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Of Contention and Uselessness

From: tyagi tzu (
Subject: Of Contention and Uselessness (
Date: 49940727

Quoting: Laotse: Lin Yutang transl.

'To yield is to be preserved whole.
 To be bent is to become straight.
 To be hollow is to be filled.
 To be tattered is to be renewed.
 To be in want is to possess.
 To have plenty is to be confused.

 Therefore the Sage embraces the One*
 And becomes the model of the world.
 He does not reveal himself,
  And is therefore luminous.**
 He does not justify himself,
  And therefore people give him credit.
 He does not pride himself,
  And is therefore the chief among men.'

_The Wisdom of Laotse_, 23. Futility of Contention, Laotse,
	transl. by Lin Yutang.

Lin Yutang's notes:

* - The Absolute, to which transient attributes revert.

** - 'Ming', with two meanings, 'clear' (bright, sterling)
     and 'clear-sighted' (wise, discerning).

And as for usefulness....

"A certain carpenter Shih was travelling to the Ch'i State.  On
reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred li tree in the temple of
the God of Earth.  It was so large that its shade could cover a
herd of several thousand cattle.  It was a hundred spans in girth,
towering up eighty feet over the hilltop, before it branched out.
A dozen boats could be cut out of it.  Crowds stood gazing at it,
but the carpenter took no notice, and went on his way without even
casting a look behind.  His apprentice, however, took a good look
at it, and when he caught up with his master, said, 'Ever since I
have handled an adze in your service, I have never seen such a
splendid piece of timber.  How was it that you, Master, did not
care to stop and look at it?'

"'Forget about it.  It's not worth talking about,' replied his
master.  'It's good for nothing.  Made into a boat, it would sink;
into a coffin, it would rot; into furniture, it would break easily;
into a door, it would sweat; into a pillar, it would be worm-eaten.
It is wood of no quality, and of no use.  That is why it has
attained its present age.'

"When the carpenter reached home, he dreamt that the spirit of the
tree appeared to him in his sleep and spoke to him as follows:
'What is it you intend to compare me with?  Is it with fine-grained
wood?  Look at the cherry-apple, the pear, the orange, the pumelo,
and other fruitbearers.  As soon as their fruit ripens they are
stipped and treated with indignity.  The great boughs are snapped
off, the small ones injure their own lives.  They cannot fulfil
their allotted span of years, but perish prematurely because they
destroy themselves for the (admiration of) the world.  Thus it is
with all things.  Moreover, I tried for a long period to be useless.
Many times I was in danger of being cut down, but at length I have
succeeded, and so have become exceedingly useful to myself.  Had I
indeed been of use, I should not be able to grow to this height.
Moreover, you and I are both created things.  Have done then with
this criticism of each other.  Is a good-for-nothing fellow in
imminent danger of death a fit person to talk of a good-for-nothing

"When the carpenter Shih awaked and told his dream, his apprentice
said, "If the tree aimed at uselessness, how was it that it became
a sacred tree?'

"'Hush!' replied his master.  'Keep quiet.  It merely took refuge
in the temple to escape from the abuse of those who do not appre-
ciate it.  Had it not become sacred, how many would have wanted to
cut it down!  Moreover, the means it adopts for safety is different
from that of others, and to criticize it by ordinary standards would
be far wide of the mark.'"

_The Wisdom of Laotse_, 22.3 Two Useless Trees, Chuangtse, I think,
	transl. by Lin Yutang.  Also see the stories about hunchbacks.


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