Three questions

The story of the emperor and the hermit is familiar to most Asian traditions. It is certainly universal. Here is one version:

An emperor had three questions but no advisor, priest, or philosopher in the kingdom could answer them clearly. Then he heard of a wise hermit and summoned him to the court to ask him the answer to these three questions:

  1. When is the most important time?
  2. Who is the most important person?
  3. What is the most important thing to do?

Now the advisors had all failed because they feared that the emperor already had his answers and was merely testing them. The best time, they reasoned, was the moment of battle against the empire’s enemies, but when was that opportune moment? Or, surely the most important man in the kingdom was the shrewdest general or the most flattering minister but who dared to name him? Unless the emperor himself would be angered and declare that, after all, he was the most important person being the emperor! And the most important thing to do was clearly to conquer all foes and to enrich the emperor’s coffers.

The hermit answered the questions with only a few words.

“The most important time is now.” All depends on the present moment, on what dominates the mind and heart here and now. All else, past and future, is meaningless.

“The most important person is the one you are with.” If you are with a child, a friend, a beloved, a colleague, that person is the most important. If you are with an enemy, a fool, a thief, that person is the most important person right now. And if you are alone, you are the most important person.

“The most important thing to do is to care.” To care about this moment, to care about this person in your midst, to care about everything around you. And in so doing, you will have no questions, no preferences of time or persons, and no thing more important than anything else.