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Alan Watts: The Story of the Chinese Farmer

Glowing image GIF of the philosopher Alan Watts

Some of Alan Watts most influential lessons and ideas emerged from lectures he gave at universities across the United States, including his story of the Chinese farmer.

The story, recorded and transcribed below, is also part of a collection of lectures entitled Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks: 1960-1969

“You never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”

Alan Watts

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.

Alan Watts

‘Maybe’ we pick up clues as we go along, labeling situations as either misfortune or good fortune. But the yin can’t exist without the yang, the shadow depends on light and vice versa.

The nature of experience proposes a game of chance. The future is too unpredictable to force an outcome. We never know the consequences of any event other than the one we can emotionally control.


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By Wells Baum

Wells Baum is a daily blogger who writes about Life & Arts. He's also the author of four books.

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