3. The Creative Void of a Hunchback Tree

3. The Creative Void of a Hunchback Tree

With even a little experience of life we know that things are often not what they seem. A Taoist would go further. “Things are never what they seem”, he would tell us. “There is success in failure and failure in success. Beautiful things are ugly and ugly things are beautiful. For failure and success are but two sides of one coin. Beauty withers and ugliness turns into beauty. Everything changes; except for the immutable reality, Tao, which underlies both failure and success, beauty and squalor.”

A story may illustrate the point. A carpenter called Shih was on his way to the state of Chi accompanied by an apprentice. When they arrived at Chu Yuan they rested under a huge oak tree that overshadowed the village shrine. The tree spread a wide canopy of branches and towered as high as a hill. The apprentice was impressed. “Master,” he exclaimed, “never since I took up my axe and followed you, have I set eyes on more tempting timber. Why don’t you even look at it?”

“Shut up!”, Shih replied. “This tree is useless. The branches are gnarled and twisted; they won’t- do for beams or rafters. The trunk is curved and knotted; it can’t be used for coffins. Look at its wood: it’s all worthless timber A boat made of it would sink, a coffin would rot, a tool would split, a door would ooze sap and a beam would have woodworm. That’s why it has been left alone, because it’s useless.”

That night the sacred oak appeared to Shih in a dream. “Why are you belittling me?”, it cried. “Are you comparing me to so called useful trees? Have you never noticed what happens to them? Apple, pear, orange and other fruit trees are stripped bare at harvest. They are pruned or cut down when they don’t produce; all because they are ‘useful’. And what about catalpa, cypress and mulberry trees? As soon as they reach maturity, they are sawn into planks, beams and boards. You see, if you’re useful you attract attention. I’ve been trying for a long time to be useless. Once or twice an axe was laid to me, but being useless saved me. Could I ever have grown so large, if I had been useful? ”

When the carpenter remained speechless, the oak continued with even greater scorn. “You and I are both things. How can one thing presume to judge another thing? What does a fallible and useless man like you know about a useless tree?”

Shih woke up and began to reflect on the meaning of his dream. When he narrated the dream to his apprentice, the latter said: “If the oak really wants to be useless, why does it overshadow the shrine?”

“By golly! You are right”, Shih exclaimed. “It’s only pretending to be useless. No one will dare to cut it down because it is a sacred tree. That’s how it protects itself. We must look at it from a different point of view.” (1)

The story deliberately baffles us. A giant tree proves to be useless. We then realize how useful this uselessness is. Finally we discover it has some use, after all. The point is not only to make us discover that everything is relative; that much depends on the angle from which we view things.

The Taoist master wants us to feel the “swing” from one extreme to the other; as from usefulness to uselessness, and vice versa.

For life is an endless chain of such “swings”. The one undeniable observation we cannot miss is that everything we know changes: from life to death, and from death to life; from fame to disrepute, and from disrepute to fame; from weakness to power, and from power to weakness. An insignificant seed grows to be a strong tree, then succumbs to the axe. A promising sapling is struck by lightning but turns out to outlive all other trees in its patch of forest.

The Taoists loved the image of the gnarled and useless tree. For them it was a frozen symbol of change – and thus capable of pointing to the permanent reality underlying all change. Suppose some sacrificial bowls are carved from an old tree. The bowls are painted with green and yellow designs. The splinters of wood that have been cut away lie rotting in a ditch. One part of the tree has become a piece of art, the other part trash. But are they really different? Were they not both part of the natural tree? Our senses deceive us. Fingering the bowl we love its touch, we admire the colours, we smell the perfume it contains and we like the sound when we tap its sides. Thus we are taken in and fail to see the original nature of the wood. (2)

The tree has become a parable. It teaches us that we should look underneath realities that change. What we find there is Tao. “Life is followed by death; death is followed by life. What cannot be done, can be done; what can be done, can no longer be done. Right becomes wrong and wrong right. The flow of life changes circumstances and then things themselves are changed in turn . . . People will never see Tao when they only notice one of a pair of opposites, when they concentrate on only one aspect of being . . . The pivot of Tao passes through the centre where all affirmations and denials converge. He who holds to the centre is at the still-point from which all change and all opposition can be seen in its right perspective.” (3)

Looking at the transformations of a gnarled tree we become aware of Tao. Tao is the unchanging “whole” of which all limited things are temporary expressions. When we become aware of Tao, all becomes relative. “When we look at things in the light of Tao, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Everything is good and can be considered ‘better’ than something else, seen on its own terms. Everything is greater than one thing and smaller than another. The whole world is a grain of rice. The tip of a hair is as large as a mountain.” (4) Unbelievable though it may seem, in one useless old tree we may suddenly glimpse the core of the universe.

For Tao is the absolute reality that produced all the things we see. “The Tao begot one. One begot two. Two begot three. And three begot the ten thousand things.” (5) The One is the Tao itself, looked at as unifying principle. The two are heaven and earth, or yin and yang, the pair of opposites. The ten thousand things comprise all changing creatures. Tao made everything to be what it is. It created from within the most various beings.

