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The Tale of the Useless Tree

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch'i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple to the God of Earth. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter's apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber there, in that one tree — you could make a dozen good-sized boats out of it, or three entire houses!

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn't even stop to look. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master. The apprentice said, "Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service, I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you, Master, did not care to stop and look at it?"

"Forget about it," said the Master, "It's not worth talking about. It's good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and took the wood and made it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. Look how crooked its branches are! and look at how loose and twisted is its grain! It is wood of no quality, and of no use. But not only that, if you had tried to taste one of its leaves, why it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. That is why the tree has attained such a huge size, and grown to such an old age." And so the carpenter dismissed the tree from his thoughts.


They got back home late that night, and the carpenter laid down to sleep. In his dreams, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him, saying: "What was it that you intended to compare me to today when you talked about me to your apprentice?

"If you compare me with the fine-grained wood that carpenters like best, you compare me to cherry, pearwood, and walnut. But think! as soon as their fruits or nuts have ripened, those trees are stripped, and treated with indignity. Large branches of theirs get broken off, and smaller twigs twisted and broken and scattered about. And then people like you cut them down in their prime so they can be turned into planks and made into furniture.

"Why, if you think about it," said the spirit of the tree (still speaking, for it was a very long dream), "those other trees destroy themselves just so they can be admired by the world! I, on the other hand, have tried for the longest period of time to be useless. Many times I was in danger of being cut down, but at length I have succeeded in being utterly useless, and so have become exceedingly useful to myself.

"If I had been useful," the spirit of the tree continued, "your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But as it is I have attained a great size and an old age. You and I are both created things. Do not criticize me, and I shan't criticize you. After all, is a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — does such a fellow as you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?"


The next morning, the carpenter awakened and told his dream to his apprentice. After he had heard the dream, the apprentice said, "But if the tree aimed at uselessness, how then could it become sacred tree that got to live inside the Temple to the God of Earth?"

"Hush!" said the master. "Keep quiet. It merely took refuge in the Temple to escape from the abuse of those who do not appreciate it. Since it really is good for nothing, that is how it attained its present size -- a spiritual person would do well to follow its example of uselessness. The means it adopts for safety is different from that of others, and for me to criticize it by ordinary standards was far wide of the mark."


From the Chuang-tzu, 1.16, based on the translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.