The Will, the Willow and the Frog

Change is like the boughs of the willow in a breeze. We can seldom control more than the very leaves and tips of branches, never the whole tree itself. When faced with absolutely solvable problems going unaddressed or imaginable future states not being approached, it can be extremely frustrating for the change agent. We’re talking mad-prophet-in-the-wilderness level of frustration. In the face of seemingly intractable obstacles in leading people towards improvement, one can tempted to give up and walk away.

Ono no Tofuu is a renowned 7th century Japanese calligrapher whose will to continue was similarly tested at one point in his studies. Taking a walk in the rain he saw a frog leaping towards the leaf of a willow tree to catch an insect, falling short and plunging into the mud. The frog leaped again and failed again. The frog leaped again and again until finally it attained its goal. Tofuu was both humbled and encouraged by this, and found the strength to go on to become a master calligrapher.

This “willow and the frog” story of persistence in the face of adversity is commemorated on many Japanese works of art. It even became a stamp, as seen above. Sometimes we just need the simplistic willpower and leg strength of a frog. Leap, fall, leap, fall, try, fail and try again. How small is this willpower? It is the smallest thing. It is merely intention, decision, volition. Yet the non-frog parts of our brains put all sorts of walls between us and this small act of will. We need to be reminded to leap, leap, and leap again.

There is a Bible verse that reminds us of a similar lesson, that if we had faith even as small as a mustard seed, we could command a mountain to move and it would. In the Ramayana the monkey god Hanuman is cursed with forgetfulness that he is a god with great powers. He despairs until he is reminded of his powers, leaping over the ocean to rescue Sita from the demons.

There are many stories from many cultures that remind us that with faith and will, nothing is impossible. The irony is that if you don’t believe this, you will never find out whether it is true.


  1. Sue

    May 3, 2010 - 9:39 am

    This is lovely…and very meaningful for me today. Thank you for the reminder.

  2. John Santomer

    May 5, 2010 - 9:49 am

    Dear Jon,
    I am wondering, it really seems easier if one does control everyting by ones self – as in the case of the frog. It does not need to rally anyone else to achieve its goal…It is totally a whole new game for people with vasts diffrences in beliefs, priorities and goals. At times, its the “nemawashi” that sways the willow to where the wind blows. It is more difficult if the willow should bend on the opposite direction of the wind. Also, we often discussed the the mission vision of the group should be defiend and all should have a “hoshin” that points to that particular goal…for the frog – it was easy because it was driven by one singular purpose – to feed and to survive. How I wished it was that easy to convince people and keep their personal interest at bay for once…

  3. sharma

    May 11, 2010 - 1:43 am

    Dear Jon,
    This was a really motivating article. I am impressed by your knowledge of Holy Hindu Scripture Ramayana. To answer John Santomer partially, I will give this link …picture number 2, which shows a SERPENT giving shade to a FROG which is in labour pains(although being natural enemies). If your purpose is true … sooner or later you will get necessary co-operation.

  4. John Santomer

    May 16, 2010 - 8:00 am

    Dear Sharma,
    Thank you for sharing…In life, its a reality that a purpose filled, focused and committed direction will assure you certain levels of achievements. It does not go to say that one as focused – will not go through the same “labour pains” as the frog. It will probably take a certain level of spirituality and understanding to accept how such a picture could occur (being natural enemies and yet helping and assisting each other). I’ve seen a kitten being raised by a dog, yet cats and dogs are normally seen fighting and screeching at each other. So you see, it depends on the stakeholder’s, change agent’s and team player’s levels of tolerance, open mindedness and levels of acceptance. Everybody would have different mind sets and are likely to take more time to accept anyone’s purpose especially if that would mean a change that would take them out of their comfort zones. (Eg. say if the frog knows that the snake would strike should it wander off the snake’s shadow because the snake can only see things outside its own shadow…) I am sorry to have used the same thing as an example but I would like to stay as close to the subject. I do not in any way say that it can’t happen, on the contrary I am saying that all things are possible…its just a matter of seeing how things can work for the good of all.

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