Monday, May 16, 2011

The Useless Tree

From Chuang Tzu - The Inner Chapters, the Classic Taoist Text translated by Solala Towler. Not sure why this struck me so much but it did. I guess I'm a useless tree myself!

“Once a master carpenter named Shih was travelling with his apprentice on his way to the state of Chi. When they arrived in Chu Yuan village they passed a huge old oak tree sheltering the village shrine. It was huge, large enough to fit several thousand oxen under its branches. It was 100 spans and towered over everything else in the village with its lowest branches a full 80 feet in the air. These branches were so large they could have been made into a dozen boats. Many people were standing under it, their necks craned as they tried to see the top. But the master carpenter did not even turn his head as they passed it; but walked on without stoping for a moment.

His apprentice took one look at the immense tree and ran after his master saying: “Since I first took up the ax to train with you Master, I have never seen a tree as magnificent. Yet you do not even look at it, much less stop. Why is this?”

The carpenter said, “Enough! Not another word about this tree! Its wood is useless. A boat made from its timber would sink; a coffin would rot before you could put it into the ground; any tool you made from it would snap. It has too much sap in it to make a door, and a beam made from its wood would be full of termites. Altogether it is a completely useless tree and that is why it has lived so long.”

One night, after he returned home, the ancient tree came to the carpenter in a dream and spoke to him. “What are you comparing me too,” it asked, “useful trees like cherry, apple, pear, orange, citron and all the other useful trees? Yet for these trees, as soon as the fruit is ripe they are stripped; their branches are broken and torn off. It is their usefulness that causes them so much abuse. Instead of living out the years heaven has given them they are cut off halfway through. So it is for living things. This is why I have worked so long to cultivate the spirit of uselessness. I was almost cut down several times but I have been able to attain a great level of uselessness and this has been very useful to me. If I had been more useful I would never have attained the great age that I have, and grown so large.

“The two of us are similar. We are both just beings in the world. How is it that we go about judging other beings? You, an old and worthless man, about to die, how can you judge me and call me worthless?”

Shih the carpenter awoke then and spent a long time lying in his bed trying to understand this strange dream. Later, when he shared his dream with his apprentice the young man said, “If this ancient tree is so interested in being useless why has it allowed itself to become part of the village shrine?”

His master said, “It is only pretending to be a shrine. It is its way of protecting itself. Even though its timber is useless, if it were not a shrine it would have been cut down long ago. It is totally different from other trees. You cannot hope to understand it!”