Three Questions - by Leo Tolstoy
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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
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
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 may 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 the 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 to 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 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 you side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life."