The Emperor’s three questions

(Leo Tolstoy)
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 

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.

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 

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: 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 

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and 
continued digging. The emperor 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 may 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 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 lay quietly. The 
emperor was worn out from the 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 around 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 back to 
kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and 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 

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 
seeds 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."

"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 is Now. The present moment 
is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is 
always the person with whom you are, 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 that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that 
alone is the pursuit of life."

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