The Other Side of the River

Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a ferryman who worked along a stretch of the Yangtze river. There were several villages and towns on both sides of the river, so he had steady business taking passengers from one side to the other. Over the years, this brought him into contact with people from all walks of life.

One day, a villager approached the ferryman as he was waiting for potential passengers by his boat. The villager said: “Sir, perhaps you can help me with a question. I’m thinking about moving to the other side of the river. You are probably quite familiar with the people over there. Can you tell me about them?”

The ferryman was curious: “Why are you thinking about moving? Is there something wrong with your village?”

“My village is horrible,” the villager said. “I am surrounded by the worst people you can imagine, so I do not want to live there any longer than necessary. My neighbors make noise when I need quiet. They do not care about the streets being dirty. They have no respect for me. Therefore, I also have no respect for them.”

“That does sound horrible,” the ferryman sympathized. “Have you ever let them know how you feel?”

“Oh, absolutely!” The villager said, with much anger: “I give them unmistakable signs! They disturb me during the day, so I make noise to disturb them at night. They never clean the streets, so I push my trash out the door to teach them a lesson. Whenever they are rude to me, I am rude to them twice as much. Of course they know how I feel!”

“I see,” the ferryman nodded. “Well, I have bad news for you. The people on the other side of the river are not so different from the ones in your village. You will find all the things you dislike about your neighbors quite prevalent there too. If you decide to move, you’ll expend a lot of time and effort, only to end up in the same situation.”

“I knew it!” the villager exclaimed in frustration, and started walking away. “There must be a better place somewhere. I’ll find it!”

Moments later, another man, much younger than the first, approached the ferryman. “Excuse me,” he said, “I am thinking about moving to the other side of the river. You are probably quite familiar with the people over there. Can you tell me about them?”

Again the ferryman expressed curiosity: “Why are you thinking about moving?”

The young man said: “I would like to study spiritual teachings with a Tao sage who lives on the other side. If I move closer to him, I can save a lot of time crossing back and forth. However, I am a little reluctant to leave my home over here.”

“Why the reluctance?”

“My village is a wonderful place to live,” the young man beamed. “I have the best neighbors you can imagine. Everyone is kind and considerate, and we are always looking out for one another. Everyone works to keep the neighborhood clean and make it a pleasant environment. There is much mutual assistance and respect, and that is why I am reluctant to leave. I am just not sure I can find such great neighbors when I’m on the other side of the river.”

“I see,” the ferryman nodded. “Well, I have good news for you. The people on the other side are not much different from the ones in your village. You will find all the qualities you like about your neighbors just as prevalent over there. If you do decide to move, it won’t take you long to become part of a community in the new place that you will enjoy.”

The young man was happy to hear this. He thanked the ferryman profusely before heading back home, to start planning his move.

A nearby street vendor, who had been watching quietly all this time, came over as the young man left. He said to the ferryman: “I could not help but overhear the conversations you just had. It’s especially interesting to me, since I know those two fellows. They come from the same village, and both of them asked the same question. Why did you give them such different answers?”

“The difference came from them, not from me or the place,” the ferryman said. “The first villager is unaware that all the things he hates originate from within himself: the noisy disturbance, the dirty environment, the lack of respect, and so on. His environment reflects what is already in his heart. Unless he changes himself internally, he will continue to recreate the same negative setting no matter where he goes.

“It was similar with the young man,” the ferryman continued. “He may not realize it, but all the things he enjoys about his neighborhood also originate from his heart: the kindness, the consideration, the mutual assistance and respect, and everyone pitching in for the greater good. As long as his positive nature does not change, he will always create the same positive setting no matter where he goes.”

“Ah, I see,” the street vendor smiled in comprehension. “So… things are not necessarily better on the other side?”

“No,” said the ferryman, “but things definitely get better on every side… when they get better on the inside.”



We often hear people talk about the grass being greener on the other side. This is the same mindset as the first villager. The current place is not so great, so some other place must be better. Everything will improve, and all the problems will go away, if only you can get yourself from here to there.

This applies not just to places, but other aspects of life as well. Someone else always seems to have a better job, with nicer coworkers at a more established company. Some other family seems to have a better house, with nicer neighbors and…  hey, their pets seem cuter too! Somehow, the grass has a way of looking greener anywhere but here.

As the ferryman pointed out, getting to the greener grass may not be such a great idea. People who make such a move will initially find everything quite rosy, but this never lasts. After a while, the honeymoon ends and the novelty wears off. They discover things are not as ideal as they first imagined, and the problems show up again, much to their annoyance.

Before long, they start looking for greener grass again. Maybe the last move wasn’t quite right, but the next move will be. Everything will be better once they get to this other place… so, the process restarts itself for yet another cycle.

The young man had a different mindset, despite being from the same village. For him, the greenest grass was at his present location, so he was naturally not inclined to leave. Why face the uncertainty of a different place, when he had everything he wanted in the current place?

The ferryman pointed out that, for him, another place could be pretty good too. Even though the young man didn’t want to move, he could ease into the new place and be just as content as he had been in the old place. Once he made the transition, he would find the greenest grass growing abundantly in his new environment. It would be as if the greenness could follow him somehow.

How can we be more like the young man, always ending up with the greenest grass no matter what? It begins with the way we look at and think about the world. We need to realize the greener grass somewhere else is illusory. We must see through that illusion and stop pursuing it from one place to another.

This means the cultivation of stability and commitment. No matter where we happen to be, we need to take a good look at the current situation, and stick around to work with it in creative ways. We can always go somewhere else after we have made a difference, so we can leave the place better than we found it.

More importantly, this also means taking care of the grass within. For both the villager and the young man, the external world reflected their internal reality, not the other way around. The same is true for all of us. Think of the heart as a garden. The grass that grows in this garden is the state of your spirituality. Depending on how much you neglect or tend to your spiritual needs, the grass will wither or flourish.

What does this grass need? First, it has to be watered. Let the Tao be the water that nourishes your garden on a regular basis. When you apply the Tao in your life, you are letting in the water, and letting it refresh everything as it flows through. The grass will grow beautifully, drawing what it needs from this water of the Tao.

The grass also needs the sun. This is the upbeat outlook, the bright smile, and the sense of humor you bring to everything you do. It’s an infectious energy that builds on itself, lightening the mood for you, as well as everyone around you. Within your heart, this energy is the sunlight that shines through the garden, bringing vitality and brightening everything — especially the grass.

If you provide the water and the sun consistently, the grass will not only become beautifully lush, but also begin to work its magic in your world. Whether it’s the job, long-term career, romance, enduring relationships, or anything else — every aspect of your life will become more rewarding and fulfilling.

Now you know the truth. The grass isn’t really greener on the other side, but it is definitely greener on your side — because you make it that way. It can be as green as you want it to be, through the work of internal cultivation. As long as you walk the Tao and keep yourself on the path, the greener grass will grow with every step you take… and follow you wherever you go.

Derek Lin

Derek Lin is an award-winning, bestselling author in the Tao genre. He was born in Taiwan and grew up with native fluency in both Mandarin and English. His background lets him convey Eastern teachings to Western readers in a way that is clear, simple and authentic.

Copyright (c) 1998 - 2019 Derek Lin

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