Does Buddhist meditation require total detachment from the world and its affairs? In our troubled times, an inspiring answer comes from those who practice ‘engaged Buddhism’. Vietmese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has inspired millions around the world with his writings on ‘mindfulness’ — in which one can meditate during work, even in the midst of strife. It teaches how to focus one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment with full awareness, in an accepting and non-judgmental manner. To illustrate mindfulness, monk Hanh has re-told Leo Tolstoy’s tale of the Emperor’s Three Questions:
An emperor once thought that he would never stray in any matter if he always knew the answer to three questions — what is the best time to do each thing?; who are the most important people to work with?; and, what is the most important thing to do at all times?
The emperor had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that whoever answered the questions correctly would receive a great reward. Many learned men made their way to the palace at once, each with a different answer.
About the first question, the emperor was advised to draw up a thorough time schedule to do every task at the right time, to avoid all vain amusements so as to know what to do at what time, to set up a council of the Wise and follow their counsel, or to consult magicians and soothsayers.
Equally varied were answers to the second question. Some said the people the emperor most needed were his councilors, while others spoke about priests, doctors or warriors as the most important persons to be with.
To the third question, some replied that the most important thing to do was science. Others spoke about developing skill in warfare or religious worship.
None of the answers satisfied the emperor, so no one got the reward. He therefore decided to consult a hermit who lived alone on a mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. But the hermit was known to receive only the poor, so the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant. Ordering his attendants to wait at the foot of the mountain, the emperor climbed up to seek the hermit.
At the holy man’s dwelling, the emperor found him digging in his garden. He was frail and weak, breathing heavily each time he thrust his spade into the ground. The emperor went up to him and asked the three questions.
The hermit listened attentively, but only patted him on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor then said, “You must be tired. Let me give you a hand with that.” The hermit thanked him, handed him the spade and sat down to rest.
After digging two beds, the emperor stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no reply. However, he stretched out his hand for the spade and told the emperor to rest.
But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. The sun began to set. At last putting the spade down, the emperor said: “I came to you, wise hermit, seeking answers to my questions. But if you cannot, please tell me so I can get on my way home.”
The hermit suddenly asked the emperor, “Do you hear someone running over there?” They both turned and saw a bearded man come running out of the woods. The man’s hands were pressed against his stomach, with blood flowing from a wound. When he reached the emperor, he fainted and fell on the ground. The emperor cleaned the wound, and kept soaking the blood out with his tunic till the flow stopped.
After the man revived, he was carried into the hermit’s hut. Lying on the bed, the man closed his eyes. The emperor was so tired, he fell asleep sitting against the doorway. When he awoke in the morning, he found the man on the bed gazing intently at him. “Forgive me!” said the man in a weak voice, when he saw the emperor was awake.
“What have you done that I should forgive you?” the emperor asked, mystified.
“You do not know me, your Majesty. I was your sworn enemy and had vowed to take revenge on you, for in the last war you killed my brother and seized our property. Knowing that you had come alone to see the hermit, I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, but your bodyguards saw and recognized me. They wounded me, though I maged to escape. I would have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, but you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. Now if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful servant, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”
The emperor was overjoyed at this reconciliation with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man, but promised to return his property and send his own physician and servants to attend upon him till he recovered.
Before departing, the emperor went up to the hermit sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before. “For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, O wise hermit,” the emperor requested.
“But your questions have already been answered!” said the hermit.
Wondering, the emperor asked, “What do you mean?”
“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important work.”
“Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bandaged his wounds then he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important work.”
The hermit concluded: “Remember, there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time over which we have any power. The most important man is the one you are with, for who knows whether you will ever have dealings with anyone else? And the most important work is to do him good, because that alone is the purpose why man is sent into this life!”
— the harbinger