Sunday, July 13, 2014


I was outside with my seven-year-old daughter and she started asking me about weeds. She had pulled a couple leaves off of one and asked if she had killed the plant. (She was worried that she had harmed the plant.) I said no, that in order to kill a weed you must dig out its roots. In a Taoist sense, the weed is strong because it is weak.

Let me explain.

If you have ever tried to pull a weed, as my daughter inadvertently did, you know that the leaves (and stem, early in the spring season) give; they tear in order to preserve the roots because as long as the roots survive, so does the plant. The weed has evolved to yield to pulling (or being eaten by critters). It gets its strength from "being weak," a type of strength very different from our ordinary sense of the word.

In Verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, it says,
The living are soft and supple;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
In life, plants are flexible and tender;
in death, they are brittle and dry. 
Stiffness is thus a companion of death;
flexibility a companion of life.
An army that cannot yield
will be defeated.
A tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
Like water or the supple tree branch, the weed "gives." Flexibility, not raw rigid strength, prevails. This is the wisdom of the Taoist sage, which is very different from traditional Indian Buddhism.

In the latter context, weeds are analogous to defilements, such as greed and ignorance, that need to be uprooted. In many forms of Buddhism, a lot of emphasis is placed upon removing what are considered undesirable mind and emotional states. Zen, however, due its Chinese Taoist heritage, recognizes that even weeds have their place in human nature.

Anger can be a healthy expression in certain situations.

We don't need to uproot difficult emotions or thoughts; in fact, it's that very impulse to improve ourselves--to fashion ourselves into superhumans--that causes so much of our suffering. Instead, like the weed, we can yield to them by being openly aware of them. This doesn't mean that we have to respond to them, but the exact opposite.

When we simply witness the difficult emotion or thought, without responding to the impulse to change/erase/act upon them, then we are no longer subject to our mind's whims. After all, a weed is no more undesirable than grass. I'm reminded of the famous words of Sengcan, the Third Chan Ancestor:

The great way is not difficult:
just avoid picking and choosing.

It's what we do with anger or greed that is important; it's our relationships to these emotions that is of vital importance, not the "weeds" themselves. After all, weeds can be beautiful too.

And yet we needn't be frozen into passivity. Weeds can ruin a beautiful garden, choking out flowers or vegetable plants, just as painful thoughts can choke our ability to think clearly and enjoy life. Wisdom is knowing when to weed and when to simply watch.

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