Tao Living

True Tranquility

by Derek Lin

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.'"

"As you command, Your Majesty."

A few 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.

When the 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."

The 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.

They 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."

"What? But - Your Majesty! How can this waterfall compare to the other two in representing tranquility? I do not understand!"

"The waterfall is not the most important thing in this painting," said the Emperor. "Look again."

The 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!"

This story 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 destiny.

The Emperor 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 thing.

The Lake

The first 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 seem.

When we 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.

Similarly, 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 good.

The Snowscape

The second 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?

The main 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.

Another 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.

The Bird

With the 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.

This was 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.

Of course, 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 painting.

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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