The Wheel Maker
by Derek Lin
One day, King Huan was reading a book while an old craftsman 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 with great 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 say: 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 and reading 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 too small. 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 never wrong.
"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 on time.
"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 his hand 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 any moment.
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, everyday reality.
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!