The Sacred Tree
“The useful declines to be used,
whereas the useless asks to be used.” Tao.
Once upon a time a well known carpenter named Shih, accompanied by his young and impressionable apprentice, was travelling through the untamed countryside, often taking shortcuts in order to reach the state of Ch’i on time.
Their travels at one point led them to the Shady Circle, where they observed a sacred Li tree in the temple dedicated to the God of Earth. The tree was immensely huge, so large in fact that it provided shelter to a herd of several thousand cattle and still left room for more. It was a hundred spans in girth, towering up eighty or ninety feet over the hilltop, before it branched out. Countless admiring crowds with their faces turned up, stood there gazing in awe at this miracle on earth.
The apprentice too had halted briefly and fixed his eyes also on this magnificence, thinking how a dozen boats could be cut out of it. He hastened his steps to catch up to his master, who’d continued on his way quite unconcerned. Bit puzzled, he addressed his master tentatively, “Master, in all this time that I’ve been fortunate enough to have handled an adz in your service, I have never seen such superb example of timber. How was it that you, Master, cared not pause a step, to even perfunctorily observe it?”
“Forget about it, it’s hardly worth the mention,” the master shrugged smugly. Observing the puzzled look on the stubborn apprentice’s face however, he relented. “The tree is 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. Despite its size the wood is of no quality, and therefore of no use. That’s why it has survived to attain its present age.”
By dusk of the fifth day, the carpenter and his apprentice had finally reached home. After unburdening themselves of their baggage and washing up, they partook of a satisfying repast. That evening, as he snuggled cosily under the quilts, the carpenter had an unsettling dream.
He dreamt that the displeased spirit of the tree appeared to him and spoke to him harshly, as follows:
“Your arrogance is unconscionable. What is it tell me you intend to compare me with? Is it with fine-grained wood? Consider the pear, the orange, the pomelo, cherry-apple and all other fruit bearers: as soon as their fruit ripens they are stripped and treated with such indignity. The great boughs are snapped off, the small ones scattered abroad.
Thus do these trees by their own value cause injury to their own lives. Sadly they cannot fulfill their allotted span of years, but expire prematurely; all because they are destroyed for bringing forth the admiration of the world.
“Thus it is with all things. In view of this, I’ve strove long and hard to appear useless. Even so, many a time I had a close brush with the peril of being cut down. My wits and my ways however in the end succeeded in deterring them from their aim, and so I endured and grew to these heights; being only useful to myself.
“My kindness now propels me to impart on you few facts:
“In your pitifully brief human history Tsech’i of Nan-po was once travelling on the hill of Shang when he chanced upon a huge tree that greatly astonished him. In his mind he accounted that a thousand chariot teams of four horses could seek shelter under its shade. Reining on his horse under it and pointing he therefore shouted: “What sort of tree is this? Surely it must bear an unusual fine timber.” Then as he looked more closely, he saw that its branches were too crooked for rafters; and looking down he noted that the trunk’s twisting loose grain made it valueless for coffins. Reaching he plucked a leaf and tasted it; at once his face crinkled for it took the skin off his lips. The odor meanwhile was too strong that it would make a man insensate for several days. “Ah!” said Tsech’i, “this tree is really good for nothing, and that is how it has attained this size. A spiritual man might well follow its example of useless.”
“You may also recall that in the State of Sung there is a land belonging to the Ching, where thrive the catalpa, the cedar, and the mulberry. Such as are of one span or so in girth are cut down for monkey cages. Those of two or three spans are harvested for the beams of fine houses. Those of seven or eight spans are cut down for the jointless sides of rich men’s coffins. Alas, they do not fulfill their allotted span of years, but perish under the ax, all too young. Such is the misfortunes that overtake the worthy.
“In contrast; for sacrifices to the River God neither pigs with high snouts, nor bulls with white foreheads, nor men suffering from piles, can be used. For every soothsayer regards these as inauspicious. To the wise, however, these are regarded extremely auspicious, if only to themselves.
“I’m reminded of an account of a certain hunchback named Su. His jaws touched his navel. His shoulders were higher than his head. His neck bone stuck out towards the ultimate sky. His viscera were turned upside down. His buttocks were where his ribs should have been. Yet he lived rather comfortably. By sifting rice, or tailing, or washing, he earned his keep and achieved enough to support a family of ten.
“When the orders for conscription came, whether for the army or for public works, the hunchback walked about unconcerned among his peers, for his deformity excluded him from all such. Meanwhile, when the donations of grain for the disadvantaged and the disabled were handed out, the hunchback received as much as three measures, and when firewood was allotted, ten faggots. If physical deformity was thus sufficient to preserve his body until the end of his days, how much more should a moral and mental deformity avail!
“Alas, it’s a sad fact that mountain trees invite their own cutting down, lamp oil invites its own burning up. Lacquer can be used, there the tree is scraped; cinnamon bark can be eaten; therefore the tree is cut down. All men know the utility of useful things; but they do not know the utility of futility.
“As you and I are both created things, I ponder on the soundness of this good-for-nothing fellow: you, who’s in imminent danger of death, passing so demeaning a remark on the supposed good-for-nothing tree.”
The subsequent morning the carpenter Shih awakened with a start, covered with perspiration, and sat up on his bed for a while collecting his thoughts. His mind fastened just then on the well known fact:
That when Confucius was in the Ch’u State, the eccentric Chieh Yu passed his door, saying, “O phoenix! O phoenix! How has thy virtue fallen! Wait not for the coming years, nor hanker back to the past. When the right principles prevail on earth, prophets will fulfill their mission. When the right principles prevail not, they will but preserve themselves. At the present day, they are but trying to keep out of jail! The good fortunes of this world are light as feathers, yet none estimates them at their true value. The misfortunes of this life are weighty as the earth, yet none knows how to keep out of their reach. No more, no more, show off your virtue. Beware, beware, and move cautiously on! O brambles, O brambles, wound not my steps! I pick my way about, hurt not my feet!”
Later on that day when the carpenter Shih, heard his apprentice exclaim, “If the tree aimed at uselessness, how was it that it became a sacred tree?”
“Hush!” he responded gravely. “Keep quiet. I was wrong. It merely took refuge in the temple to escape from the abuse of those who do not appreciate it. Had it not become sacred, how many would have wanted to cut it down! Moreover, the means it adopts for safety are different from that of others, and to criticize it by ordinary standards would be far wide of the mark.”
A lesson was well learned!