The Dead Rat

Chuang Tzu’s friend, Hui Tzu, had become the Minister in the Kingdom of Liang. He hadn’t been in touch with Chuang Tzu for quite some time, possibly due to his many duties and busy schedule, so Chuang Tzu thought it might be a good idea to pay his friend a visit.

One of Hui Tzu’s advisors heard about this, and went to see Hui Tzu immediately. He said: “Your Excellency, have you considered the possibility that perhaps Chuang Tzu is coming here to take over your position as the Minister?”

This notion made Hui Tzu quite nervous, so he ordered his people to search for Chuang Tzu throughout the land of Liang. They looked for three days and three nights, but came up with nothing — because Chuang Tzu hadn’t arrived yet.

Eventually, Chuang Tzu showed up to see his friend. Right away, he sensed a certain tension in the air. Hui Tzu did not seem happy to see him. It was a bit strange — Hui Tzu appeared to be on guard, but also aggressive and confrontational at the same time. Before too long, Chuang Tzu figured out what was really going on.

He said to Hui Tzu: “There is a kind of bird similar to the phoenix, called Yuanchu. Have you heard of it? For its migration flight, the Yuanchu bird travels from the Southern Sea to the Northern Sea. When it is tired, it rests only on the firmiana tree. When it is hungry, it eats only tender bamboo shoots. When it is thirsty, it drinks only pure stream water.

“One day, there was an owl who found the rotting carcass of a rat. It was about to feast on the carcass when it saw the Yuanchu bird flying overhead. Alarmed, the owl immediately took action to protect its meal. It held onto the dead rat and squawked with all its might, trying to scare away the intruder. So, my old friend… are you now holding on to Liang… and trying to scare me away?”

The Tao

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu started out as friends, with similar attitudes about life. As time went on, they began to grow apart. This was because Chuang Tzu studied in order to understand the Tao, while Hui Tzu studied in order to attain a higher position.

At first, Chuang Tzu was not aware of the distance between them, because the transformation of the Tao was gradual and subtle. It did not occur to him that his visit might be misconstrued as something other than the renewal of an old friendship.

This kind of divergence can happen to you too. As your path on the Tao unfolds, you may not be aware of how much your thinking has changed. It seems like everyone around you hasn’t changed all that much, so you must also be pretty much the same, right?

Not quite. When you cultivate the Tao properly, it gives you new ways to look at everything. You can observe the world with a deeper perception and appreciation. Everyday things take on new meaning and provide new insights. You see what others cannot see; you feel what they cannot feel.

Chuang Tzu compared this state of being to the rare and beautiful Yuanchu bird. The migration flight of the Yuanchu is the journey of the Tao cultivator. When you are on such a journey, your life is filled with purpose and meaning. You know where you are going and how to get there. This alone differentiates you from those who used to be your peers.

Just as the Yuanchu found rest in the firmiana tree, you find spiritual restoration in the Tao. Others may be puzzled about this. They may not see the point of practices like meditation, reflection and contemplation. Why waste your time in quiet solitude?

The bamboo shoots and pure water for the Yuanchu bird are just like the spiritual sustenance you need. It feeds the soul so you can continue your journey. It’s nothing like the monetary gains or social prestige that feed other people, the way that being the Minister fed Hui Tzu’s ego.

You are aware of the potential problems that wealth and power can bring. You have seen how people obsess over them as if they are the most desirable things in the world. You know that desirability is an illusion, and behind it is a reality not so different from a dead rat.

Let this story be a cautionary note. You may have changed, but the world remains unchanged. Your path in life may be beautifully clear to you, but it may be incomprehensible to others. They may be on guard or defensive as you approach. They may think you are out to “get” them, when the things they hold so dear actually mean nothing to you.

When that happens, there is no need to feel upset. Realize that the hostility you encounter is nothing more than the owl squawking at the Yuanchu. If you try to explain, the owl will only get crazier, and even more desperate to protect its property. Your best option would be to ignore it. Continue on your flight… toward your destination.

Latest posts by Derek Lin (see all)