Frog in a Well
Once upon a time, Kung-sun Lung was talking to Prince Mou of Wei.
Kung-sun Lung said, “When I was just a boy, I learned all the teachings of the great kings of old, and I learned how to be good, kind, and righteous. I studied the wisdom of ancient philosophers; I learned all the arguments about being and the attributes of being; I learned what was true and correct, and what was false and incorrect. I thought I understood every subject under the sun.
“But when I heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu,” said Kung-sun Lung, “I get all confused. Maybe I’m not as good at arguing as he is. Or maybe I don’t know as much as he does. But now that I have heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu, I feel like I don’t even dare open my mouth. What is wrong?”
Prince Mou leaned forward on his stool. He drew a long breath, looked up to heaven, and smiled. “Have you ever heard the story of the frog of the broken-down well?” he said.
Kung-sun Lung shook his head.
“Well, then,” said Prince Mou, “Let me tell you the story.”
Once upon a time, there was a frog that lived in a broken-down well. Ordinarily, this frog would not want to live in a well, because once he got into the well, he wouldn’t be able to get out again. But the broken-down sides of the well allowed the frog to climb in and out of the well as if he were climbing a ladder, or a broken-down staircase.
One day, the frog climbed out of the well, and as he walked around, he happened to fall into a conversation with the Turtle of the Eastern Sea. She asked the frog how he enjoyed living where he did.
The little frog said he enjoyed it very much. “I hop onto the edge of my broken-down well,” said the frog, “and from there I climb down into the water, using the broken-down sides of the well as a grand staircase to the water. When I get close to the water, I dive into it. I draw my legs together, and keep my chin up, and swim around the well. I dive down to the bottom of the well, down and down until my feet are lost in the mud. I come back up for air, and I look around at everyone else who lives in the well — the little crabs, the insects, the tadpoles — and I see that there is no one who match me. I am in complete command of the water of my whole little valley. It is the greatest pleasure to enjoy myself in my broken-down well. You should come with me and try it yourself.”
With that, the little frog led the way to his broken-down well. The Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to follow him. But her front right foot got stuck in the well, before she had even manage to move her front left foot forward. At this, she drew back, saying that it would be better if she didn’t try to get into the well.
Instead, the Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to tell the little frog he she enjoyed living where she did.
“The Eastern Sea where I live,” said the turtle, “is thousands of miles across, so far I can’t even measure it. It is more than a mile deep, so deep that I cannot find the bottom. If your valley got flooded, and hundreds more valleys like yours also got flooded, and if they all drained into the Eastern Sea, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not rise. If there were to be a drought, so that no rain fell for seven out of eight years, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not fall. The waters of the Eastern Sea do not rise or fall for any cause, great or small. And this is the greatest pleasure of living in the Eastern Sea.”
When the little frog from the broken-down well heard the turtle describe how big the Eastern Sea was, he was amazed and frightened. His mouth opened, and he was lost in surprise.
When Prince Mou finished telling this story, he said to Kung Sung-lung, “Do you understand how this story answers your question? Someone who isn’t yet able to understand the true difference between truth and falsehood can’t possibly understand Chuang-tzu. It would be like asking a mosquito to carry a mountain on its back.
“Chuang-tzu is like like the Turtle of the Eastern Sea, able to reach the deepest depths of the earth, and able to rise to the highest heights of sky. With freedom he launches out in any direction, and starting from what is confusing, he always comes back to what is understandable. Yet you think you are going to understand what he’s talking about by making lots of arguments! It is if you are trying to look at the whole sky through a small tube. You are like a frog in a broken-down well.”
Upon hearing this, Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open in surprise. He felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He slunk away, and when he was out of sight of Prince Mou, he ran away home.
Source: “Frog in a Well”: from the Chaung-tzu, 17.10, adapted from the James Legge translation.