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Misfortune or Good Fortune?

Alan Watts, who died in 1973, was an English writer, speaker, and self-styled ‘philosophical entertainer’, known for interpreting and popularising Japanese, Chinese and Indian traditions of Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu philosophy for a Western audience.

Alan Watts, the 'philosophical entertainer'
Alan Watts | Wikipedia

One particularly intriguing example of his work is The Story of the Chinese Farmer:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

In the moment, bad news seems bad and good news seems good. But this parable teaches us that we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in our assumptions as to what is good and what is bad.

A current bout of misfortune might lead to some remarkable opportunity, which again might lead to further misfortune, on and on it goes.

The key is to ride the waves… not to fight against them.



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