Word can never describe how beautiful the colorful sky of the setting sun is to a person born blind. He will never be able to imagine the beauty and color. Books can only explain but can the reader really understand? We think we know, but do we really know? As simple as drinking a glass of water is better than reading a thousand page book explaining what is the taste of water.
The Wheel Maker
by Derek Lin
One day, King Huan was reading a book while an old
was busy making wheels over in a corner. The old man noticed that
the book seemed to capture the King's complete attention. He grew
increasingly curious about this, and after a while decided to approach.
"Your Majesty, forgive me for intruding," the old man
said. "What is
this book that you are studying so diligently?"
"This is no ordinary book," the King said, holding it up
respect. "It is written by a wise sage."
The old man asked: "Is this sage still alive, Your Majesty?"
The King shook his head. "No, he passed away a long time ago."
"Oh, I see," the old man nodded. Then, without thinking, he added:
"In that case, what Your Majesty is reading would simply be the
leftovers of a dead man."
This struck the King as incredibly insulting. "What is this?"
His anger flared. "You are nothing more than a lowly craftsman.
Is it your place to comment on what I wish to read? Explain the
reasoning of your statement and I may let you live. If you fail to
do so, I shall have your head."
The old man replied: "Your Majesty, it is exactly as you
I am but a humble craftsman. I know nothing except the art of
making wheels. Permit me to explain myself to you using this
little bit of knowledge that I have."
This response surprised the King. To him, making wheels
books could not be further apart. Had the old man lost his mind due
to fear? King Huan was puzzled, but his interest was piqued.
"Go on," he said.
"Your Majesty, in my line of work, the hole in the
center is of
supreme importance. It must fit the axle just right. If I make it too
big, the wheel will slip right off and become useless. If it is only
slightly too big, then the wheel will seem to stay on, but after a
short while of actual usage on the roads, it will loosen and fall
off the axle, quite possibly causing great damage to the carriage
in the process.
On the other hand, it is also possible to make the hole
In that case, when I force the axle into it, I may very well split the
wheel in two, thus wasting hours of effort. If it is only slightly too
small, then it may appear to be a secure fit, but after a short while
of actual usage, the wheel will crack and break apart, again causing
possible harm to the carriage and even the passengers within.
Therefore, one secret of my trade is to know the right
way to make
the hole. But making the hole just right, not too big and not too small,
requires years of non-stop practice. This experience gives me a feeling
that guides my hand. It is a feeling I have learned to trust, for it is
The other secret of my trade has to do with the
roundness of the wheel.
If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the
work in a short time, but the wheel won't be perfectly round. Even though
it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it
will cause excessive shaking of the carriage. The ride will be extremely
uncomfortable, and the wheel will damage itself beyond repair in a
matter of days.
Of course, I can chisel slowly and carefully. This
guarantees a perfectly
round wheel, but it will also take so much time to complete that Your
Majesty would have to wait many years before we can assemble the
royal fleet of carriages. Clearly, this would not be acceptable.
In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely
manner, I must
chisel at just the right speed - not too fast and not too slow. This speed
is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through
many years of experience. With this feeling, I can be perfectly composed
and unhurried when I make my wheels, but still complete the project
I can teach the mechanics of wheel making to anyone. It
is easy to
create something that looks like a wheel, but quite difficult to make
wheels that are durable, safe, and provide a smooth ride. I can explain
all of this to my son, but it is impossible for me to give him the feeling
that is at the heart of the wheel making art. He must gain that on his
own. This is why I am seventy years old and still making wheels.
Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings
that were at
the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the
mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is
impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is
equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to
you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things
they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty
was reading the leftovers of a dead man."
King Huan was stunned and speechless. Slowly, he lowered
and set the book down.
Chuang Tzu is making several
points with this one story. The primary
point is that books are filled with dead, static knowledge, while the
Tao is all about the vibrant, dynamic wisdom of life. If we look for
the Tao in books, we won't find it anywhere; if we look for the Tao
in life, we will find it everywhere.
Chuang Tzu's secondary point,
equally important, is about moderation.
There are two aspects of moderation that Chuang Tzu delves into, and
the first has to do with quantities and amounts - things that can be
measured in some way. The Wheel Maker explained that the hole in
the center of the wheel must not be too big or too small. In the same
way, we discover as we go through life that both excess and lack tend
to be negative. We want things to be just right - not too much and
not too little.
