can you empty your own boat?

When it comes to judging someone I like to jump in with jackboots on: the mist of I, me, mine heats up the lens of my perception.  Then I came across the Zen poem about the empty boat, and it got me thinking: do we ever consider the myriad set of reasons, experiences and conditionings that are the story of someone else’s life? Do we consider how the accumulation of those influences might have an impact upon that person’s every single action, thought and word?

It’s funny how we choose to live a life with someone based on the fact (or the feeling of the fact) that we share the same sympathies, relate to the same ideas, have the same interests, similar humour, values, ethics, and so on. Then, at the drop of the proverbial hat, we feel disappointment and resentment towards them. The person we thought we knew turns out to be someone we didn’t know at all. They seem changed. And something seems lost.

But the reality is, we can never really come close to truly understanding that person, no matter how close our relationship is to them. We don’t even understand ourselves, so how can we expect to understand others? 

But still we judge.

So why not use this truth? The truth of not knowing. To reframe? Might it not be wiser, healthier, more compassionate, to seek to accept a person for who they are, who they have been, who they are becoming? To just accept? Just rest in awareness of acceptance? Just know that the space of acceptance might free things up to make better decisions? Have different conversations?

Here’s the extract from the poem:

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing. 

And all because there is somebody in the boat.

Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

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.



Here are some questions: how is it that such a bad-tempered man can suddenly attune himself with equanimity at the sight of the empty boat? What can I learn from this? How can I bring equanimity into my own relationships, whether they be close, professional, or neutral ones? How do I go about emptying my own boat?


I guess it's a parable about the ignorance of jumping to conclusions, jackboots or not. Even a bad-tempered man has it within him to accept the truth. In this case, the truth of the myriad set of circumstances that might have led to his collision with an empty boat. He knows deep in his heart that there are countless reasons. Avoid the temptation to be quick to judge. Consider instead the multiplicity of unknowns that may have led to the loose moorings of the empty boat. 

You’ll probably find that it is just not within your heart to make a judgement when you reason in this way.

Perhaps picture the next stage too: safely guiding the boat to harbour. Work on accepting the next person who collides with you. Maybe they lost their moorings? 

Next lesson: accept the fact that you have anger in you, but that you have equanimity within in you too. In fact equanimity is maybe deeper within you than your conditioned, bad-tempered and reactive self.

The bad tempered man has no choice but to accept, once he sees the boat as a boat. He knows there could be numerous reasons for the collision, all of which were beyond the control of both himself and the boat. That level of compassionate reasoning is inside his being. So why not use that reasoning when discovering that there is someone inside the boat? Why not seek the reasons that are beyond the control of that person? Why not just see a human as a human?

The next time you feel you are about to collide with someone, perhaps bring to mind the image of an empty boat.

Whatever happens with them happens. Seek to understand rather seeking to view them through the distorted lens of your own values and judgement. Don’t ask how the boat got there or how it collided with your own boat. Instead, seek to guide it to a safer harbour.

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