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......... in the Land of the Middle Kingdom, there lived a great emperor. This
mighty lord lived in a magnificent castle, surrounded by many guards, ladies in
waiting, cooks, artists, philosophers and doctors. He awoke each day to the soft
caresses of one of his many wives, ate his breakfast in a wonderful garden
surrounded by the morning song of his many birds, and passed his days in the
company of his many admirers and flatterers. But he was not happy.
He felt that he was missing out on some essential thing of life. Just what this
essential thing was he did not know but he did know that he did not have it and
this distressed him no end. He filled his court
with various magicians and philosophers, all who tried to tell him that if he
would only listen to them and them alone he would find this essential and
missing ingredient of his life. But he knew that they each were only trying to
better their own individual situation so he did not heed their shining and
Instead he winnowed them out, one by one, until there were only two groups
left, the Confucians and the Taoists. But he could not decide which one of them
had the secret and essential thing that he was
lacking. The Confucians were a haughty yet wise lot. They did not flatter him in
silken phrases like the other philosophers had. They told him where his
character was lacking and how he only had to
reinstate the old rituals and he would be fine. They told him of the mighty days
of old, when the emperor was truly the Son of Heaven and could rule in
Heaven's name. All he had to do was return to those days
and revive the ancient ways of the old rites and rituals. Then his kingdom would
prosper and he would be happy and fulfilled, both as a ruler and a man.
The Taoists, on the other hand, seemed an unorganised and motley crew. They
never seemed to agree on anything, even among themselves. They spent their
days doing strange movements, like animals, in the
garden and their nights drinking wine, reciting poetry and trying to seduce his
ladies in waiting. But they were said to have great powers over the elements and
the secret of eternal life. Of course, when he questioned them about this they
only shrugged and said, "We have but one precious secret and one only, my
"Well then," he asked, "what is this precious thing?"
Ah," they countered, "we cannot describe this secret in words, my great and
powerful lord; we can only show it to you."
"Agreed," said the emperor and announced a contest between the Confucians
and the Taoists. Whoever could show him the true secret of their power, he said,
would become the supreme teachers of the land.
On the appointed day the Confucians and the Taoists were led to a great
chamber deep in the heart of the castle. A great curtain was drawn down the
centre of the room, dividing the Taoists from the
Confucians. Both groups were told that they were to create a painting, a great
work of art, on the wall on either side. This would be the final test of their power
and knowledge. Whoever impressed the emperor the most would be awarded
The Confucians smiled and quickly ordered all the colours that were available in
the royal storerooms. They immediately went to work designing and painting a
magnificent mural. The Taoists, on the other hand, ordered a great deal of wine
and a few dozen soft cloths, the softest that were available. Then they went to
work on opening the wine.
Day after day the Confucians laboured on their huge and wondrous mural. Day
after day the Taoists ordered more wine and simply rubbed the wall with their
soft cloths, over and over, while singing old
drinking songs at the top of their lungs.
Finally came the day when the Emperor would view each work of art and make
his decision. First he visited the Confucian's side of the room, certain that he
would be in for a visual treat. He had watched how
assiduously the Confucians had applied their layers of colours on the wall and
how they stopped often to study the ancient texts and perform slow and stately
rituals before taking up their brushes again.
He was not disappointed. The Confucians had created a marvel of colour and
form. He saw his whole city laid out before him, with his own castle in the very
centre of the city, with the golden light of the setting sun glinting off its shapely
and graceful roofs. And way over on the edge of the painting he saw his own
magnificent form astride his favourite war-horse, leading his victorious troops
into battle against an already vanquished enemy. A great river ran across the
bottom of the painting with cunning little waves painted all over it and the curly
shadows of birds suspended above it. It was truly a wondrous and amazing
sight. The emperor was at a loss as to how the Taoists could top it. Imagine his
surprise then when he crossed to the other side of the room to view the Taoists'
work, only to find a completely blank wall and a lot of slightly tipsy Taoists
dancing their strange cloudlike dancing. True, the wall was very shiny and
smooth after numerous applications with the soft cloths, but there was nothing
there - no
paintings of his magnificence, no golden palace, no wondrous river.
"What is this?" he thundered. "You didn't even try to paint a picture. Is this the
way you curry my favour?" “Oh but we have done our best," cried the Taoists
indignantly, and a little rudely.
"But there is nothing there," said the Emperor. "Is this truly how you view me? Is
this your precious secret?"
"Wait one moment please," said the oldest and tipsiest of the Taoists, his long
beard still damp with wine. "Please draw aside the curtain between our walls
and you will then truly see our work."
So, shaking his head in wonder, the emperor had the curtain drawn, revealing
the dazzling painting of the Confucians. The emperor stood before it once again,
marvelling at its wonder (and how they seemed to get his noble brow just so).
Then, his mind already made up as to who was the winner this day, he turned
once again to the Taoists' blank wall, only to find not a blank wall after all but
the reflection of the painting on the opposite wall. Only this time, instead of a flat
and static picture, he saw reflected in the unbelievably smooth and shiny wall, a
Somehow, because of the play of light on the shiny surface, it seemed as though
the painting had come alive. There was the palace and the town again, only he
thought he could detect movement behind its
windows. The river itself moved, the waves lapping against each other and the
birds pirouetting overhead. And lastly, he could see himself there, astride his
great stallion, whose very nostrils seemed to
quiver in the air while his own beard fluttered in the breeze and his lips seemed
to move with his own shouted orders to his troops. He was amazed.He turned to the tipsy Taoists and asked them with humility and wonder in his
voice just how they had managed this miracle. The Taoists seemed to hang their
heads just a little and answered simply. "It is actually in not doing that we have
achieved this wondrous thing, my lord. All we did was create the space for the
painting to happen and let it paint itself."
"Is this then your precious secret?" asked the great lord.
"Yes," answered the Taoists, "it is indeed. We call it Wu Wei or not doing, and it
is in creative and natural not doing that we are able to achieve ourselves to the
highest level possible." Then they turned and bowed in unison to the
dumbfounded Confucians. "We congratulate you, noble sirs, in your great work
of art. We watched you every day work so diligently while we drank wine and
rubbed a blank wall. What you have created is truly marvellous. But in your
industriousness you have only created a flat and lifeless thing, while we, in our
formlessness, have created a living world."
It was said that afterward, for the length of his reign, the emperor gave the
Taoists in his kingdom his royal ear. They taught him many things, until the day
came for him to ascend to the heavens on the back of a dragon to take his place in
the realm of the Immortals.
Adapted from a story by Jelaluddin Rumi by Solala Towler. “The Empty Vessel'
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