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The Duck In The Bottle


A group of people went to meet a Zen teacher while he was walking in a park. “We want to know about Zen. Please tells us about it.” The most enthusiastic one asked.

The teacher said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“I had a small duckling. I kept it in a bottle. I fed it and kept the bottle clean and took good care of it. The duck grew and grew. One day I realized that the duck has grown too big and I cannot get it out unless I hurt it seriously or break the bottle. So now what should I do if I want to get the duck out, but I still want the bottle intact?”

People started scratching their heads and talking to each other. Time went by. Once in a while somebody would come up with a solution. Teacher would smile and show his disagreement.

After a while teacher called a small girl playing nearby and asked her the same question. “Just break the bottle.” The girl replied without hesitation.

The teacher nodded in agreement and patted her on back. He smiled at the bunch of perplexed faces in front of him and walked away.

I know what you are all thinking. You are wondering if I am suggesting the girl’s answer is the correct one. If I am, then you are ready to pound on me saying “But the teacher clearly said he does not want to break the bottle.”

The girl’s answer is perhaps not correct by definition. Yet she sees something the group of grown-ups fails to see. She sees that it is impossible.

It is impossible to save the duck and save the bottle as well. Yes, people can come up with solutions. Perhaps a machines can be invented to expand the bottle and get the duck safely out, or to tele-transport the duck the way they show in Star trek, or perhaps surgical procedures can be performed that would cut the duck to pieces inside the bottle and join all the limbs again when out.

Yet, we would do a lot of damage by the time we achieve that. To invent such a machine and test it, money worth a lot of bottles would be spent. To come up with perfect surgical procedures, a lot of ducks will have to die in experiments. Usually that’s how we tend to solve problems in our daily life. We isolate the problem from rest of the universe and solve the problem, making a lot of assumptions about the rest of the world.

Can you save both the duck and the bottle by going to extreme means? Yes. Are you really living in better universe after that feat of achievement? Most likely not.

The little girl, who was not yet conditioned by civilization, immediately saw futility of this conquest. She did not convert it in an intellectual challenge. She felt compassion even for the fictional duck. She did not mind ignoring the instructions and risking to look foolish. Her problem is very clear and solution very simple. If the duck is stuck, break the bottle and get it out.

The truth here is that conflict is inherent to life.

We go on telling ourselves that if there is a conflict, then there is something wrong, something needs to be improved, optimized, changed. For example, healthy food usually does not taste good. Tasty food is mostly bad for health. So there is a conflict. Food that is healthy as well as tasty will cost you a lot more, thus conflicting somewhere else. Chase one conflict out, and the other one sneaks in.

We treat these conflicts as aberrations or mistakes. We believe in existence of a physical and mental state eternally free of all conflicts and we continuously strive for such a state.

The truth is, it is impossible to achieve such a state of mind and body by pursuit of material goals.

This is the lesson 101 of Zen Buddhism and overall oriental philosophy. Disillusion of material goals. Rather than shunning these conflicts and trying to impose order on life, ancient Eastern philosophers tend to honor them by calling it the game of Bramha and Maya, or the dance of Yin and Yang. They tend to view the world as the continuous and endless play between two forces, eternally at conflict with each other. Sometimes the duck wins, sometimes the bottle. Sometimes it’s Bramha, sometimes Maya. There is no purpose, there is no end.

This Yin vs. Yang struggle is present in our life as short term goals vs. long term goals, emotions vs. logic, ideology vs. practicality, aggression vs. defense, hate vs. love. Sometimes we swing this way, sometimes that way. That swinging is us, not the swing. The motion is us, not the pendulum.

Initially it might sound depressing. What’s the point in such a broken life if we cannot fix it?

But once we let it sink in, we find a huge sense of liberation. Suddenly it is not necessary to fix things before you enjoy them. Fix it if you like fixing. Enjoy it if you like enjoying.

Once we get it, we stop subordinating this present moment for that fictitious moment of fulfillment in future. We begin honoring the present for what it is. We stop life as an exercise in managing consequences and we start life as spontaneous expression. We stop seeing ourselves as a player. Instead we see ourselves as the game, the motion itself. We stop living in fiction, we start living in reality.

Because Destination is a fiction, only journey is a reality.

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7 Responses

  1. Poor Duck!

    I’m sure that everyone else in our group answered the same as me with, “Break the bottle!” Not too many years ago I would have spent time considering elaborate plans to rescue the duck and save the bottle as well. It’s amazing how much we change.

    I used to truly dislike metaphors – “Just say what you mean!” Now I love them; they contain so much perspective and so much truth.

    The duck in the bottle story reminded me – and I really don’t like to quote movies especially from certain genera but this time I’ll make an exception – it reminded me of a line from the movie “The Matrix” when Neo goes to see the Oracle for the first time and meets a small boy who can bend a spoon with his thoughts. Neo asks the boy how he is able to bend the spoon and the boy replies that he only needs to realize the truth about the spoon – “There is no spoon.”

    I wonder if the Duck might realize on it’s own that there is no bottle, or rather there is only a bottle of its own creation. Of course I’m moving the “Duck in the Bottle” metaphor in my own direction but I believe it’s valid. We are the Ducks and we create our own Bottle – our perspectives, our barriers and defenses, the circumstances of our lives, the prisons we allow to contain us however we are made to fly. Break the bottle!

  2. Jon,

    Great comments indeed. Thanks.

    Speaking about Matrix, I think that movie asks some very deep questions. My favorite quote is the one by the Oracle “You can’t see beyond the boundaries you chooze.” (These may not be exact words, but something very close.)

    Your idea of the duck in the bottle metaphor is interesting. A small story but it has so much to say!!

  3. Nice story… It tells a lot about most of our world leaders… I’d say many of them would kill the duck to save the bottle…

  4. Ha ha,
    True, and in the process, most of them will lose both.
    K

  5. Why is it o.k. to cut the duck up and reassemble it, but not o.k. to cut the bottle in half and reassemble it? If you cut the bottle in half, remove the duck, then put the two pieces back together again, do you not accomplish the goal? The duck is alive – the bottle is intact.

  6. It is not question what is OK and what is not. There are not right or wrong answers. Here we are analyzing our tendency to analyze and to convert this eternal conflict into a fictional quest.
    When we say cut the bottle and rejoin it, we are taking thousands of things granted. If viewed as an isolated problem involving only the duck and bottle, this solution (or any solution for that matter) is correct. But then we are ignoring the effects on rest of the world. When we build machines that can cut and join bottles, we are disturbing a lot of things and making a lot of changes in nature as a whole. And when we analyze the “whole” and all the possible repercussions, it is difficult to say by solving the “problem”, we made our life better.
    So should we not undertake any quest because it will disturb the whole in lot of ways we can’t guess? No, we can undertake quests if we want to. But we must do it for the joy of doing it, not for the sake of manipulating the world to take it to a particular state.

  7. […] Long back, I wrote about the Zen story of Duck in the bottle. […]

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