The Tao of Boat

by Tim Holmberg

On December 08, 2008, I left my apartment in Bankers Hill, having shed most of my belongings, and took a short drive down to a marina on Harbor Island. There, tethered by four dock lines was my new home bobbing in time with the pulse of the ocean. Forty six feet of mahogany planking, chrome fittings and two giant diesel engines all crafted long ago into a boat of exceptional beauty. Even in its neglected state with flaking paint and rot eating at her corners, I knew I could make her shine again. Since that day, I have been asked more times than I care to recall – “Why?”

I have varied my answer to that question just enough to preserve my sanity and still be truthful. This was more than a dream to me. It was a call to action; a thrusting of myself into my own creative fires. The “phoenix” moment wherein I could raise myself from my own ashes. When the Marine Corps cut me adrift, I held fast to one the one dream that I knew would steer me home. This is what led to my boat’s name – “Compass Rose” – the design on the face of the ancient mariner’s compass. The boat and I would find our direction together. A deep instinct told me that my journey with the boat was not a simple quest for direction though. It was a quest for enlightenment – what Native Americans call a vision quest. A chance not only to draw myself out from behind walls that had blocked me, but to draw the nature of the universe closer to my senses. To move myself forward by reaching back in time and grasping the hand of the ship-wright that crafted my boat.

In 1965, somewhere in Honduras, vast mahogany forests were being cleared to feed the boatyards in Michigan where my boat was made. Her planks were stolen from Enlil and dragged past Humbaba’s head. America had become the slayer of the wild bull. I wonder now, in all these wars that we are engaged in, if we are seeking our own immortality as a nation. Do we fear our own demise so much? Or did we simply slay our own Enkidu with our hubris. The boat I now restore, was a toy for the rich, and yet it had a soul. The soul was given to it by the craftspeople who built her. Their splinter flecked fingers and hammer blackened nails evidenced a dedication to their craft, and a connection to what they were crafting that has been bled from us. I know this because my hands now bare the same splinters and bruised nails. As I have renewed my boat’s soul, the effort renews mine. I am in the midst of a country that is blind to the rot growing within it, even if it does at least now suspect its presence:

“O my Lord,
The stars glitter
And the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors
And each lover is alone with his love.
Here, I am alone with You.

Over the last three years, my boat and I have slowly restored each other. And over those three years, countless observers have remarked on her . . . and I. Comments bracketed between hollow footfalls on the dock in front of my boat and I, as people come and go.

“Wow, that’s quite a project you have there.”

“Better you than me.”

“With all the work you’re putting into that, you could have just bought a new one.”

“That’s a real labor of love.”

It is from their reactions that I have learned much about why our country is populated with what the Tibetan Buddhists call “hungry ghosts”:

Oh Nobly Born

If you are addicted to the half-world

Of the hungry ghosts,

You will only desire

And desire.

Never satisfied,

You will develop a large belly and a small throat.

Are we a nation of creatures that lack the ability to be satisfied by anything, and whose hunger feeds a growing emptiness in us? Most of the people who meandered on the docks to their lonely boats were indeed hungry. I could see in their faces that they had placed their most cherished dreams into tomorrow’s sun, year after year, like pennies in a jar. Until their dreams blotted out the sun. They bought an exercise machine that holds drinks and cob webs. A “dream home”, but they work all the time so they can afford it. And so they do far more sleeping in it than living. The massive TV on the wall shows them things not worth remembering. A sports car that sits baking in the driveway. Each purchase was another grab at an artificial light that could never warm their souls. Then, one day, they noticed there was no light left, and they bought a boat that they occasionally visit so they can remember what it felt like when there was still sunlight in their lives.

If your happiness depends on money,
You will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have,
Rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.

