Carpenter Shih was on his way to Chi, when he came to a place called Chu Yuan, where he saw an oak tree which was venerated as the home of the spirits of the land. The tree was so vast that a thousand oxen could hide behind it. It was a hundred spans round and it soared above the hill to eighty feet before it even began to put out branches. There were ten such branches, from any one of which an entire boat could be carved. Masses of people came to it, giving the place a carnival atmosphere, but carpenter Shih didn’t even look round, just went on his way. His assistant looked at it with great intensity, and then chased after his master and said, “Since I first took up my axe and followed you, I have never seen a wood such as this. Sir, why did you not even glance at it nor stop, but just kept going?”
He said, “Silence, not another word! This tree is useless. Make a boat from it and it would sink; make a coffin and it would rot quickly; make some furniture and it would fall to pieces; make a door and it would be covered in seeping sap; make a pillar and it would be worm-eaten. This wood is useless and good for nothing. This is why it has lived so long.”
When Master Shih was returning, the tree appeared to him in a dream, saying, “What exactly are you comparing me with? With ornamental Fruit trees? Trees such as the hawthorn, pear trees, orange trees, citrus trees, gourds and other such fruit trees? Their fruits are knocked down when they are ripe and the trees suffer. The big branches are damaged and the small ones are broken off. Because they are useful, they suffer, and they are unable to live out the years Heaven has given them. They have only their usefulness to blame for this destruction wrought by the people. It is the same with all things. I have spent a long time studying to be useless, though on a couple of occasions I was nearly destroyed. However now I have perfected the art of uselessness, and this is very useful, to me! If I had been of use, could I have grown so vast? Furthermore, you and I are both things. How can one thing make such statements about another? How can you, a useless man about to die, know anything about a useless tree?
When carpenter Shih awoke, he told his apprentice what he had dreamt. The apprentice said, “If it wants to be useless, why is it used as a shrine for the spirits of the land?”
“Hush! Don’t say another word!” said Shih, “The tree happens to be here so it is an altar. By this it protects itself from harm from those who do not realize it is useless, for were it not an altar, it would run the risk of being chopped down. Furthermore, this tree is no ordinary one, so to speak of it in normal terms is to miss the point.”
Nan Po Tzu Chi, wandering amongst the mountains of Shang, came upon a great and unusual tree, under which could shelter a thousand chariots, and they would all be covered. Tzu Chi said, “What kind of tree is this? It is surely a most wondrous piece of timber!” However, when he looked up, he could see that the smaller branches were so twisted and gnarled that they could not be made into rafters and beams; and looking down at the trunk he saw it was warped and distorted and would not make good coffins. He licked one of its leaves and his mouth felt scarped and sore. He sniffed it and it nearly drove him mad, as if he had been drunk for three days.
“This tree is certainly good for nothing,” said Tzu Chi. “This is why it has grown so large. Ah-Ha! This is the sort of uselessness that sages live by.”
“…The cinnamon tree is edible, so it is cut down. The varnish tree is useful and it is cut about. Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but no one knows the usefulness of the useless!”