boats surround us every day: the driver who cut you off in traffic this morning, the harsh comment from your boss or family member, the impatient and rude treatment from a service provider.
Statements like “he pissed me off” or “she made me so angry” don’t hold water anymore; no one can make us do anything because we get to choose our response. This doesn’t mean we are oblivious to injustice or passive about it—we can stand up for ourselves—but we can do so without reacting out of anger or hatred because this creates more anger and hatred as well as stress and suffering for both ourselves and others.
When you look carefully, you will see that empty boats are everywhere, and that responding with an “empty boat” frame of mind is a worthwhile practice for living peacefully.