DOOMED TO DIE AT NINETEEN; GIANT CHOPSTICKS; THE SNAKE AND THE STICK: THREE STORIES WORTH KNOWING

 

I have constantly upheld the value of stories to enrich our lives by presenting us truths and insights in forms that are nearly impossible to resist. Following are three stories of substance, hopefully accomplishing this purpose. The first - "Doomed To Die At Nineteen" - is my retelling of a Chinese fairy tale, or at least a fairy tale that was placed in a Chinese setting, which I encountered in a library book when I was a child. The second - "Giant Chopsticks" - is a tale which was recounted to me by my artist/psychic friend, B.B. - who tells me that, one day in a park in England, an old man came up to her, and for no apparent reason, told her the story, and then departed. The third - "The Snake And The Stick" - is a story heard, and later passed on to me, by OPC, for which I am very grateful - for it has a lot to say to a lot of us. Without further ado, here they are!

 

Doomed To Die At Nineteen 

Giant Chopsticks

The Snake And The Stick

 

DOOMED TO DIE AT NINETEEN

Life is a very beautiful thing, and ideally, its end should be prepared by many years of living fully, erasing any sense of disappointment and incompleteness, giving time for wisdom to accumulate, and years of joy and fulfillment to grow in oneís soul until they finally tower above what death can do. But a death both young and tragic, striking down life as it is just unfolding to its own possibilities, and awakening to what it can be, is a cruel thing, indeed. No wonder, then, that a young Prince of ancient China, with the world seemingly in front of him, was crushed to hear the pronouncement of a gifted wise man, who could see the future in a manís face: "Young Prince, do not dream of the woman who will be your bride. Do not dream of the palace you two shall dwell in, nor of the good you shall do on the Earth, nor of the way your people shall love you when the kindness of your heart meets the power of your birth. Though but eighteen, and smelling the flowers of lifeís spring for the first time, your years are nearly over; more time have I, a white-haired aged man stooped over his cane, than you! For Fate has decreed that you shall die in your nineteenth year. You shall be gone before anyone has a reason to cry - and no precaution, no physician, no prayer is there that can save you!"

Were the wise man not so respected, and proven, the boyís father might have driven him from the land, in rage; but as it was, he could only accept his sonís terrible death sentence, and prepare himself for the worst. As for the boy, he felt as though the wind had just been knocked out of him: his legs grew weak, and he could barely stand - for he had, indeed, been living in a world of the imagination, constructing a beautiful dreamworld which he would now never have the chance to transplant into the world of real people.

At first, the youth let himself collapse into a state of self-pity and despair. Anger at the injustice of the Gods burned in his veins, alternating with an awful sorrow - dark, tear-filled nights and a sense of emptiness - as he felt something precious and unique, which had been granted to him to give to others, slipping away from him. He felt like a poor man who has spent all his money to buy the most beautiful birthday present for his child, when the present is damaged or lost, and he must then face the disappointment of the child: a day of sorrow, when so much joy had been intended. And, simultaneously, he felt like the child!

In this sensitive state, the generosity of the Princeís father only wounded the young Prince more. Every gift he received from his father was only a reminder that he was about to die; while the kindness of his counselors and friends seemed merely to be a way of saying good-bye. Sometimes, the young Prince would act cruelly, to try to upset his companions and bring out a harsh word or criticism, that might break the spell of the morbid congeniality that kept his impending death in the forefront of his mind. He became moody, solitary, avoided others, drove them away whenever they found him. When friends discovered him alone, by the lake or by the woods, for instance, he would say, "Four more months. Why bother?" Or: "Has dying really made me so enjoyable?" Or: "Hurry, you only have eighty more days to become a Buddha!" When his father gave him a proud new horse, for before his son had always loved to ride horses with spirit, the young Prince said, "Perhaps two months is too long to wait?", implying that the horse might throw him and actually prove to be the instrument of his demise. How badly he wanted to be hated, for nothing else could make death seem distant!

But, after a while, as the day of his departure from the earth approached more closely, he began to grow beyond his misery and sense of unfairness. He thought: the Gods gave the rivers. The Gods gave the mountains. The Gods gave the sky and the sea. The Gods gave seeds of rice, and the earth; and the chance called People. I was going to live with them, and for them, and yet was I, really? Or only for myself, using them to raise myself up? My last days are exposing me, disproving me. Why should I regret my death, if I am so worthless, if even with but a few weeks left to live, I cannot make the effort to do something useful? If all I can do is blame the Gods for not preserving a life that has no value to anyone?

