Once, Chuang Tzu visited the land of Lu and was invited to the palace by its ruler. They spoke for a while, and the topic of learning came up. With much pride, the King said: “In my land, we have numerous scholars studying Confucian teachings. However, we have very few who follow your Taoist teachings.”
“Numerous?” Chuang Tzu was skeptical. “Your Majesty, I believe you actually have very few Confucian scholars.”
This displeased the King. He said, “Is that so? Take a look around. Everywhere in my kingdom, you see people wearing Confucian robes to signify their learning. How can you seriously claim that there are very few of them?”
Chuang Tzu knew he might offend the King even more, but he continued: “Your Majesty, I have heard that among real scholars, the ones who wear round hats know astronomy, the ones who wear squarish shoes know geography, and the ones who wear jade can provide decisive analysis. In actuality, those who possess genuine knowledge may not wear such things at all. Similarly, those who wear them may not possess genuine knowledge.”
The King looked rather unconvinced, so Chuang Tzu added: “Your Majesty, if you do not believe me, then issue an announcement that anyone who wears scholarly attire without actual understanding will be put to death. Give that a try, and let us see what happens.”
The King wanted to prove himself correct, so he took up the challenge and did exactly as Chuang Tzu suggested. Much to his surprise and annoyance, the number of people who wore Confucian robes dwindled rapidly. After five days, there was only one man still dressed that way. The King summoned him and put him to the test. He was able to answer all the questions from the King quickly and thoroughly, demonstrating much knowledge.
Observing this, Chuang Tzu remarked: “Your Majesty, his attire certainly matches his learning. However, he is the only one person among all your subjects, so we certainly cannot call that ‘numerous.’”
Appearance can often be deceiving. Back in the days of Chuang Tzu, anyone could wear Confucian robes. It didn’t necessarily mean they had mastered or even studied Confucian teachings. They might have the scholarly looks, but not the substance.
It is like that in our world too. Some people parade around with their degrees and positions, trying to create the appearance of great learning or authority. The reality may not be so great. The impressive-sounding degree may be from a diploma mill. The high-level position may be something they lucked into, or even made up for themselves.
Of course, there are also those who possess genuine credentials, like the man in the story who still wore scholarly attire, and was able to demonstrate his knowledge. We cannot paint them with the same brush as those who make false claims.
The only way to discern the truth is by putting the claimed knowledge to use in real-life applications. When the rubber meets the road, pretensions vanish and authenticity prevails. This is what Chuang Tzu and the King tried to do with the announcement and test. For us, it may be having people work on a job to see if they sink or swim. Reality is the ultimate arbiter, especially over a period of time.
We should also apply the teaching to ourselves, and consider if we, too, have created an appearance that does not match reality. If that is the case, then we need to shed our Confucian robes for something more genuine, plain, and humble.
At the same time, it may be a great idea to work toward earning the robe, if it represents an area of knowledge you wish to master. It is truly fortunate that in this day and age, learning is more easily available than ever before in human history. You can find many books on any subject in the library, as well as a wide variety of training videos on the Internet. If you learn a little bit every day, you cannot help but build up a tremendous expertise over time. If you choose a subject matter of interest to you, then you can look forward to endless hours of fun and fascinating in your intellectual exploration.
Sooner or later, you’ll be able to wear your own scholarly attire with confidence. At that point, you may not feel the need to wear it at all, because what you hold internally is more important than the appearance you present externally. When you do wear it — thereby displaying your credentials — you will know that you have done it right. It is an honor you have rightfully acquired through diligence and discipline. It has become a part of you… and something no one can ever take away.