Chuang Tzu: The Mystery of the Worthless Tree

Carpenter Shih went on  a journey, and when he got to Crooked Shaft he saw an oak standing by the village shrine.  It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sight-seers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn’t even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, “Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this.  But you don’t even bother to look, and go right on without stopping.  Why is that?”

“Forget it—say no more!” said the carpenter.  “It’s a worthless tree.  Make boats out of it and the’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time. Use it for doors and  it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts, and the worms would eat them up.  It’s not a timber tree—there’s nothing it can be used for.  That’s how it got to be that old!”

After Carpenter Shih has returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, “What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—as soon as their fruit is ripe they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around.  Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves—the pulling and the tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use, and now that I’m about to die, I’ve finally got it.  This is of great use to me.  If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large?  Moreover, you and I are both of us things.  What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die—how do yo know I’m a worthless tree?”

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream.  His apprentice said, “If it’s so intent on being of no use, what’s it doing there at the village shrine?”

“Shhh! Say no more!  It’s only resting there.  If we carp and criticise, it will merely conclude that we don’t understand it.  Even if it weren’t at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off!”

Chuang Tzu – Basic Writings
Tr. Burton Watson

2 Replies to “Chuang Tzu: The Mystery of the Worthless Tree”

  1. Zubin Shore

    “Their utility makes life miserable for them” and I take pride in being a practical person?
    but Whats the point of this – things condemning things?

    This story reminds me of a children’s story in which a particular little tree was always passed by when carpenters were looking for cabinet timbers, its limbs were knobby and irregular and it was not appreciated by the carpenters, and the little tree knew it, however it remained in the garden, grew to a ripe old age, gave relief from the heat in its shade, and supported a children’s swing and gave great joy in the neighbourhood.

    “If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off.” Here “down under” the story reminds me of some of my venerable Sufi elders who greet their guests with such an open heart, and emit such a beautiful fragrance in their simple presence and p profound wisdom; they cannot be judged by conventional standards.

  2. Sakina

    There is a relief every moment, I can stop judging or even with giving names and preferences to things or people..But these are moments only….a world still to win . ..thank you Nawab, for sharing this with us.


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