The Tao of Forgiveness

Here is a wonderful pearl of Taoist wisdom from author Derek Lin:

One day, the sage gave the disciple an empty sack and a basket of potatoes. “Think of all the people who have done or said something against you in the recent past, especially those you cannot forgive. For each of them, inscribe the name on a potato and put it in the sack.” The Sack-of-potatoesdisciple came up quite a few names, and soon his sack was heavy with potatoes. “Carry the sack with you wherever you go for a week,” said the sage. “We’ll talk after that.”

At first, the disciple thought nothing of it. Carrying the sack was not particularly difficult. But after a while, it became more of a burden. It sometimes got in the way, and it seemed to require more effort to carry as time went on, even though its weight remained the same.

After a few days, the sack began to smell. The carved potatoes gave off a ripe odor. Not only were they increasingly inconvenient to carry around, they were also becoming rather unpleasant.

Finally, the week was over. The sage summoned the disciple. “Any thoughts about all this?”

“Yes, Master,” the disciple replied. “When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers.”

“Yes, that is exactly what happens when one holds a grudge. So, how can we lighten the load?”

“We must strive to forgive.”

“Forgiving someone is the equivalent of removing the corresponding potato from the sack. How many of your transgressors are you able to forgive?”

“I’ve thought about it quite a bit, Master,” the disciple said. “It required much effort, but I have decided to forgive all of them.”

“Very well, we can remove all the potatoes. Were there any more people who transgressed against you this last week?”

The disciple thought for a while and admitted there were. Then he felt panic when he realized his empty sack was about to get filled up again.

“Master,” he asked, “if we continue like this, wouldn’t there always be potatoes in the sack week after week?”

“Yes, as long as people speak or act against you in some way, you will always have potatoes.”

“But Master, we can never control what others do. So what good is the Tao in this case?”

“We’re not at the realm of the Tao yet. Everything we have talked about so far is the conventional approach to forgiveness. It is the same thing that many philosophies and most religions preach – we must constantly strive to forgive, for it is an important virtue. This is not the Tao because there is no striving in the Tao.”

“Then what is the Tao, Master?”

“You can figure it out. If the potatoes are negative feelings, then what is the sack?”

“The sack is… that which allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is something within us that makes us dwell on feeling offended…. Ah, it is my inflated sense of self-importance.”

“And what will happen if you let go of it?”

“Then… the things that people do or say against me no longer seem like such a major issue.”

“In that case, you won’t have any names to inscribe on potatoes. That means no more weight to carry around, and no more bad smells. The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to not just to remove some potatoes… but to relinquish the entire sack.”


About Eileen Barker

EILEEN BARKER has been writing and speaking on forgiveness, and guiding people who need to either forgive themselves or someone else, for many years. A practicing litigation lawyer who rejected the traditional adversarial role, Eileen has focused her practice on mediation, helping thousands of people resolve disputes outside of court. This work led her into a deep exploration of forgiveness as it relates to resolving conflict and making peace, both with others and oneself.


  1. Roy P. Kozupsky says:

    E, I have read your article the “Case for Forgiveness in Legal Disputes” (2013). Very insightful and informative. I have passed it around to some other members of a group I am involved with.
    I have dedicated the better part of 10 years now of working as an attorney with family businesses/enterprises- a fascinating multi-disciplinary area of law that is continuing to emerge. Your article is very valuable in a number of ways. By the way, I have taught in the Exec Ed programs at Pepperdine (Family Office) mostly focusing on helping attendees pm understanding family business disputes and fiduciary conflicts. We should chat sometime
    Have a good day.

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