Provision #837: Three Questions

Laser Provision

Today’s Provision, sent out the day after my 59th birthday, reprints a beautiful story of recognition and forgiveness, originally written by Leo Tolstoy, as told by Thich Nhát Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, in his delightful book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He is famous for coining the term “engaged Buddhism”, a concept that each of us should resonate with since full engagement with life and the deeper meanings of life is a common thread that runs through the writing of Provisions. I encourage you to read the story, weep, reflect, and live accordingly.

LifeTrek Provision

To end (my reflections on the miracle of mindfulness), let me retell a short story of Tolstoy’s, the story of the Emperor’s three questions. Tolstoy did not know the emperor’s name …

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 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 the 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 thins was military skill.

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 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 the earth, he heaved heavily.

The emperor approached him and said, ‘ have home 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, wanting an answer, 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 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 the 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 and 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 a 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 at 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 and kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so 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, instead you saved me 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 seed 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,” he said. “How’s that?” the emperor asked, puzzled.

“Yesterday,” the hermit replied, “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,” the hermit continued, “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 post 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 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, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

Tolstoy’s story, Thich Nhát Hanh concludes, is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. We talk about social service, service to people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world – but we often forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all.

Coaching Inquiries: Thich Nhát Hanh also give us today’s coaching inquiries: If we cannot serve our wife or husband or child or parent – how are we going to serve society? If we cannot make your own child happy, how do we expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or 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? Are we just working, I might add, for ourselves?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


I’m so glad your health is better! Thank you for your ministry. May you continue to be blessed and be a blessing! I first started reading your thoughts in these provisions in 1987, when I was in college. No matter what you share, it is timely for me. This past month, I’ve found myself reflecting on where I am and where I am going. At 51 yrs old, it seems funny to be asking these questions. Still, I sense a need for a change and this provision is just what I needed to hear. Again thank you!


I loved your last Provision, Bottom of the Barrel. I have found that the sooner I get to feeling “thanks” for my current trial, the closer I am to completing whatever it is that I am to learn. I swear , its all about energy and yours is headed so very much in the right direction to abstain from talking about the injury all the time. It’s as if talking about it KEEPS us in that space. God Bless you and Keep you and heal you!!!! Happy Thanksgiving!!!


It defies all reason that no one in your vast audience wrote back with a comment on last week’s Provision. I was once proud to be among the weekly readers of your Provisions, but now I’m not so sure I want to be associated with such a deadbeat crowd. Since I was a part of that crowd, here’s a short reply to last week’s provision: Bravo!!

You have been able to use a terrible setback to teach you things that few of us can ever appreciate, until we too stumble and fall. The way up is the way down. You are now clearly a more conscious person, one who has shed the skin of ego. You are able to live as the true self you never fully knew. Through your suffering you have emptied your yourself and made room for the divine seed within to blossom and grow. Now you are infinitely more useful to yourself and to all the people whose lives you touch. Shame on all of us LifeTrek readers for our silence after you shared your last, profound insight. May that insight continue to shape your life in all the positive ways that are bursting forth day by day. I can’t wait to hear what you learn next!


I love the song, Back on Top, highlighted in your last Provision. Not only do I think of you and what an inspiration you are, but that song seems particularly pertinent to Creigh Deeds at this time because of the tragic loss of his son and healing from his own wounds. As he says, “I keep crying….” But he has also said that he is determined to help fix what’s wrong with the mental health system in Virginia so what happened to his family will not happen to other families. His life has been forever changed, but I’m sure he will be “Back on Top.” Thanks for sharing this, Bob. Praying for good health for you! I miss seeing you!


I was an Emergency Services clinician with District 19 CSB in Petersburg for 2 years (1995-97), and I am a Creigh Deeds fan, so the story you shared has special meaning to me. At District 19, ES clinicians covered 4 cities and 5 counties. It was one of the largest territories to cover in VA (though not the most rural) so it took us a long time to travel to some assessment locations (jails, hospitals, police stations, etc.). I am way too familiar with the “bed space” issue, as well as many other issues in Virginia’s mental health system that are coming out in the news again because of what happened to Creigh Deed’s family. It’s so sad that we don’t take good-enough care of our most vulnerable citizens and their families.


I’m not kidding when I tell you this: I have a strong sense that your memory just might be rebooting. Keep telling the story of your healing and how you took a couple of steps back and then CATAPULTED forward. Have faith my friend. You’re healing. Smiles.


So glad you’re writing Provisions again. Hope it’s helping with the healing process.


May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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