Once upon a time in ancient China, there was an unusual bird from the sea that landed in the countryside. It was large and beautiful, resembling the legendary phoenix. People called it the Sea Bird. Rumors about it spread like wildfire, and soon reached the ears of the King.
“I must have this extraordinary creature!” the King declared. He sent hunters and soldiers after it. After much effort, they managed to capture it alive and unharmed.
The King kept the Sea Bird in a cage at the palace temple. He had his musicians play their best music for its amusement. He had his chefs prepare royal feasts for its consumption.
None of these had a positive effect on the Sea Bird. It was confused by the offerings, frightened by the sounds, and depressed by its captivity. Despite the King’s best effort, it refused to touch the dishes of the most succulent meats, or drink the wine of the finest vintage. After three days like this, it died.
The King was frustrated. Did he not treat the Sea Bird as the most honored guest? Did he not give it the very best the kingdom had to offer? Why did the Sea Bird die on him in such a rude and inconsiderate manner?
The story ended in tragedy because the King went completely against the Tao. He had no idea that the Sea Bird could only thrive if it lived according to its nature. The music and feasts that human beings found pleasurable meant nothing to the Sea Bird, and the King made no attempt to learn more, to figure out what the Sea Bird actually needed.
There are people like the King in our lives too. They impose their will on others, and they assume everyone sees things the way they do. When they fail, they cannot understand why. Invariably, they get frustrated and point the blame on someone else.
If we wish to avoid this pitfall, we need to learn that people, things and situations have their own nature. Their preferences may be quite different from our own, and the difference must be taken into account. Feed the Sea Bird what it wants to eat, rather than what we want for ourselves.
This is all the more important in personal relationships, where it’s never a good idea to force anything. Any time you try to do that, you cause problems, like the King causing confusion, fear and depression in the Sea Bird. If you remain unaware and continue down the same path, you quickly end up with negative results, like the death of the Sea Bird. Trying too hard to make a relationship work is the surest way to kill it.
This story also points out a problem with the Golden Rule. Is it always a good idea to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? That’s what the King did with the Sea Bird — giving it his favorite music and food — and look how things turned out. The Tao provides a better way to express the same concept: that which you do not wish for yourself, do not inflict upon others. If the King understood this, he would free the Sea Bird — or not capture it in the first place.
Chuang Tzu’s final point with this story has to do with attachment. The King wanted to possess the Sea Bird very much, but ended up possessing only its corpse. In life, when you want something too badly, you end up with little or none of it. Similarly, when you want someone too badly, you end up pushing away and alienating that person. In every aspect of life, attachment takes you farther and farther away from your goal.
This is why it is so important to manage desires and let go of attachments. The way of the Tao is not to chase after anything you want, but to live in alignment with virtues and attract everything you need. Let good things manifest for you naturally, not because you try to grasp them, but because you are a magnet for prosperity. Let good people come to you naturally, not because you try to capture their attention, but because you do unto them according to their preferences, rather than your own.
When you master this Tao, it will be as if the Sea Bird flies to you and keeps you company all by itself. In your presence, it is healthy, vibrant, free and beautiful. You can see that there is never a need to send hunters and soldiers after it, because it is your faithful companion as long as you live in the Tao. That’s what the Sea Bird really is — a thriving source of happiness in your life!