If you want to be a good boatman, don’t worry about controlling the boat

The art of control is to give up control.

In the fable of Chuang Tzu, a disciple of Confucius meets the master boatman who is known for his dexterity of boating. Curiously he asks, “How marvellous!  Can anyone learn how to handle a boat like the ways you do?”

“Certainly,” says the master boatman. “But remember!  If you want to be a good boatman, don’t worry about controlling the boat.”

“Not worry about controlling the boat?” the disciple was taken aback. “If you don’t control the boat, how can you handle it?”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about the boat, just make sure that you can swim — and you can control the boat!”  Says the boatman. 

“If a man can swim underwater, he’d know how to handle a boat when he’s given one!  He can get the knack of handling the boat and become a good boatman in no time.”

Puzzled at what the master boatman says, the disciple beseeches Confucius’ advice.

“A good swimmer will in no time get the knack of boating, that means he’s forgotten the water,” says Confucius.  “If a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it.  This is because he sees the water as so much dry land, and the capsizing of a boat the overturning of a cart on land.”

“The ten thousand things may all be capsizing and backsliding at the same time right before him, and nothing can get at him and affect what’s inside him.  So where could he go and not be at ease?” adds the sage.

This is how the best performer renders his best. 

He has laid the ground for the performance and when it’s time for him to put in his best, he doesn’t have to worry about putting in his best.

He’s like the swimmer who worries not the water when boating. 

When he’s performing, he’s not in the art of performing.  He’s in the art of wu wei as taught by Lao Tzu.  He’s directed not by his desire, but the flow of Tao.  By letting go of his attachment, he performs without performing.  

He is at his best by being effortless.  What if he turns his focus on performing?

It turns his performance into execution, taking the sparks of excellence and ease out of the rendition.

He can’t perform because he’s performing!

Picture credit:  Painting by Master Fu Baoshi

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One Comment

  1. The best boatman is one who doesn’t care if he is the best or the worst. The key here is not being aware of your quality as boatman. To be a boatman was not the goal of the boatman. So much less to be a best boatman. And finally a good boatman is not a good boatman. These thoughts are the root of the quoted Chuang-tzu’s abstract above. They are inspired by Lao-tzu’s Tao-te ching. Hope it helps.

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