Once upon a time in the Warring States period, the King of Wei was angered when he learned that the King of Chi had betrayed their alliance. Desiring revenge for this betrayal, he wanted to send an assassin to kill the King of Chi.
Upon hearing this, his general said: “Your Majesty, you are the ruler of a mighty kingdom, so you should not resort to assassination. Give me two hundred thousand soldiers, and I shall conquer Chi, capture its people, punish their king, take away his land, and break him!”
His advisors knew that no matter how the King decided to proceed, it would lead to widespread chaos and suffering. One of them said to the others: “This is like building a castle ten meters tall, completing its construction, and then destroying the whole thing. We’ve had peace for seven years, which is a great achievement. We should not listen to the general and destroy that peace!”
None of them could think of a way to convince the King. They advised him to seek the Tao of harmony, but this had no effect. The King seemed dead set on bloodshed.
Huei Tzu, the wisest of the advisors, decided to ask the Tao sage Daijinren for help. The hope was that perhaps he could talk some sense into the King.
Upon Huei Tzu’s invitation, Daijinren came to the palace. He spoke with the King, starting with a question: “Your Majesty, there is a small creature known as the snail — do you know of it?”
The King said: “Of course.”
Daijinren said: “On the head of the snail, there are two tentacles. On the left tentacle, there is a kingdom called Chushi. On the right tentacle, there is a kingdom called Manshi. These two kingdoms fight each other in epic battles for land. Each battle results in the dead by the tens of thousands, and after it’s over, it takes fifteen more days for the winning side to return from chasing and slaughtering the losing side.”
“What?” The King was annoyed. Why talk about something as insignificant as a snail? He spoke harshly, with impatience: “This is a fictional tale without any basis in reality!”
“Your Majesty, allow me to explain and make it more real. First of all, does Your Majesty think there is a limit to heaven or earth, in any direction?”
The king understood that the sage was referring to the infinity of existence. “No,” he said, “there is no limit.”
“Once the mind has contemplated this limitless expanse, bring your thoughts back to a kingdom which is limited in size. Doesn’t this kingdom seem much smaller in comparison, almost like it does not exist?”
The King thought about it, and realized Daijinren was right. “Indeed.”
Daijinren continued: “Among the kingdoms of this land, there is Wei. Within the Kingdom of Wei, there is the City of Liang. Within the City of Liang, there is a ruler. So… is there a basic difference between this ruler and the Manshi?”
The King was shocked. The finite kingdoms already seemed small compared to infinity. Wei was but one of the kingdoms, so it’s even smaller. The City of Liang was but one of the many places in Wei, despite being its capital. He was but one person in a city of thousands, despite being the ruler. This meant he was actually a small part of a small part of a small part…
“No,” he had no choice but to admit. “There is no difference.”
Finally, it dawned on the King. He thought the snail was insignificant. Now he could see a similar insignificance in himself — as well as the destruction he was about to cause.
Daijinren left, leaving the King still stunned by his own realization. When Huei Tzu came to ask about the visit, the King said: “My guest is truly a great sage. His wisdom surpasses that of all other sages.”
Huei Tzu and the other advisors were relieved. They knew the King would now turn his attention to diplomatic solutions… instead of bloodshed.
This story is all about contention. The anger of the King is like the anger we feel against others when we perceive a wrong or an offense. Caught in the grips of rage, all we can think about is retribution, like the King contemplating his options of assassination or all-out war.
The King’s advisors are like the conscience, the better angels of our nature. The voice of conscience tells us to seek harmony, but we don’t listen. We go on the attack, even if we know it will lead to more problems. Why? Because we think the other side “must pay.”
Our attack gives rise to counterattacks. Aggression leads to more aggression. The conflict escalates from raised voices to raised fists. Before long, you have completely destroyed the peace in your life, just like an ancient army destroying a tall castle that took years to build.
The kings in the story started out as allies, but turned into enemies. Similarly, the opponents in our personal conflicts may actually be those who started out close to us — family, friends, loved ones. All too often, we end up hurting most the people we shouldn’t hurt at all.
How can we manage the rage that causes such conflicts? How do we suppress the anger?
Through this story, Chuang Tzu is teaching us self-mastery through the clear perception of perspective. When you see everything with sufficient clarity, whatever destructive anger you may harbor within will dissipate naturally. There is no need to suppress anything.
This is why the Tao sage talked about the “epic battles” on a snail’s tentacles. We can easily understand that such battles are so small as to be utterly insignificant. All the deaths and destruction occur at such a tiny scale that we cannot even see them. We can laugh about the silliness of it all.
What about us? Are we not also small and insignificant in the cosmic scale? The King realized this when he set his limited world next to the unlimited Heaven and Earth. We, with insights from modern science, can have an even greater realization. We know that all the death and destruction that humanity has ever inflicted upon itself, throughout the entire history of our species… all of it takes place on a tiny planet which is less than a dust mote next to all the stars and galaxies.
If the epic battles on a snail’s tentacles are silly, what about our own battles? Should we really be laughing at the two kingdoms on the tentacles? We are not so different from them when we get into fights with one another… so shouldn’t we laugh at our own absurd pettiness too?
Next time you feel the onset of anger, use this teaching from Chuang Tzu to put matters into perspective. Can you see how unworthy the anger is, when you set it next to the meaning and purpose of your life? Can you see how insignificant the conflict is, when you compare it to the aspirations and great things you have envisioned for your future?
Your answers will be similar to the King’s. Why waste your precious energy on anger, when you have much better things to do? Why waste time on contention, when there is so much more to discover in peace and happiness? The conclusion is inevitable: the warpath is not the way. The Tao of harmony… is the best way.