Emperor’s Three Questions

Every summer, Jill takes the boys down to Florida to spend time with Nana at the beach. The first few days are incredibly productive. I dive into work and stay plugged in around the clock. But a few weeks of absolute silence at home are more than enough.

Rather than offer up any more commentary on Brexit, Turkey or the Italian banks, I sat down today to write a note to my son, Lucca. He’s not reading yet. We are still working on underwear. But my wife did set up a Gmail account for him shortly after he was born. So I occasionally drop him a note when I come across something worth sharing.

I’ll get back to work on our mid-year letter next week.  In the interim, here’s a sappy letter from Dad.

Dear Lucca,

You’ve been at the beach with Mom and “Tuck” (that’s what you call Carter – we have no idea why) for three weeks now. I’ll be picking you guys up from the airport on Wednesday. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to see you.

When you are home, your Mom and I cherish every free second of “quiet time” – which averages out to about 42 seconds per week, but who’s counting! But at this point, I’ve had more than enough quiet time for one summer.

I’ve been up to the mountains a few times, which is a wonderful place to sit and think. I’ve taken several rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway and got caught in the rain a few times! I still find riding a motorcycle to be one of the most therapeutic exercises for the mind (yes, your Dad had a motorcycle; but I imagine by the time you can read this, your Mom will have prompted me to get rid of it, like the pool table in the living room when we first met).

I took a hike up to Table Rock with Stella. You are going to love that trail when you get a little bit older. Stella, on the other hand, loved it more when she was a little bit younger.

Table Rock

Your Mom would go nuts if she were home with me the past few weeks. Mom likes lots of noise around the house. The TV’s always on. Phones are beeping and ringing. Pots and pans are banging. Not to mention lots of yelling when you and your brother are home.

Dad, on the other hand, usually just sits and reads in silence. If Stella is barking too much, I’ll occasionally put on my headphones and listen to some music while reading. I read a lot. I hope you will learn to love reading too. As a kid, I never read for pleasure. Today, it’s all Dad does. As a friend of mine said, “I’m not smart enough to figure all of this out myself. So I try to master the best of what other people have already figured out. The best way to do this is to read a lot. And so I make friends with the eminent dead.”

Here’s my reading list from last year. Can you imagine the head start you’d have if you began reading this often decades earlier than Dad? I’ve slowed down a bit this year, mainly to go back and review what I learned last year. But I’ve still managed to read almost a dozen books while you’ve been at the beach!

I’ve been reading a lot on the practice of mindfulness in recent months. This is something I aim to begin practicing with you soon, as you appear to have gotten Dad’s attention span, in addition to his fascination with superheroes (by the way, you own shares of Time Warner, so technically Superman and Batman work for you).

And with that very long-winded introduction, here’s the story that prompted this letter to you. I came across it, in a book first published about twenty years ago – The Miracle of Mindfulness. The book was written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who was nominated for the Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King.

The Story of the Emperor’s Three Questions

One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

  • What is the best 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 the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

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 the Wise and then to act according to their advice.

Someone else said that certain matters required 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.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, 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 mountains 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 hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. 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 to ask your help with three questions: When is the best 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 only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor said, “You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that.” The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, 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 continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. 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. 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 toward 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.

At last 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 laid 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 rose, 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 to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped and ran 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.”

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 returned 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. “But your questions have already been answered.”“How’s that?” the emperor asked, puzzled. “Yesterday, if you 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 deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in 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 you are with, 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 the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

Tolstoy’s story is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world—but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent—how are you going to serve society? If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help one another, whom can we love and help? Are we working for other humans, or are we just working for the name of an organization?

Tolstoy is a saint—what we Buddhists would call a Bodhisattva. But was the emperor himself able to see the meaning and direction of life? How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? How? The answer is this: We must practice mindfulness. The principle that Tolstoy gives appears easy. But if we want to put it into practice we must use the methods of mindfulness in order to seek and find the way.

P.S. One of my favorite summer reads, which offers similar perspective, was Zen and the Art of Archery. When you get a bit older, pick up a copy and pair it with Arrow on Netflix, assuming 1) you are still obsessed with Superhero’s (I am) and 2) Netflix is still a thing.