A Taoist Defines Tranquility

A parable tells of a time in ancient China when an emperor asked his minister to summon the best artists in the land.

“I want to focus on the issues at hand but my mind is unsettled. It would help me to look upon some piece of art that reflects tranquility,” explained the emperor.

Weeks later, three large paintings were submitted to the emperor for his review. He looked upon the first which showed a calm lake surrounded by mountains. The scene was beautiful and serene, and the water completely placid.

“This is quite nice,” said the emperor. His minister took a breath of relief.

The second painting showed a valley after a heavy snowfall, the embodiment of a silent, serene winter’s afternoon. The emperor nodded his approval and the minister took another breath.

The third painting featured a roaring waterfall.

“I’m sorry, your highness,” said the nervous minister. “The artist did not understand my request for tranquility. Perhaps one of the other images will serve you.”

The emperor raised his hand to silence the minister. “This is the painting I want,” he said. “Look here.”

The minister leaned in to see a tree painted near the waterfall. In one of the branches there was a nest with a bird sleeping inside.

“See how the bird is able to find quiet even amidst the movement and roar of the waterfall?” said the emperor. “The bird walks so purely with the Tao that nothing can disturb its inner peace. This is tranquility.”

We want so desperately to find inner peace that we spend effort and money surrounding ourselves with music, incense, clothes and furnishings to help us attain it. But as Taoists, we know tranquility is within at all times, no matter how abrasive or disruptive the world becomes. It’s simply up to us to learn not to be disturbed.

The emperor chose the painting that reminded him the world would never be quiet or still enough to appease him. Instead, like the bird, we must secure a small haven in the midst of chaos and find tranquility within by contemplating the Tao.


About Leigh

Leigh is an American Taoist philosopher, exploring how modern life and its problems can best be addressed with ancient teachings. She is also a doctor of psychology.
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