Once upon a time in ancient China, the
Emperor was in his study, looking over volumes of diplomatic documents.
He found it hard to concentrate, so he summoned his most trusted
Minister. When the Minister arrived, he saw that the Emperor was pacing
back and forth, looking irritable.
The Emperor said to him: "I wish to
focus on the affairs of the state, but my mind is unsettled and
agitated. When I feel like this, I need something I can look at to help
me regain tranquility. Have the best artist in the land create a painting that has the power to calm me down. I want the theme
of this painting to be 'True Tranquility.'"
command, Your Majesty."
days later, the Minister reported that there were three artists widely
considered to be the best in China. They were equally talented, so he
brought all of them into the palace. Once they understood what the
Emperor wanted, they began to paint.
work was done, the Emperor went into the studio with the Minister to see
for himself. The first painting they looked at depicted a placid lake
surrounded by mountains. It was a beautiful scene; the surface of the
lake seemed perfectly still and conveyed a peaceful feeling. The Emperor
smiled: "This is beautiful."
second painting showed a snowscape. It evoked the silence after a
snowfall, a deep silence that went beyond mere lack of noise, because
the snow banks absorbed all sound. Both the Minister and the Emperor
nodded their approval. "Very insightful," said the Emperor.
looked at the third painting, which featured a waterfall. "I am sorry,
Your Majesty," the Minister said. "It looks like this artist did not
understand my instructions to paint a scene of serenity. Let me discard
this painting, and we can choose from the first two."
He reached for the painting, but the
Emperor stopped him: "No, wait." He stared at it for a moment longer,
and then said: "This is the painting for me."
But - Your Majesty! How can this waterfall compare to the other two in
representing tranquility? I do not understand!"
waterfall is not the most important thing in this painting," said the
Emperor. "Look again."
Minister took another look at the painting, more carefully this time. He
saw that there was a tree next to the waterfall. One of the branches of
the tree held a nest. A bird was sleeping inside that nest.
"See how the bird is able to relax and
rest even though the deafening torrent is so close to it," the Emperor
pointed out. "It has such a profound quietness within that external
conditions have no power to irritate or disturb. Now that is the essence
of True Tranquility!"
can be enjoyed simply as it is, but we can also delve into it deeper, to
explore the layers of meaning embedded in it.
As is the
case with many other Taoist stories, the Emperor represents you. He
needed to process the affairs of the state, just as you must manage the
various aspects of your life. If the Emperor did his work well, he would
become known as a wise and capable ruler of his domain. Similarly, if
you can manage your life smoothly, you become the master of your
needed to quiet his mind in order to concentrate on his work. The same
is true for us. We all know the difficulty of trying to do anything when
our thoughts are scattered in many different directions. We also know
how effective we can be when we have clear focus free of distractions.
Perhaps that is why
more and more people are flocking to silence retreats in recent years.
Some attend such retreats to recharge their spiritual batteries, others
go to get back in touch with themselves. They prove what the ancient
sages already knew: human beings have a tremendous need to have quiet
time alone, to reflect upon life and reconnect with the soul. Thus, the
Emperor's quest for tranquility mirrors our own search for the same
painting represents a superficial kind of tranquility. The lake may seem
calm to the casual observer, but below the surface there may be chaotic
currents. This was not what the Emperor wanted, because the mere
appearance of calmness was not enough, no matter how beautiful it might
apply this to life, the story's message becomes clear. The appearance of
tranquility is something we can create with relative ease. For instance,
we can present a calm facade to others while secretly harboring
anxieties. Perhaps we can be very convincing, and perhaps no one can see
through it, but no matter how good our acting skills may be, deep within
we know the truth. The appearance of tranquility becomes a way to
disguise our inner turmoil.
we can build a soundproof room and create a perfectly organized work
environment in it. At first glance, it may seem as if we have achieved
the goal of serenity, but all we really have is the appearance. If the
mind remains disturbed and the voices in the head won't subside, then
even the quietest, most immaculate room in the world won't do us any
painting expresses a level of understanding above the first. A body
of water can exhibit surface tranquility while hiding chaos below, but
not a pile of snow. This means snow can represent a kind of tranquility
that is consistent internally as well as externally. Still, this
painting was not chosen by the Emperor. Why not?
problem is that, like the first painting, it also depicts an environment
- an external
manifestation of tranquility. It still cannot transcend the idea that we
need to look for peace and quiet somewhere in the material world. It
directs us to look outward when we really need to look inward.
problem is that the snowscape represents a transient form of
tranquility. The thick layer of snow covering everything may well be the
result of a snowstorm, and people who live in colder climates all know
that such a scene won't remain serene for long. Sooner or later, the
weather will turn ugly again, so the peaceful environment depicted in
the second painting is but a temporary condition.
third painting, we break away from the external manifestation and
approach the internal essence. The bird represents the attainment of
True Tranquility. This painting shows us that if we have it, then it
won't matter what kind of noises and distractions are present in our
surroundings. Like the bird, we can still be relaxed and at peace even
when the environment is less than ideal.
what the Emperor actually needed -- not so much a tranquil environment
but a tranquil heart. This is the sort of tranquility that can be
everlasting, because it remains constant regardless of the changes in
the external world. This lasting nature brings it into alignment with
the eternal Tao.
this attainment may be easier said than done. There are very few people
who have such complete and effortless mastery over their inner selves.
Most of us still need to seek out a quiet environment, perhaps attend a
retreat, in order to achieve tranquility more easily. We still have a
long way to go before we can attain the state depicted in the third
If you are
one of the lucky few who have gone through Tao Initiation, you can use
the Three Treasures to help you regain tranquility whenever it slips
away from you. Hold your mind at the Mystic Portal and silently repeat
the Wordless Sutra to yourself, and soon tranquility, clarity, and focus
will return. Practice this daily, and it become become second nature,
almost like an automatic reaction.
This story can also be helpful to us. The
mental image of the bird resting peacefully by the waterfall is a
powerful symbol, and we can use it as a reminder. Whenever you find
yourself on a short fuse, recall the bird to mind and realize that it's
not about running away to a remote location where no one can bother you.
Instead, it's all about the calm and serenity within as of this very
moment, at this very spot. Right here, right now, you can become one
with the essence of True Tranquility in the Tao.
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