There is a beautiful but quiet scene in the animated movie Kung Fu Panda which actually expresses a piece of great wisdom. It reminds us of the art of balancing belief in our work with the illusion of our need for control.
The wise old kung fu tortoise, Master Oogway, is speaking to his disciple, Shifu, a red panda who is charged with training the unlikely Po, a giant panda, to become the next great kung fu Dragon Warrior. They are standing under the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom. Shifu is at a moment of crisis of faith, unable to see the potential in his overweight, clumsy protege.
Master Oogway points to the peach tree, with its lovely branches and its colorful, plump fruits. He picks up a peach pit, and explains to Shifu: “My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours until you let go of the illusion of control. The essence of this seed is to become a peach tree. Within this bumpy, hard-shelled pit is the potential for this entire tree, with its flower blossoms and branches filled with ripe fruit. I can plant the seed in the ground, cover it with soil, and nurture it with water and sunlight. But I cannot make the tree blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.”
Shifu insists, “But there are things we can control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed: that is no illusion, Master!”
Oogway replies, “Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will only get a peach.”
Shifu, anxious to produce a “winner” immediately out of his young Kung Fu Panda, says, “But a peach cannot defeat the evil Tai Lung!”
Master Oogway, while gazing into the starry night, replies, “Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide it, to nurture it, to believe in it. You just need to believe.”
How often in our lives do we try to force an apple or an orange out of something whose essence is a peach? Master Oogway reminds us that we cannot become so attached to an outcome that we imagine in our minds. Everything has an essence – a true nature that is immutable no matter what kind of influence we try to exert.
On the other hand, if we ignore a seed, giving up just because it is ugly on the outside, or seemingly hard and dry without signs of life to give, we may miss the opportunity to create an entire tree, bearing both blossoms and fruit for years to come, and changing the landscape forever. In order for the seed to fulfill its potential as a tree, it must be planted in the ground, covered with soil, and provided water and sunlight. Once we do these things, we must let go and trust nature. We cannot incessantly dig into the ground to check on its progress. We cannot speed up the germination process by force of will. We cannot even guarantee that each seed we planted will take root and survive the full journey to become a fruit-bearing tree.
So why do we plant the seed? Why do we care for it, provide for it, and nurture what we can only believe in our hearts to be its full potential?
If we are only nurturing for the sake of our own egos – to see the resulting apple or orange, which we might prefer over the peach – we will never be satisfied with our work. We will be unhappy even though we may have a beautiful peach, instead of the apple or orange we craved.
We must do the seemingly paradoxical work of nurturing, and believing, and guiding, AND letting go of our need to know what kind of fruit the tree will bear. We may need to accept that some seeds will not survive. Those seeds, once broken down, may serve another purpose that supports the tree, as fertilizer for other seeds, or as food for a passing animal. Every seed is valuable in some way, but not every seed will reach the same potential.
In Kung Fu Panda, Shifu’s grueling training enables his student Po to learn eventually to believe in his own potential, and to find the courage to fulfill his ultimate destiny as Dragon Warrior.
Master Oogway’s parting words under the peach tree remind the teacher in each of us that our most important duties as cultivators are the promise to believe, the willingness to guide, and the wisdom to let go. Simply profound, Master Oogway, but not at all easy to do.