One summer, a master carpenter named Shih and his apprentice traveled to the kingdom of Chi to do some work for a rich man there. When they reached the village of Chu Yuan, they encountered an enormous oak tree overshadowing the village temple. It was as tall as a mountain, and the spread of its branches was wide enough to cover thousands of oxen. Even the lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground and as thick as elephants.
As they passed the tree, the apprentice tugged Shih’s sleeve. “Master!” he cried. “Never, not ever, have I seen a tree such as this. It has enough wood to build a whole city, from wooden peg to emperor’s palace, from young girl’s bracelet to old man’s chair. Yet, you, a carpenter, barely glanced at it. Why?”
Shih rolled his eyes and spit. “Enough! Do you think this is the first time I’ve passed that tree? It is not. So, let me tell you about that tree that has widened your eyes. In almost any way a tree can be useful, it is useless. It’s so heavy that a boat made of it sinks like a stone, so aged that a coffin made of it rots overnight. Make a tool out of it, and the tool shatters. Make a door out of it, and the door bleeds sap like a pig bleeds blood. Its wood is only attractive to termites and worms who eat it like candy. It is the most worthless tree I’ve even encountered. That is why it is so old.”
Shih stayed in a foul mood until they reached Chi that night. Shortly after he went to sleep, the tree visited him in a dream and spoke in a voice like a rustling leaves.
“So, you say I’m useless, Master Shih? Is that right?” Said the tree. “With what are you comparing me? The trees that yield fruit, such as cherry and peach? As soon as their fruit is plucked, you torture and break their branches to yield more and sweeter fruit. They live miserably. Or perhaps you are comparing me to hardwood trees? As soon as they are fully grown, you split them apart with an axe and use their corpses for your beds. And, of course, there are the trees from which you like to strip skin and then there are the trees you chop up and burn. These trees die too young. Their usefulness is dangerous to them. So, when you speak of use, Master Shih, you mean of use to you. In this way, yes, I am useless. I hope to remain so until the day I fall from natural causes. This is very useful to me.”
Shih opened his mouth to say something but found he had no reply for the tree. So, it continued its speech. “Master,” it said. “Shih,” it said. “In the end, you and I are both creatures. We are creatures who have our own plans, yet who are surrounded by other creatures who have plans for us too. One person will make art from me. Another will treat my wood as trash to be disposed of. Both are true. But which am I? Tell me: what creature has the right to judge another’s usefulness? What creature can? You, a man who is useless to me, a man who is old and who will die soon, tell me, what do you know about useless trees?”
Shih awoke then. His heart beat loudly. He lay in bed for a long time and thought about what the tree said. The next morning, he told his apprentice about the dream.
“That tree is a liar, Master Shih,” said the apprentice. “It says that it’s useless yet it shelters the temple and so is treated as a holy tree.”
Master Shih bobbed as he thought over the apprentice’s comment. Finally, he replied, “It’s true that the tree is useful in its holiness. But this is a very different type of usefulness than what we ordinarily think of. Moreover, it is a kind of usefulness that is also in the tree’s interest. How many dare cut down what’s holy? I’m sure there is more to say on this. But trees like this are very different from all others. So they cannot be understood or judged according to the usual standards.