I understand why Christ pities the rich. I sometimes pity them as much as they must pity me when they see my boat. I was one of many people who clung to things; I traded moments of my life for money and things. I can now see how pride and fear can blind people to the most obvious truths as it did Oedipus of Thebes. In people’s comments, I hear a fear of challenges that are great –as if few see in themselves a greatness to match such challenges (and yet their greatness is there).. I hear fingers on calculators, adding and subtracting the “value” of my investment, as if money could validate or refute my labors. I feel the subtle pressing of a tape measure against my back as if to measure me for my straight-jacket (measurements I have occasionally taken myself). My affliction is to seek my greatness through challenge, not for money, but for the fruits that money can never buy:

Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits . . .
Arjuna, action is far inferior
to the discipline of understanding
so seek refuge in understanding – pitiful
are men drawn by the fruits of action . . .

The boat gave me discipline and understanding – it is the antithesis of what people seek today. It requires care, devotion and returns only earned gratification. In a disposable society , I have chosen to resurrect something that was destined for a landfill – but not for the fruits of the labor. I do not intend to sell it. And even if I did, it would be rated a poor investment by economic standards. I did it rather to touch my own inner greatness. To realize how feeble boundaries are when confronted by discipline and understanding.

My boat and I are the contrast to a society that has chosen to excise oil from deep in the earth to make plastic cereal bowls that can be thrown away after their first use. My endeavors by their nature question the wisdom of such laziness and convenience. They ask, “to what end, and at what cost?” I am Haemon entreating a nation of Creon’s to think (hopefully we both find a better ending).

Plastic boats were created to satisfy our desire to neglect the things we prize until we are bored and need distraction. They stand in defiance of nature, where everything is constantly being recycled. Concoctions of chemicals that will shed toxins into the environment for hundreds and thousands of years. Wood is despised for the very thing that makes it perfect. It is ready to return to nature once we are done with it. All I must do is release my boat back to nature, and the mahogany planks that carve the waves and cradle me at night will turn to mulch.

I once argued with a physicist friend that entropy is a human creation. Nature tends towards a supreme order – layers and layers of order and organization that we confuse for chaos because it does not match our vision. When our simple creations fall apart, we blame the universe. But the universe is simply acting on its imperative for constant change, and exposing the imperfection of our creations. I stand between my boat and nature’s imperative. I am entropy. Some days, nature wins a bit, other days I win a bit more. And slowly, my boat returns to my version of (dis)order (fleeting though it may be). I have come to respect the wisdom of nature’s way, and nature respects my dream (only so long as I am willing to sustain it).

Work on wooden boats is steady, methodical work – what the Taoist would define as the boat moving upstream. Many have thought of Taoism as simply going with the flow. “Let the river carry you.” If I had embraced this view of Taoism, my boat would be more suitable for crops than cruising the bay. But I know from Taoism that what I am doing is using nature to my advantage. If nature sends rain onto the exposed wood of my boat, I chase it with salt water. Fresh water feeds mold, salt water kills it. If salt tarnishes the chrome on my boat, then I use wax to protect the metal. If sun bakes the varnish on my rails, I provide shade to preserve them.

For three years now, I have worked in my own disciplined solitude absent the nattering of a TV. All the while, blind Kings have walked by my boat and I. The boat has become my teacher and savior. Perhaps it is the carpenter who was killed on a cross of wood, who now teaches me through the wood of my boat. Or perhaps it is Krishna who is staring at me between the planks:

I exist in all creatures.
So the disciplined man devoted to me
Grasps the oneness of life wherever he is, he is in me.
When he sees identity in everything,
Whether joy or suffering,
Through analogy with the self,
He is deemed a man of pure discipline.

Or maybe it is the Tao of the boat whose currents I am feeling. Before I could repair the rotted planks on my boat, I needed to understand what Lao Tsu described in the Tao Te Ching:

“An army that cannot yield
will suffer defeat
A tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind”

The same is true of a boat whose bow is cutting the crests of waves – the boat that cannot bend will snap in the seas. If I did not balance strength and flexibility in my repairs, I would render my boat helpless to the storms. The planks I fastened needed to be long enough to flex and transfer stress or they would snap. I could not place splices next to each other or I would concentrate weakness.

So I too disperse my weakness and learn to flex my patience. I sand away ego, and polish my intellect with a rag of discipline. The oscillations of my boat’s keel on the water match mine, and through it, I feel my connection to everything in this universe and its connection to me. Connection upon connection that link me to my own Dharma.

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