Once upon a
time in ancient China, there was a sage who taught the Tao to three
disciples at a distant temple. Once every few months, they would make
the long trip into town to purchase supplies.
On one of these trips, they paused by a
field overgrown with weeds. The sage said to the disciples: "This field
is like the human mind, and the weeds are like negative thoughts. Tell
me, what do you think is the best way to get rid of the weeds?"
The first disciple was quick to answer:
"Just pull up the weeds with your hands, Master. What can be easier than
The second disciple disagreed: "That is
not very effective. Look at how many weeds there are. You can only do so
much before you get tired. The best way is to use tools like the shovel
to uproot the weeds. In the same amount of time, you can do a lot more
with less effort."
The third disciple shook his head: "Even
that is not effective enough. Look at how big this field is. Even with
tools, it will still take quite a while, and it will still be
exhausting. The best way is fire. Set up a perimeter around the field,
and then burn the whole thing. It takes some effort to preapre, but once
that's done, you just stand back and watch the fire do all the work for
The sage smiled approvingly: "You've
given three answers that are quite different, but all interesting. Tell
me, how does your answer correspond with the Tao?"
The first disciple was again the quickest
to respond: "Pulling up the weeds by hand is like confronting each
negative thought directly, getting a firm hold of it, and then having
the satisfaction of uprooting it from the mind. I believe this is the
Tao at the purest and most personal level."
The second disciple thought for a moment:
"Just as this field has too many weeds to clear by hand, the mind has
too many negative thoughts to eliminate one by one. I need the tools of
cultivation, such as meditation, mantras and sutras. These spiritual
tools are standard not only for us, but also for other followers of the
Tao, so it is quite obvious that my idea is much closer to the Tao."
The third disciple was also thoughtful:
"My method is like establishing communion with the gods and the buddhas.
Burning the field with fire is like using the sacred powers of the
divine to sweep the mind completely clear of negative thoughts. This is
the most powerful method, and therefore must also be the closest to the
Again the sage smiled in approval: "These
are all valid comparisons. We can continue on our way now, but I want
all of you to keep this discussion in mind, and think about your
solution some more."
Months passed, and soon it was time to go
into town for supplies again. The sage and the disciples passed by the
same field as before, but this time it was different. They saw that
farmers had turned it into rice paddies.
The sage turned to them and said: "This
is the reason why I did not name any of your answers as the correct one.
None of you touched the level of the Tao."
The first disciple was curious: "What was
wrong with our solutions, Master?"
"They were all temporary measures." The
sage pointed out: "The weeds will grow back after you have cleared the
field, regardless of your method. The only way to ensure that won't
happen is to replace the weeds with something else - like the rice crop
you see in front of you. Similarly, it is not enough to eliminate
negative thoughts from your mind. You must also plant the seeds of
positive thoughts. That is the only way to ensure that the negativity
will never return."
As the sage said, all three disciples offered valid answers. There are
many ways to practice the Tao, and different techniques come in handy at
different times. They also vary in effectiveness depending on individual
personalities and preferences.
Perhaps the most basic of all is the
instrospection described by the first disciple. For all of us, Tao
cultivation starts when we examine ourselves. Instead of looking
outward, we focus inward. This is fundamental because the answers to the
most important questions in life are in the heart, not in the external
The second disciple pointed to methods
that can be quite helpful in this internal quest. Reading is one key
activity. In ancient times, Tao practitioners studied sutras and often
committed substantial sections to memory. Nowadays, we have access not
only to ancient texts but also to a wealth of additional material. We
are able to learn from others' thoughts and experiences on all aspects
of the Tao culture.
Meditation is another key activity. This
includes not only the common forms of sitting meditation, but also the
dynamic forms, where the body is engaged in an activity like Qi Qong or
Tai Chi while the mind remains tranquil. In Chinese, this is called dong
zhong chan, which literally means "meditation within movement."
The third disciple spoke of communion
with gods. Beginners in the Tao may see this as a ritual of prostrating
oneself and worshipping deities. Those who have devoted time to study
the Tao may realize that the gods and immortals in the Tao are simply
avatars of virtues. To commune with them is to make use of their
symbolism - their divine powers - in deepening one's practice in a
particular area of life.
There are those who have spent years
learning the above, and either remain stuck at the same level as before,
or find themselves repeating the same process over and over again. This
usually happens not because they have imperfect techniques, but because
they are missing the crucial element that the sage pointed out - they
have done some work to get rid of the weeds, but after a while, the
weeds grow right back.
Weeds are no different from any other
plants in being part of the Tao. It is perfectly natural for them to
grow. Negative thoughts in the mind are the same way. As long as you
live and breathe, you will have such thoughts from time to time. Some
may point to this and say that since detructive emotions are perfectly
natural, they don't have to do anything about their temper in order to
follow the Tao. That's like saying it's perfectly fine to let the weeds
grow out of control in your garden. Nature will not have any issues with
it, of course, but before long you will also not have a garden in which
to rest and relax.
This is the most valuable lesson taught
by the sage. The way to deal with negative thoughts is not to deny or
suppress them. The best way is to crowd them out with positive thoughts.
The same Tao is true in other areas of life as well. For instance, the
best way to deal with ignorant opinions is not to censor them, but to
present rational, well-reasoned opinions alongside them. Before you know
it, misinformed ideas will be edged out, without any need for
condemnation or criticism.
It is just as easy to apply this concept
to the improvement and cultivation of the self. If you want to build a
healthier and stronger body, the best way to do it is to maximize
smarter lifestyle choices in terms of diet and exercise, and let them
naturally minimize unhealthy choices. If you want to become a kinder and
better person, the best way to do it is to maximize kindness and
goodness in your heart, and let them naturally minimize thoughts of
darkness and cruelty.
Just as the Tao is eternal, the results
your create this way will last. They will be permanent changes in your
life, rather than temporary benefits from temporary measures. There is
no going back to the way you used to be... when you use the Tao to
cultivate the Tao!
Copyright 1998-2016 by Derek Lin
All Rights Reserved.
you've enjoyed this dharma talk, please consider supporting this web
site by telling a friend, or purchasing a