At last realizing that the thought of coming death ought not to rob his last days of action and purpose, but rather, inspire him to greater deeds of living, free of the illusion of possessing things he was doomed to lose, he saddled up the new horse his father had given him, and rode out among the people he was no longer destined to rule. Beholding the conditions in which they lived, beyond the model villages that surrounded his fatherís palace, which were all he had known of his country before, he returned home to collect the many gifts he had received as palliatives for his dying. Selling them, he was able to produce a small fortune for the enrichment of the outlying villages, which could be used to repair damaged irrigation systems, purchase more animals and tools, and buy foodstuffs and some other goods for the use of the people. Thought the young Prince, "This is what Princes are for." And, indeed, it was the genuine fulfillment of the Mandate of Heaven.

As all this was going on, which his father observed with some discomfort - for when the sleep of no expectations is disturbed, danger, which requires generosity, is aroused (and yet, how could he deter his doomed sonís final quest for meaning?) - an old peasant appeared, with important words for the dying boy. "Young man," he said, "I am not a famous wise man or sage, and I have no reputation for prophecy. But I have heard things, because I have lived a long life with my ears open. And now that I see what your heart is capable of, I know it is worth telling you. There is a man who lives deep in the forest, beyond our village - a man whose face is as old as the Gods - and it is said he has the power to do what no magician, no physician, no priest, no ruler who commands chariots, can do. He is not easy to find. He runs away from most, lets the trees and darkness protect him from intrusion: he does not like to be interrupted from whatever it is he does, except that when he is moved by a heart that is pure, he comes forth from the midst of the forest and says, ĎI have been waiting for you. What took you so long?í And he grants whatever it is you ask. They say he can make it rain, or stop raining, end drought and quell floods, heal illness, bring prosperity, open the closed gates that shut a man out from his own life. You are a good man, young Prince. If you lived long enough to become ruler of these lands, you could make a difference. Go to the forest, if your heart is truly set on doing good - go to the forest - for us!"

The young Prince was deeply moved by the peasantís words. And yet, having resigned himself to death, why reopen the wound of trying to live again? But again, the peasant urged him on: "Do not harm us, just to prove you have risen above death! Do not allow us to become victims of your wisdom!"

The Prince, feeling his heart tugged towards life again, feared the impulse, the pain of being disappointed; even the complexity which might ensue from being saved, for his life had become so simple, now. But at last, the peasantís earnest, fixed gaze convinced him. The young Prince nodded quietly, and said, "I will go into the forest, and seek the magician. I will see if he can prolong my life, for the sake of those I might be able to help."

The forest was dark and frightening, until the young Prince reminded himself that he was on the verge of dying, anyway. Perhaps, he thought, as the shadows grew, and the silence leaked out strange hints of unseen dangers, this was the place where he was meant to die. How ironic it would be, he mused, if it was here - in the very place he had come to be saved - that death awaited him! How terrible to die running from something he was actually running towards! But he was not running, he reminded himself, no!, it was not for his own life that he was here - it was for his life connected to the lives of others, which made his life greater than it was by itself. "Itís in your hands," he said, at last, speaking to the Gods, as the cloud of something terrible seemed to be descending over his heart: "My life is not mine, itís yours to give or to take. I am here, in this forest, for whatever your purpose is." The words had scarcely left his mouth when all of a sudden, a fearsome tiger appeared in his path - large, powerful, graceful and dangerous beyond words. "Why, death is more beautiful than I thought!" exclaimed the Prince, suddenly, incomprehensibly euphoric, delighted to have encountered such a splendid executioner. He was amazed by himself, overjoyed not to be afraid, overjoyed to be able to face his final moment with the flag of his heart held high. "Come on," he said, disappearing into a trance that would make the claws seem distant, even as they tore him apart. "Iím ready. Donít delay! The Gods are waiting. Donít let me disappoint them!" But the tiger, seemingly indifferent, ambled on, its fiercely-toned muscles of destruction had no need of a man tonight, its lethal power needed no proof. With complete self-confidence, the tiger spared him, its piercing eyes seeking something greater in the darkness. Almost insulted, stung by the feeling of being ignored, the Prince stood there for a moment in bewilderment, before continuing on his way: to where, he did not know.

After a while, he thought he heard a voice calling out to him in the darkness. "How tall do I stand?" He looked up, but all he beheld was a giant tree, the moon slipping in between its branches, covering him in a ghostly glow. "How deep do I go?" another voice seemed to say; and the Prince, looking down, beheld a gnarled knot of ancient roots at the foot of the same tree.

