There are no stupid questions; stupid people don’t ask questions. Laura, aged 11

“I’d like to retell a short story of Tolstoy’s. It is the story of the emperor’s three questions. (Tolstoy did not know the emperor’s name.) One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to the following three questions, he would never stray in any matter, and these questions were:

What is the most opportune time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer these three questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once. Each person had a different answer to offer the emperor.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time. Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know  what to do at what time. Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a ’Council of Wise Men’ and then to act according to their counsel. Yet someone else said that certain matters require immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord. One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors. The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

Because all the answers were different from one another, the emperor was not pleased with any of them, and no reward was given.

After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the hermit never left the mountain and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his  attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.

Reaching the holy man’s dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of his small hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labour was obviously hard on him for he was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily. The emperor approached him and said, “I have come here in order to ask your help with three questions: When is the most opportune time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?”

The hermit listened attentively but did not reply. He only patted the emperor on the shoulder and then continued digging. The emperor said, “You must be tired. Let me give you a hand with that.” The hermit thanked him and handed the emperor the spade and then sat down on the ground to rest. After he had dug two beds, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood up and pointed to the spade and said, “Why don’t you rest now? I can take over again.” But the emperor did not hand him the spade and continued to dig. One hour passed, then two hours. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, “I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions, but if you can’t give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on my way home.”

The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, “Do you hear someone running over there?” The emperor turned his head and suddenly they both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran towards the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man’s clothing, the emperor and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.

The wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they lay him down on the hermit’s bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The emperor was worn out from a long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he woke up, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around him in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, “Please forgive me.”

“But what have you done that I should forgive you?” the emperor asked.

“You do not know me, your Majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back and kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order seek you out, but instead of finding you, I came across your attendants who recognised me and grabbed me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped their hold and ran up here. If I hadn’t met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness, your Majesty.”

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man’s property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the emperor turned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.

The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor, “Your questions have already been answered.”

“How’s that?” the emperor asked, puzzled.

“Yesterday, if your Majesty had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have sorely regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound Remember that there is only one important time and that is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at your side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

The above comes from “The Miracle of Being Awake: A Manual on Meditation for the Use of Young Activists” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

We often think and talk in macro terms about social service or being of service to people or the community and we can easily forget that we must first be of service to the people closest to us. It is the people who surround us day in and day out that we must first be of service to. For if you cannot serve your partner, your child, your family and your friends, how are you going to be of service to society? If you can’t make them happy, how can you possibly expect to make anyone else happy?

Being of service can seem so immense a task, as to become somewhat nebulous. You simply don’t know where to begin. So, maybe what we need to do is to scale it back to a more micro level – start with our families, our friends, our colleagues and our own community and in our day to day interactions. Get them coffee. Spend time listening to your child telling you a story. Hold the door for the person behind us. Give up your seat on the bus. Or simply sharing a joke and a laugh with the cashier as we pay for our groceries. We must live for those that surround us first, because if we don’t do that, then who else do we think we are living for?

So what does living in the present look like? It means to live right now with the people around us, the person in front of you or next to you – even if we are not sure how we got here, or we may not be thrilled about where we are right now, it’s ok, it may only be a stepping stone. We choose to be of service to the people we are with by asking – how can I help lessen their troubles or burdens and make their lives a little happier and brighter?

x K

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