Mass production techniques did
not exist in ancient China, so each
axle to be fitted with wheels was slightly different in size. This meant
the Wheel Maker had to match each set of wheels for a particular axle.
Dimensions that fit one axle perfectly may be completely off for another.
It is the same with life.
There are no standard amounts that are
appropriate for everyone in every situation. Each individual is
different, so what one person considers perfect may be completely
unacceptable to another. For instance, temperature that I consider
moderate may be too hot or too cold for someone else. It all depends.
As the Wheel Maker pointed
out, sometimes less skillful craftsmen
would force an axle into a hole that was not quite large enough.
This resulted in damage to the wheel, either immediately or
after some wear and tear.
This idea applies in many
different areas in life. If we force ourselves
to overeat when we are already full, we end up damaging the body.
If we force friends to listen to us when they really don't want to, we
end up damaging the friendship. Even if nothing seems broken, that
doesn't mean everything is okay. The damage may not be easy to
spot, like hairline cracks in a wooden wheel that can split apart at
Another aspect of moderation
has to do with the process of getting
things done. The Wheel Maker figured out the right speed to chisel,
so he could do his work in a way that was effective and yet perfectly
calm and composed. This meant he was in tune with the Tao and
could progress at the natural pace and rhythm of the task at hand.
The same concept applies to us
as we get things done in life.
Oftentimes we make the mistake in thinking faster is better, so
we try to work as quickly as possible. We push ourselves to do
more in less time, and in the mad rush we make mistakes, forget
details, and stress ourselves out.
A good friend once told me of
a fond memory from her childhood.
Every Sunday morning, her entire family would get ready for church.
Everyone would be rushing to get dressed and have breakfast; the
whole household would be in complete disarray. When her
grandmother saw this, she would say: "Let's slow down so we
can get there faster."
This may sound like a paradox,
but is in fact great wisdom.
Our problem in the modern world is usually going too fast, so
slowing down brings us back to moderation. We need to keep
this in mind because life seems to be full of due dates, deadlines,
and tasks that are "urgent" but not necessarily important. These
things become stress factors and build up tension. We force
ourselves through them, thinking we are "productive" while
unable to see the hairline fractures that are spreading through
the wheel of life. At some point, things start falling apart, and
we wonder where we went wrong.
How can we know the right
speed with which to proceed?
There is no magic formula. The only way to discover the
natural rhythm and pace of the Tao is through experience.
By living life with awareness, we can feel the most appropriate
speed in any given situation. This is the same feeling that the
Wheel Maker was talking about. No one can teach it to you; it
is something you need to learn on your own.
This is why we say the Tao is
experiential. As Lao Tzu also points
out, although the Tao is fundamental to our existence, it cannot be
spoken of or named with words. It must be lived, experienced...
and above all it must be felt.
How can we tell that this Tao
is aligned with moderation? By simple
observation. One characteristic of the Tao is that it is everlasting.
Therefore, when we observe positive results that last, we can be
certain that they come from actions that are congruent with the Tao.
To the Wheel Maker, a
positive, lasting result meant a wheel that
rolled smoothly and was so durable that it could provide many years
of trouble-free service. Moderation is responsible for creating this
excellent result. Therefore, it must be moderation and not extremism
that mirrors the Tao.
The final point by Chuang Tzu
may not be easy to see. It is a point
that returns full circle to connect the pursuit of knowledge with
moderation. It is important for us to emphasize because it was never
Chuang Tzu's intention to denigrate learning - only the immoderate
and dogmatic pursuit of knowledge. When we are too obsessive with
books, we tend to become arrogant and lose sight of practical,
The Wheel Maker's message
for King Huan was not to completely
discard books. Such a message would certainly not be in accordance
with moderation. The Wheel Maker pointed out the importance of
feelings and experience, and the fact that they could not be found in
books. His unspoken advice to the King was to seek the proper balance,
to absorb not just book knowledge but also life knowledge.
This message applies to us
too. As we study the hidden lessons in
Chuang Tzu's story, let us also make sure we are not neglecting the
valuable lessons that life has to offer. And as we go forth to experience
these lessons, let us bring along moderation as our ever-present and
everlasting companion. We will use the Tao to learn the Tao!