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 that?”
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 you.”
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 Tao.”
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 world.
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 (c) 1998 - 2019 Derek Lin