"Did you speak to me?" the Prince demanded of the tree. There was no answer, and he realized it must have been his own imagination, set afire by the intensity of the darkness, which the moon had not come to disturb, only to glorify. The moon bows down to the night, thought the Prince. Because it loves us. Without the darkness, man would never know his fear. Without his fear, man would never know his greatness. "So, the forest has turned me into a poet," laughed the Prince. "What a shame that such a talent should perish before itís recognized!" He was only amusing himself, but suddenly his laughter - which he became aware of when it froze in his throat - gave way to the image of an ancient man, standing with a lantern in his path. The man was frail, if you looked closely enough at him, with long hair as white as snow, and a long white beard to match. But somehow, it was a struggle to see him that way. Instead, oneís first impression was of a spirit as old as earth-covered roots that, hidden beneath the ground, sustain a great tree; and of a tigerís deadly power, that walks where and when it wants. The sharpness of the strangerís eyes made his age seem like a lie. And yet, the knowledge that glittered from them showed that it must be the truth.

Half-blinded by the lantern, after so many hours lost in the night, the young Prince said: "You must be - " But before he could finish, the old man warned him, "Donít say it! Or Iíll go away."

Silent as the night, which turns itself into an ear for the stars, the Prince regarded him. In one hand the old man held the cane which kept him from falling to the ground, a cane with the carved head of a dragon. In the other hand, as some kind of wand, he held a small pine branch. Observing the Prince observe the cane, the old man said: "Dragon under the water. Fire even so."

The Prince stood motionless.

Observing the Prince observe the pine branch, the old man said: "Scorpion tail, upside down. Everything is location and direction. Besides that, itís all the same."

It seemed that even a word now would be sacrilege.

Smiling sweetly, shaking slightly, the old man approached. "Young Prince," he said. " I have been waiting for you. What took you so long? You almost came too late."

Almost, thought the Prince, was a good word to hear.

Still shaking, the old man looked down at the pine branch in his hand. "From the tree it comes, broken off; but it does not grieve, for its soul is in the tree that standsÖ Young man, you did not deserve my intervention till now." Looking up, but not so long as to lose his train of thought, the old man looked down again: it was the pine branch that needed his attention, not the Prince. "Time. What is it? Life. Can time define it? Essence. One hour may contain it, a hundred years may never touch it. Compassion does not need to beg. Love will find itís way there. The river feeds a thousand fields. A manís heart can be a river, or a fortress that deceives the defenders. Spirit and flesh are just two ways of loving." Laughing with his eyes, the old man said: "Words! Words! I think you want to live!" And frowning, not to express displeasure but somehow to aid in his concentration, he explained: "Young Prince, there are different realms, and the king of the lower one is but the sweeper of streets in the realm that is higher. There are laws that even a mother cannot break for the sake of her son. And I am higher only than those who are lower. Young Prince, your Fate is written in the numbers of 1 and 9, and no Emperor, no Judge, no Warrior, no Sorcerer can steal from Fate, for the smallest detail of Fateís mandate are as pillars that hold up the world. No sentimental fool could ever be allowed to bring down the roof of the Universe in the name of his ignorance!"

Quietly, the Prince stood before the sage, wondering if it was death he had come for, after all.

But the old man was not finished. "1 and 9 stand like mountains in your life; clouds of hope may cover them, but after a while, the clouds will pass, and the mountains will still be there. I cannot change those numbers, Young Prince, Fate is too strong for me, and I am too wise, or is it too weak?, to write Destiny all over again."

The young Prince waited.

"However: although Fate may have made immutable the borders of our lives, within those borders there is still a place for love, for courage, for attentiveness, for wisdom, for will - for change! There is room for the man who falls to stand. For the man who is thirsty to find his water. The craftsman is given set materials and set tools to work with. What can he make with them? Fate is one-half stone, one-half water. Young Prince!" exclaimed the man, a strange power filling up his body and nearly blowing him away, like a leaf in a storm: "1 and 9, in your years, are decrees of Fate which I cannot touch, any more than a butterflyís wings can touch fire! But though I cannot change them, I can work with them. Your goodness, the young blossoming of your wisdom, the iron of your will made by death, frees me to do this - gives me the power to move those heavy numbers which I could not budge before, to rearrange them, to place the 1 behind the 9 and the 9 before the 1! Young Prince - I cannot spare you from death, but I can give you more time to make death small. To change the face of your land, and make it green like a field with your compassion, which is what has awakened mine." And taking one step closer, the old man lifted up his pine branch, and gently slapped it across the young Princeís left shoulder, and then his right. "Young Prince," he said. "Fate remains, but the wild horse is tamed! The rider does not fall! I decree, within the borders of what can be, that you shall not die at 19, but rather, live to the ripe old age of 91! May love be found, may wisdom grow, may 91 never forget that it was going to be 19!" And the old man smiled once again, with eyes whose light needed another word for "light" - for they were far beyond that word - far beyond it.

