Taoist Stories


by Carol Deppe


    Here are some stories from a work in progress, my own retellings of classic Taoist and Taoist-flavored stories. I exercise full story-teller's rights, reworking, recasting, simplifying, or elaborating at will. Each story, however, contains a core that was already old two thousand years ago. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.



The Horse


        Once upon a time in a village in ancient China there was an old man who lived alone with his son. They were very poor. They had just a small plot of land outside the village to grow rice and vegetables and a rude hut to live in. But they also had a good mare. It was the son's pride and joy, and their only possession of value.
        One day the mare ran away.
        The old man's friends came to him and commiserated. "What a wonderful mare that was!" they said. "What bad fortune that she ran off!"
        "Who can tell?" the old man said.
        Two weeks later the mare returned accompanied by a fine barbarian stallion. Friends and neighbors all came around and congratulated the old man. "Now you have your mare back, and that stallion is as fine as any in the land. What a stroke of good fortune!"
        "Who can tell?" the old man said.
        Two weeks later the son fell off the stallion while riding and broke his leg. Friends of the old man came to him to express their sympathy. "It's too bad your son broke his leg, and right before the planting season, too. What bad luck!"
        "Who can tell?" the old man said.
        Two weeks later, war came to the land, and all able-bodied young men were drafted. The troop that contained the men from the village was at the front in a bloody engagement, and the entire troop was lost. All the men from the village died in battle.
        The young man with the broken leg stayed home. His leg healed. He and his father bred many fine horses, and tended their fields.

(Huai Nan Tzu)

Entertaining A Seabird

           Once upon a time in ancient China, a disciple was talking with his teacher.  "Master," said the disciple, "It is said that all you really need to know in dealing with people is to simply always treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.  What do you think?"     

    "Let me tell you about how the Marquis of Lu entertained the seabird," the Master responded.

    "One day a rare and beautiful seabird was blown far off course by a storm.  It came to earth in the capital of Lu.  The Marquis of Lu was delighted, and made the seabird his special guest.  He had performers sing and dance for it day and night, and he presented it with fine roast meats and excellent wine.  But the bird was terrified and confused, and it ate and drank nothing.  After three days it died.

    "The Marquis of Lu entertained the seabird the way he liked to be entertained, not the way a seabird likes to be entertained."

(Chuang Tzu)

The Two Goat-herders

        Once upon a time in ancient China there were two men, Zang and Gu. Both were goat-herders. Zang liked to spend his time gambling with his friends. He often gambled while he was tending the goats. Gu was very serious about acquiring learning. He often read and studied while he tended his goats.

        One day, Zang became very involved in his gambling, and one of his goats strayed and was lost.

        That same day, Gu became very absorbed in a book he was studying in order to cultivate and improve himself. One of his goats strayed and was lost also.

(Chuang Tzu)

The Tiger In The City

        A sage was dining as guest of the district magistrate. "Sir," said the sage. "Suppose you were eating your dinner and a man rushed up and told you that there was a tiger in the middle of the city. Would you believe him?"

        "Just one man?"

        "Just one."

        "No, I wouldn't believe there was a tiger in the city if I only heard it from one man."

        "What about two men?"

        "Just two?"

        "Just two."

        The magistrate took longer to answer this time. Finally he said, "No, no, I don't think so. I wouldn't believe it if I only heard it from two men."

        "What about three?"

        "Yes," said the magistrate. "If I heard it from three men, I'd believe it."

        "That's interesting," said the sage, "because there's still no tiger in the city."

(Chinese fable)


Three In The Morning

        Once upon a time in ancient China there lived a man who could talk with animals. This man was especially fond of monkeys, and earned his living as a monkey trainer. One year, famine came to the land, and food became very expensive. The man had to dip into the family's savings in order to feed the family and the monkeys. Finally, it became necessary to cut the rations of the monkeys.

        The monkeys normally received eight chestnuts each, four in the morning and four in the evening. The man went into the courtyard where he kept the monkeys, and called them down to him from the trees. They came down somersaulting and chortling and sat in a circle around him.

        The man explained about how his money wouldn't buy as many chestnuts. "I'm very sorry," he said, but I'm going to have to give you three in the morning and four in the evening."

        The monkeys were furious. They chattered angrily, and called the man foul names in monkey speech. "Well," said the man. “If you don’t like the idea of three in the morning and four in the evening, how about this? How about if, instead, I give you four in the morning and three in the evening?"

        The monkeys were delighted.

(Chuang Tzu)

Living On Opinion

        Once when Lieh Tzu lived in Cheng he was very poor, and had trouble feeding his family. Unknown to him, a neighbor went to the prime minister and told him all about Lieh Tzu. "Look," the neighbor said. "This man is a true sage. It's shameful for the state to let he and his family starve. Wouldn't it be better for you to show that you can recognize and appreciate a true sage when you see one?"

        The prime minister, impressed by the words of the neighbor, sent a servant to Lieh Tzu’s home with a rich gift of money. But Lieh Tzu politely refused the gift.

        After the servant left, Lieh Tzu's wife criticized him angrily. "You took food out of the mouths of your family!" she said. "It wouldn't have hurt to accept the gift!"

        "If we live by someone's opinion, we can die by someone's opinion," said Lieh Tzu.

        Shortly thereafter, the prime minister lost power and was executed, and all those he had favored came under suspicion.

(Lieh Tzu)

True Understanding

        "Master --" a disciple asked Chuang Tzu one day, "Where did the universe come from? Is there a God? What is the purpose of life? Why is there pain and injustice and suffering? Where do we go after we die?"

Chuang Tzu responded:

        “The true master of life does not labor over life. The true master of fate does not question fate. Use understanding to understand what can be understood with understanding, and then stop.”

(Chuang Tzu)

Boring Holes in Chaos

Sudden Drama was Emperor of the Northern Darkness. Makes Change was Emperor of the Southern Abyss. They often got together in the home of their friend Undifferentiated Chaos, Emperor of the Central Region. Drama and Change had seven holes in their bodies, just like people, to see and hear and eat and breath. But Chaos was formless.

One day Drama said to Change: "It's very generous of Chaos to always be our host when we all get together. We should try to do something nice for him to show our appreciation."

"I agree," said Change. "I've always thought it a shame that Chaos doesn't have the seven orifices like all else under Heaven. Let's bore him some."

So each day, they bored a hole into Chaos. On the seventh day, Chaos died.

(Chuang Tzu)