The Cooking Oil
by Derek Lin
Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a young disciple who studied the Tao at a remote temple. One day, the master said to him: "We are running low on cooking oil. I want you to go into town and buy some."
The boy was excited, because this was the first time the master charged him with a task. Finally, he thought to himself, the master can see that I am ready for responsibilities, just like the grown-ups!
He took the coins from the master and went into town. The path was familiar to him, for he had made the trip with the master many times. He purchased a large bowl full of cooking oil, and then he started back.
He quickly realized that his speed was greatly reduced. He needed to slow down and walk carefully in order to avoid spilling the oil. He focused his gaze on the bowl and concentrated, willing the oil to stay in. He thought about the people the temple waiting for him to bring back the oil. He told himself sternly that he must not fail.
The road was uneven. His set his right foot on a loose pebble and stumbled. Some oil splashed out as he compensated for the unexpected movement. Moments later, he stubbed his toes on a rock. It was painful, but again he adjusted himself to avoid too much spillage.
He decided to walk on grass instead of continuing to risk the dirt road. It seemed to work, but then his right foot slipped on a wet spot, nearly costing him his balance. He recovered, only to plant his left foot in a pile of cow dropping. He tried to shake it off, rubbing his foot against a tree, all the while keeping his intense focus on the oil. Every time more of it spilled out, he gritted his teeth in despair.
After a long time, he finally made it back to the temple. He presented the bowl to the master with shame, because there was only a little bit of oil left.
The master listened to the disciple's report and considered the matter. Then, he gave the disciple more coins: "We still need cooking oil, so you must go into town again. It will be your opportunity to make amends. This time, I have special instructions for you. Hold the bowl with care, but do not look at it directly. Take the same path back as you have always done before. Keep your eyes on the road the way you usually do. If you want to look to the left or right, then do so exactly as you normally would. Do not stare at the bowl even if you suspect the oil may be spilling. Just keep your hands steady."
The disciple did exactly as he was told. He made it back to the temple in much less time. When he handed the bowl over to the master, he saw that only a small amount had spilled out. Puzzled, he asked: "Master, why is it that I did so much better this time?"
The master smiled: "As soon as you figure it out, you will know the secret of living in the Tao."
This story illustrates how to act in accordance with the Tao by showing two ways to advance toward a goal. The first is the way of tension and strife. Like the disciple decreasing speed and increasing vigilance, when we face an important task, we often slow down and tense up. We strive to put every ounce of effort into it.
This didn't work well for the disciple. The obstacles on his way back to the temple gave him much trouble. The same is true in life - the more badly we want something, the more tightly we grasp on to the objective, the more we encounter difficult challenges. The loose pebbles are the little surprises that keep popping up; the toe-stubbing rocks are the problems that cause mental anguish; the wet spots are the tricky parts where mistakes are likely; and the cow droppings are the bureaucratic people who seem to delight in blocking progress.
We struggle against these difficulties. Like the disciple adjusting his movements and recovering his balance, we try hard to handle the surprises, bear the pain, correct our mistakes, and appease the bureaucrats. But, like the oil spilling out of the disciple's bowl, each battle takes a toll. In the end, we realize that we have to lower expectations and settle for less.
Most people will probably blame poor results on the external factors, but the story suggests something else as the true cause. What makes us to grasp on too tightly, or want something too badly? Is it nervousness? Anxiety? Fear? The teachings of the Tao gets to the bottom of it and points to the mindset of gain and loss.
The disciple started on the wrong foot when he let his mind dwell on the possible gain and potential loss. This generated fear that things might go badly, and the fear in turn made him anxious and nervous. He focused so much on the bowl that he was not able to pay the appropriate attention to his surroundings. It became a chain reaction of cascading failures.
The master taught the disciple a better way. It wasn't to give up getting the oil, which was still a necessity; nor was it some esoteric technique to empty the mind of all thoughts. It was a specific technique from Tao cultivation called the ordinary mind. It is the best way to achieve objectives in accordance with the Tao, and there are three keys to it:
The first key is keeping it simple. The master told the disciple to take the same path he usually took and to look around in any direction as he normally would. For us, this means keeping everything related to an objective the same, to maintain the familiarity and comfort level. Avoid unnecessary changes - they make everything more complicated and potentially more disruptive.
The disciple treated his second trip back to the temple as nothing special, just one of many trips. We can do the same thing with any particular task. The ordinary mind excels in completing ordinary work without drama or fanfare. There are no crazy stunts or risky meneuvers – just ordinary brilliance. The last-minute home run and the sudden stroke of genius work well in movies, but in real life it is sticking to what you know that brings out your natural excellence.
The second key is becoming aware of the situation in its totality. The master told the disciple to avoid staring at the bowl. Establishing and maintaining an overall awareness requires that you let go of intense focus on any one thing and widen your senses in all directions.
This is not a trance-like state. It is relaxed but alert, so that nothing escapes your notice. It is also not a careless or sloppy frame of mind. It allows for concentration without sacrificing peripheral perception, so that you are still aware of all potential obstacles, thus making it easy to navigate around them.
The third key is the most crucial of all. It is about trusting yourself. The disciple did not have this trust initially. He felt as if he needed to watch over himself to make sure he did not make mistakes. This only made him stressed, apprehensive, and ultimately less effective.
The disciple's self-monitoring was not necessary. He already knew the road back to the temple quite well. Similarly, you already know the best way to accomplish your goal. You have an innate intelligence that has everything it needs to hit the ball out of the park. You only have to place your trust in it. Refrain from second-guessing yourself, and stay out of your own way.
Wonderful things happen when you are able to use the ordinary mind skillfully and consistently. The disciple was able to deliver more oil in less time and with less effort. The same will be true for you as you work in accordance with the Tao. Your can radically improve your performance, not by doing more and trying harder, but by doing less and relaxing more.
As the master told the disciple, figuring out the difference between the two would reveal the secret of living in the Tao. In this context, the oil isn't just the necessities of life. It is also the goodness and happiness that we want to maximize. Following the master's instructions means you end up with more of the oil, instead of spilling too much of it along the way.
This, then, is the secret: when we live in the Tao, it is the ordinary mind that delivers extraordinary results.