Gasping aloud, the young Prince came to in a patch of sunlight on the forest floor, the night had gone, and he wondered if he had really come face to face with the fabled magician of the woods, or merely fallen asleep and dreamt it all. A strange and beautiful lightness in his body, coming from his heart, convinced him that it had really happened - that something had really happened - and he decided to leave the forest, to bound out of the forest, as though he were going to live.

His nineteenth birthday came and went, and the tears of those who loved him kept falling, sure his death must merely have been delayed by a war or plague somewhere else in the world. "Death is only late," they told each other in mournful, puzzled whispers. But as time passed, and the Princeís lively face remained among them, brighter than the faces of those who still expected to live forever, they came, at last, to believe that the strange story of the magician might, perhaps, be something more than the delusion of a young man terrified by death; something more than the hallucination of a tragic boy who was turning into a ghost. "Maybe itís true," they said. "Maybe there is a magician in the forest. Maybe the legend is not just the invention of people who have no other form of power than their imagination."

By the time he was twenty, the palace-world from which the boy came had ceased doubting. The young Prince was going to live, and he was going to have an impact on the world. They feared his goodness, yet respected his strength. Somehow, his radiance made the danger of caring seem feasible. Great years were to come - many of them - and the nobles of the court could sense it - years of love, years of wise decrees and hard work, years of seeking without squandering, years of meditating and doing, marrying compassion to the possible, and making understanding earthly. "A great star is rising in the sky," they said, "attach yourself to this force! There will be room for all."

And the Prince would not disappoint. 19 had become 91. Having no time had made time endless. Eternity springs from perception. And dreams born from the real needs of people stand on feet that do not break.

Lessons of the story:

There is Fate and there is Will. We are constrained and bound in some ways, yet within limits, we have the power to change what seems to be written in stone; we have the power to work with Fate, to be co-creators of our lives.

Oneís best chance to live is to be useful to the Universe.

Living with many in oneís heart, one acquires the strength of many.

Understanding is the key to not fearing death. Not fearing death is the key to liberating life.

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GIANT CHOPSTICKS

Once again, thanks to BB for sharing the following story, which I have taken some liberties in retelling:

Once upon a time, in a town in ancient China, six young men were invited to dinner by a sage. They felt proud of themselves for having caught the wise manís eye enough to merit this great honor.

Walking some time past the center of town to an ancient and rather unkempt house with broken walls, they entered a garden where the wise man bade them sit down at a large table, three to each side. "Here, here," the wise man said, diligent as a host to an extreme, bringing them generous bowls of enticing food mesmerizing to the eye, each dish exuding the most tempting of aromas. "Here, here, dear guests, thank you for coming," he said, over and over again, until his kindness became almost embarrassing. Smiling without end, he finally had set the table, and felt satisfied to sit down near his guests, at the head of the table. They were flattered by his attentiveness, by his insistence on providing for them, without servants to diminish the force of his generosity. Still, they could not help but notice one bizarre detail of the dinner. The wooden chopsticks, one set of which he had laid in each place, before each of them, were each one meter long!

"Please - eat!" the old man insisted, still smiling, folding his hands together and inclining his head in honor of his guests.

Folding their hands together, they bowed back, smiling also, yet with clear signs of discomfort creeping into their expressions of gratitude. Out of the corners of their eyes, they began to search for each other.

"Go on," insisted the sage, "food wants to be appreciated, just like we people do. It wonít know itís delicious until you eat it!"

"Oh, thank you!" they replied, again looking at each other as discreetly as they were able to.

At last, the clinging gaze of the sage provoked one of the dinner guests to take the chopsticks in hand, and begin to try to eat. The effort to eat from the bowl in front of him with utensils one meter long, however, merely produced the most inefficient and absurd spectacle of eating ever seen.

Impelled by the expectations of the sage, another diner lifted up his chopsticks, and began to eat - or to try to eat. The struggle to extract food from his bowl, with his hands held high into the air in order to wield the giant chopsticks made him seem more like some kind of spear fisherman, or puppeteer, than a dinner guest. Face reddening in light of his lack of grace, he protected himself by locking himself inside an impenetrable cloak of concentration.

