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The Buddhist concept of “empty boats”
There is a Zen story about a man who repaints his boat. Once it’s done, he’s so pleased with how it looks that he decides to take it out on the lake, even though it’s a foggy day. As he steers through the fog, another boat slams into his, damaging the new paint job.
The man is furious. Why the hell didn’t the person in the other boat pay attention and watch where he was going? The man turns to yell at the person in the other boat, and finds that there is no other person. It’s just an empty boat, drifting on the lake.
If a man is crossing the river and an empty boat collides with his skiff, even though he is a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the other boat he will scream and shout and curse at the man to steer clear. If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you. Thus is the perfect man – his boat is empty. ~ Chuang-Tzu
The other boat is always empty, even when there’s someone steering it. There is never anyone to get angry with. Even if the person steering the other boat deliberately rammed our boat, his behavior had nothing to do with us. Anything anyone else does is done for their own reasons, and much of the time they don’t even know the reasons. When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we see that every time we look for an enemy, someone to hate, someone to blame, there’s never anyone there. Just an empty boat on a foggy lake.
Like meditation, responding with an “empty boat” mindset is a practice. It’s an interesting concept, and useful as a model for living a peaceful life.
The teaching behind this story is, that empty boats are everywhere.
The lying, cheating business associate that beat you in a deal, the ex-wife with the bull-dog attorney, the driver who cuts you off in traffic – they’re all empty boats. With the proper, Buddhist state of mind, you will be able to view all these distractions with a detached sense of equanimity and be able to choose to respond from an empathetic, aware place – as opposed to an immediate angry response.
Not easy to do, but useful. Acting from an aware, empathetic place gives you space to choose your response. This is much more effective than just reacting. The phrase, “she/he made me mad,” for example becomes a complete non-starter. Nobody can make you anything. You get to choose your response, and it helps to put a little space between the thing you’re responding to and your response.