Monday, 18 January 2010

Master Oogway and the Broken Leg of Life

Perhaps you are familiar with the ancient Taoist proverb about the boy who broke his leg?  It goes something like this: 

One day, a farmer's horse ran away. His neighbours cried, "What terrible luck that you lost your horse!" The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

A few days later, the horse returned, leading several wild horses. The neighbours cried, "Your horse has returned, and brought more with him. What great fortune!" The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

Later that week, the farmer's son was trying to break one of the wild horses and got thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, "Your son broke his leg, what a calamity!" The farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, conscripting all the able-bodied young men for the army. They did not take the farmer's son because of his broken leg. Friends cried, "Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!" To which the farmer replied, "Maybe so, maybe not."

Recently, while watching the film KUNG FU PANDA (Dreamworks 2008) with my son, I was delighted when wise old Master Oogway reminds Master Shifu (who is in a panic because the villain Tai Lung has escaped from prison) that ‘an event is just an event.’ In other words, events have no meaning in and of themselves, only the ones we give them.  Though this may have gone over a seven-year-old’s head, it went straight to my heart.

This can be hard for people to grasp as human beings are generally far more comfortable with a firm, clear set of rules and values which name things as “right” and “wrong”,  “good” and “bad” as determined by some authority, earthly or heavenly. But the truth, I suspect, is more aligned with Master Oogway’s philosophy than religious or political dogma. 

Perhaps we know this innately, but we forget in the heat of the moment.  I remember not getting a job I particularly wanted some years ago.  I cursed the unfairness of life.  Soon after I was offered a better, far more interesting position that I could not have taken if I had got the first job.  I could have saved myself a lot of angst if I'd been centered enough to pause and consider that losing out on a job might have a greater meaning.  

We can all cultivate this kind of "maybe so, maybe not" centeredness, and heaven knows there are plenty of wise souls both past and present who offer practical teachings along those lines.  Jesus himself urged us not to judge, and Byron Katie, a favorite modern sage, urges us to “love what is.”

There is plenty going on in the world right now that one could call “good” or “bad.”  But it is perhaps wiser to remember that a broken leg is just a broken leg unless we deem otherwise. 


  1. Fascinating post and a fab way to exercise my brain this morning with something philosphical. Thank you for making me think about matters in a different way.
    Will follow with interest.

  2. Some time ago, I got to the same conclusion: I am where I have to be when I have to be. Not a second earlier, not a second later.
    I used to rant about losing a bus, or not walking fast enough to get to a bank counter. Until one day. out of nowhere, this feeling got me: there must be a reason why I didn't catch that bus or didn't get first to the counter. Sometimes I get an answer, sometimes I don't. Anyway, I always know there is a reason.