Of course, none of the dinner guests dared to ask for other chopsticks, these were the ones the sage had provided them with, and no one wished to risk insulting him.

Observing the catastrophe of the other two eaters - for comedy emanating from oneself on what is supposed to be a solemn occasion is surely one of the worst of imaginable catastrophes - the next diner decided that the giant chopsticks could not be an oversight on the part of their host. They must be some sort of koan, a teaching riddle, a test of mental agility, a push towards enlightenment, or at least up one rung of enlightenment. Realizing that he had been frozen in the concept of sitting in his chair, this young man stood up in order to better wield the giant chopsticks. However, though he found it somewhat easier, though far from easy, to get the food out of his bowl, he discovered that the difficulty of getting the food from the end of his chopsticks into his mouth remained. He felt like some kind of clownish musician attempting to play a giant flute, and could not help but splatter the table with food falling from his chopsticks.

Observing his plight, the diner across the table decided that the solution to the sageís unexpected game must be not to use the chopsticks at all. But the prospect of thrusting his hands into the midst of the hot, sauce-soaked bowl of food seemed not only painful but disrespectful. One would be frowned upon for eating this way in oneís own house, how could a host be so dishonored? So then, this diner decided that the solution must be to not eat at all. Perhaps the intended lesson was that the soulís dignity mattered more than the bellyís hunger. But not eating the food provided by their illustrious host - wouldnít that be the greatest act of disrespect of all? he thought. Agitated, trapped like a rat in a maze with no exit, he sat there fidgeting, until, at last, he too stood up, and struggled like a drunken flute-player to procure his meal.

Quite amazed, the last pair of guests turned from their hapless peers, to look each other in the eye. Somehow, the foolishness of the others, which they were not above, only blessed to witness before they did the same, made their humanity stand out to each other. Like a man who sees an ant running back and forth, back and forth, using all his energy to go nowhere and do nothing, awakens a man to the beauty behind a squandered life - like the crying of a child who cannot figure out how to open up the door behind which his mother is standing strikes a chord deep in the human heart that touches every broken dream - so the absurdity of the others, wanting to eat but unable to eat, wanting to impress the sage but only disappointing him, made them seem precious and beautiful to each other. No longer was it my bowl, my chopsticks, my relationship with the sage. It was we are in this together.

Smiling, something brilliant yet easy coming into his gaze, one of these two young men reached with his chopsticks across the table into the bowl of the other and lifting up a tasty morsel of food, raised it to the mouth of the other. The distance was perfect, the chopsticks no doubt designed for this very purpose. "Here," he said. "Eat."

Gratefully, the man took the food in his mouth, and smiling with delight at the exquisite taste, reciprocated, extending his giant chopsticks across the table into the bowl of his friend, feeding him in turn. The food was, indeed, delicious; but even more rewarding was the taste of understanding.

Eyes lighting up, the rest of the diners began to follow suit, ceasing the disastrous effort to feed themselves with the giant chopsticks, beginning, instead, to feed the person who sat across the table from them.

Smiling, the wise man nodded, and tilted his head towards the young dinner guests who sat at his table. Smiling, they bowed back. The most humiliating of dinners had turned into the most delicious of discoveries.

Lessons of the Story:

We are born to help each other.

The illusion of aloneness creates weakness. Thinking of the other magnifies the power of the self.

Cooperation among men is the Universeís way of taking care of Man .  

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THE SNAKE AND THE STICK

Stories love to be heard, and are always grateful to be introduced to new sets of ears. Thanks, again, to OPC for passing this one along:

A young man was once walking through the forest when, all of a sudden, he saw a large snake in his path. From the looks of it, it must be poisonous and it showed not the slightest inclination to flee. Fearing for his life, the young man retreated a few steps, and laying sight of a stick beside the path, promptly seized it up in his hand to use as a weapon against the snake. However, most regrettably the "stick" which the young man had just seized in his hand turned out to be a deadly snake that had been lying silently on the forest floor; whereas the "snake" which had impelled him to search for a weapon, in the first place, was actually nothing more than a stick!

Lessons of the Story:

Without clarity, the quest for safety may sometimes increase danger, as the search for salvation may lead to damnation.

I can think of few stories so useful for our timesÖ

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And thus concludes this little set of three fertile stories. I hope you have enjoyed them; and I hope that their light will become a part of our lives.

- JRS

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