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 ever 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 know when to do each and every task, and what he really needed to do was to set up a counsel of the wise, acting according to their advise. 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 of 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 that science was more important pursuit. Others insisted on religion, others military skills. 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 upon 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 only to receive 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 see 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: 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 hermit listened attentively, then patted the emperor on the shoulder and kept digging. The emperor said “You must be tired. Please let me help you 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 rows, the emperor turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood up, pointing to the spade and said “Why don’t you rest now, I can take over.” 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 turned to the hermit, saying “I came here to ask you if you could answer my three questions, but if you can’t give me any answer, please let me know so that I may 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 then 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 laid 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 awoke, the sun had already arisen over the mountain. For a moment, he had forgotten where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around 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 heard 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, 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 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 physicians and servants to attend to 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 that 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 the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the one that you are with, who is right before you. For who knows if you will have any other dealings with another person in the future? The most important pursuit is to make the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”