The Emperor’s Questions 


I think I increasingly knew this; but sometimes you need someone to express it clearly for you. Thich Nhat Hahn quoting Tolstoy does the job: 

“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.

  1. What is the best time to do each thing? 
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. 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.”

It took a life and death experience with a hermit (here) to reveal the answer to the emperor, which Tolstoy says quite simply is this: 

“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.

The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

As Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say: 

“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?”

As I’m increasingly finding – here, now and by paying attention to the person in front of me is where kindness, a feeling of connectedness and a happy life is found.