Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a ferryman who worked along a stretch of the Yangtze river. There were several villages and towns on both sides of the river, so he had steady business taking passengers from one side to the other. Over the years, this brought him into contact with people from all walks of life.
One day, a villager approached the ferryman as he was waiting for potential passengers by his boat. The villager said: “Sir, perhaps you can help me with a question. I’m thinking about moving to the other side of the river. You are probably quite familiar with the people over there. Can you tell me about them?”
The ferryman was curious: “Why are you thinking about moving? Is there something wrong with your village?”
“My village is horrible,” the villager said. “I am surrounded by the worst people you can imagine, so I do not want to live there any longer than necessary. My neighbors make noise when I need quiet. They do not care about the streets being dirty. They have no respect for me. Therefore, I also have no respect for them.”
“That does sound horrible,” the ferryman sympathized. “Have you ever let them know how you feel?”
“Oh, absolutely!” The villager said, with much anger: “I give them unmistakable signs! They disturb me during the day, so I make noise to disturb them at night. They never clean the streets, so I push my trash out the door to teach them a lesson. Whenever they are rude to me, I am rude to them twice as much. Of course they know how I feel!”
“I see,” the ferryman nodded. “Well, I have bad news for you. The people on the other side of the river are not so different from the ones in your village. You will find all the things you dislike about your neighbors quite prevalent there too. If you decide to move, you’ll expend a lot of time and effort, only to end up in the same situation.”
“I knew it!” the villager exclaimed in frustration, and started walking away. “There must be a better place somewhere. I’ll find it!”
Moments later, another man, much younger than the first, approached the ferryman. “Excuse me,” he said, “I am thinking about moving to the other side of the river. You are probably quite familiar with the people over there. Can you tell me about them?”
Again the ferryman expressed curiosity: “Why are you thinking about moving?”
The young man said: “I would like to study spiritual teachings with a Tao sage who lives on the other side. If I move closer to him, I can save a lot of time crossing back and forth. However, I am a little reluctant to leave my home over here.”
“Why the reluctance?”
“My village is a wonderful place to live,” the young man beamed. “I have the best neighbors you can imagine. Everyone is kind and considerate, and we are always looking out for one another. Everyone works to keep the neighborhood clean and make it a pleasant environment. There is much mutual assistance and respect, and that is why I am reluctant to leave. I am just not sure I can find such great neighbors when I’m on the other side of the river.”
“I see,” the ferryman nodded. “Well, I have good news for you. The people on the other side are not much different from the ones in your village. You will find all the qualities you like about your neighbors just as prevalent over there. If you do decide to move, it won’t take you long to become part of a community in the new place that you will enjoy.”
The young man was happy to hear this. He thanked the ferryman profusely before heading back home, to start planning his move.
A nearby street vendor, who had been watching quietly all this time, came over as the young man left. He said to the ferryman: “I could not help but overhear the conversations you just had. It’s especially interesting to me, since I know those two fellows. They come from the same village, and both of them asked the same question. Why did you give them such different answers?”
“The difference came from them, not from me or the place,” the ferryman said. “The first villager is unaware that all the things he hates originate from within himself: the noisy disturbance, the dirty environment, the lack of respect, and so on. His environment reflects what is already in his heart. Unless he changes himself internally, he will continue to recreate the same negative setting no matter where he goes.
“It was similar with the young man,” the ferryman continued. “He may not realize it, but all the things he enjoys about his neighborhood also originate from his heart: the kindness, the consideration, the mutual assistance and respect, and everyone pitching in for the greater good. As long as his positive nature does not change, he will always create the same positive setting no matter where he goes.”
“Ah, I see,” the street vendor smiled in comprehension. “So… things are not necessarily better on the other side?”
“No,” said the ferryman, “but things definitely get better on every side… when they get better on the inside.”