From the beginning, these things arose from the One:
Heaven is clear through the One.
The earth is solid through the One.
The spirits have power through the One.
The valley produces plenty through the One.
The ten thousand things have life by the One.
Kings and lords rule the country through the One.
It is the One that makes them what they are. (6)

The Tao is, therefore, the inner life force that brings forth, causes to be, supports. The Tao is inescapable. It is the bedrock of existence. It is the foundation, the source, the root. Things are what they are because of it. “The Tao is that from which one cannot deviate. That from which one can deviate is not the Tao. (7) The Tao causes life and death; losing it people die, gaining it they live. Whatever is done without Tao fails; whatever is done through Tao succeeds. Tao has no roots, no stem, no leaves, no blossom. And yet the birth and growth of the ten thousand things, each according to its kind, depend on Tao.” (8)

What more can we say about Tao? Very little, because words fail. Human language uses nouns and names to distinguish specific objects. But the characteristic of Tao is precisely that it is not specific. It does not carry any of the limiting traits that apply to the creatures it produces.

The Tao that can be put into words
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the everlasting name, (9)

It cannot be seen – it is beyond form.
It cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.
It cannot be held – it is intangible .
Hard to observe, it cannot be named.
It fades into nothingness
as the shape of the shapeless
as the image of the imageless;
indefinable, beyond imagination. (10)

A reality mysteriously formed,
complete before heaven and earth,
silent and void, standing on its
own and unchanging,
ever present, never outdone:
it can be the mother of the ten thousand things.
I do not know its name;
therefore I call it “Tao”. (11)

Some Western scholars are at pains to point out that the Tao cannot be equated with God. (12) They are right if we think of God as an external Creator, a Supreme Being outside the world, who rules it from a distance. But that is begging the question. If we admit a totally different perception of divinity, a perception that proceeds from within creation, we cannot but recognize that the Tao was perceived to have divine qualities. Chuang Tzu is speaking of Ultimate Reality when he tries to describe his search: “If no one else exists, I don’t exist. if I didn’t exist, I would not perceive. I am close to the truth, but I do not know why. There must be some primal force, but I cannot find any evidence. I believe it acts, but I cannot see it. I can feel it, but it remains intangible . . .” (13)

The divine transcendence of Tao is also unmistakable in this attempt at a creed:

Tao possesses reality and substance,
but no external action or form.
It can be given; not received.
It can be obtained; not seen.
It is its own source and origin.
It existed before heaven and earth;
yes from all eternity.
It makes spirits and gods divine;
makes heaven and earth to be born.
It is above the zenith, yet not high;
below the nadir, yet not low.
Preceding heaven and earth,
It is not ancient.
Though older than oldest antiquity,
It is not old. (14)

Looking at an old tree we in the West think of God as the carpenter, the architect, the artist who created it and shaped it, from outside. I remember once visiting an outdoor exhibition of sculpture in Arnhem, the Netherlands. One of the artists had placed this notice at the base of a majestic beech: “Statues are hewn by fools like me; only God could make this tree.” The Taoists looked at the inside of the tree. They saw God present, not as the super-sculptor, but as the primal force from which the tree drew its being and its specific form. Becoming aware of this divine origin was for them “great knowledge”, to be distinguished from the “small knowledge” of our petty, every-day existence. (15)

Because of our external approach, we are inclined to see God’s presence manifested most clearly in what is marvellous and spectacular. We are moved to think of God when we watch a sunset, a starlit sky, a school of flying fish skimming the waves. We would not normally associate God with ugly things. In fact, we feel embarrassed in our faith because he created what looks evil or imperfect. But the Taoists saw the same divine principle underlie all reality. They meditated with preference on imperfect things: gnarled oaks, hunchbacks, freak pigs with twisted snouts, earthquakes and hmine. The Tao is in insects, weeds, mud and excrements. (16)

The greatest difference, perhaps, lies in the Taoist perception of their own involvement. For they knew that the Tao they became aware of in other things was the same Tao living in themselves. That is why the sacred oak could rebuke the carpenter: “Who are you, useless creature that you are, to judge me to be a useless tree?” By getting to know the Tao, one begins to understand oneself. But the opposite is also true. “One only gets to know things by knowing oneself.” (17)

Because the Tao is nameless and beyond words; because it lies under the surface of sense perception; because it unites apparent opposites on a deeper level; in short, precisely because it is divine and beyond change and turmoil, it can only be found in silence. This is the greatest paradox and the deepest insight. God is found within, in the apparent void, in the profound emptiness from which allpower and life radiates in all directions.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
it is the hole in the centre that makes it work.
If you shape clay into a vessel,
it is the emptiness within that defines its use.
If you cut doors and windows to make a room,
it is the openings that render it habitable.
Profit may come from what is there;
its use comes from the Nothing within. (18)

The Nothing within us is the source of all our energy. It is the well we should more consciously draw from. But how will we, workaholics, activists, busybodies, ever learn to, enter that infinite cavity of inner silence and emptiness?


1. Chuang Tzu 4,11. 2. Chuang Tzu 12,15. 3. Chuang Tzu 2,3.
4. Chuang Tzu 17,4. 5. Tao Te Ching 42,1. 6. Tao Te Ching 39,1.

7. Chung Yung; quoted by A. Watts, Tao The Watercourse Way, Penguin 1979, p. 37.

8. Kuan Tzu; cf. Waley, p. 49. 9. Tao Te Ching 1,1. 10. Tao Te Ching 14, 1-2.
11. Tao Te Ching 25,1. 12. Howard Smith p. 17. 13. Chuang Tzu 2,3.
14. Chuang Tzu 6,1. 15. Chuang Tzu 2,2. 16. Chuang Tzu 12,6.
17. Chuang Tzu 2,5. 18. Tao Te Ching 11.  

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