Two Boats, Three Stories- A Taoist Perspective

Imagine that you’re on your boat spending an idyllic afternoon on a favorite lake. The weather is calm and  perfectly clear.  Suddenly you see another boat bearing down on you, headed for a collision.  You sound a warning but to no avail.  The boat broadsides you.  How do you feel?  What do you say to the pilot of the offending vessel?

Now, imagine exactly the same time of day, the circumstances are the same, except that now there is a thick pea soup fog.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  Again you are broadsided  Are you as angry as you were when it was perfectly clear?  Now, once again imagine, the same place and time, and again in a thick fog, and once again you are broadsided.  This time you discover that there is no one on the other boat.  Now, how do you feel about the situation?

The Taoist  Chuang Tzu posed this scenario…… years ago. But it could not be more contemporary.  Hardly a day goes by when there is not an opportunity to reflect on this tale. From the most insignificant sleight, to the most egregious acts, it is worth asking if the mental weather is clear and calm, or foggy and clouded.  We joke about other people not playing with ‘full decks’ but if truth be told much(most?) of our actions and reactions arise in less than the equivalent of a calm and cloudless day.  Knowing that, might we be a little more understanding, sympathetic, helpful and forgiving?  Perhaps until we can really tame our egos, it might be best to consider than many of the ‘collisions’ we experience are the result of fog and the absence of truly accomplished pilot.  Everybody complains about the weather.  Maybe we should try and do something about it.
My guess is that most of us will have a chance to reflect on this timeless tale quicker than we can say, “ Hey buddy, what the hell are you doing?”

Onward through the fog!



  1. Wonderful story, Bob. Thank you for sharing another reminder that we all benefit by honing our piloting skills in preparation for any kind of weather and circumstance. Learning to create context is certainly an invaluable life “piloting” skill.

    The parable calls to mind the story of Captain Sully’s Delaware River landing…we all have that capacity for a presence of mind.

    Thanks too for reigniting the conversation.

  2. Thanks, Bob!
    I love these Tao stories (and the Zens as well). The concentrated wisdom, often the humour which puts things in perspective. And the thoughts they inspire.

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