He was a powerful monarch and presided over a prosperous kingdom. Art and science flourished and there was literature and theater and wholesome entertainment. His ministers were wise and dedicated. His wives were many and beauteous. His offspring were brilliant and dutiful. His army was powerful enough to keep all enemies at bay. He had leisure enough to pursue any field of learning and a mind keen enough to make rapid progress. There was nothing of this world he did not have.
Yet he knew that there was something missing. Serenity eluded him and his sleep was troubled. He eagerly sought out wise men who could possibly cure his malaise. One day he learnt of a sage in a distant town, a man of the greatest wisdom and accomplishment.
He hurried thither to meet him.
The mystic was emaciated and unwashed. His locks were unkempt and he was barely clothed. But his eyes shone with an unnatural light and the king somehow knew that he was in the presence of greatness.
“Tell me, Sir,” asked the king anxiously, “Are you truly happy?”
“Of course I am, my son.” He replied. “How could I not be?”
And the king knew it was true and he earnestly asked for instruction.
The sage agreed, but the conditions he set were severe. For ten years he was to have the rule of the kingdom and the palace. If his slightest action was questioned, he would leave immediately.
The emperor agreed and the wise man took up his abode in the palace.
He immediately started living a life of unbridled indulgence and luxury. Barbers and masseuses tended to him, the finest tailors clothed him, jugglers and clowns entertained him and he had sculptors create massive statues of himself all over the kingdom.
The emperor was taken aback by this transformation, but he kept his word and instructed his staff to obey the sage. They grumbled loudly and felt that the king had taken leave of his senses, but grudgingly they obeyed.
Every evening, for one hour, the king received instruction and the wise man seemed different at these sessions. His words carried the ring of truth and the ruler learned much about statecraft and about philosophy.
At other times he despaired and regretted his impulsive invitation. The intruder discovered tobacco and puffed like a chimney. He was introduced to intoxicants and imbibed freely. He made boundless use of the ruler’s harem and the king shuddered and turned his head.
The breaking point came some months later when the king was with his favorite concubine and the sage asked him to begone so he could indulge himself. Red-faced with wrath the sovereign berated him and asked him to look at what he had become, how low he had fallen. “There is no difference between you and me,” he asserted. “How could I have possibly thought that you had anything to teach me.”
“I was wondering when you would erupt,” said the sage amusedly. “I will leave now because you broke your word. You are wrong. There is an enormous difference between us and until you understand this difference, you will suffer as you always have.”
“What difference?” the king shouted. “You indulge yourself just as I do and seek enjoyment more than I ever did.”
“Your word was weak,” said the philosopher calmly, “So I will leave. But you are a good man and your intentions were honorable, so I will teach you this difference as a parting gift. But I cannot do it here at the palace. You must come with me alone, for two weeks.”
So the two set out and traveled far and the king kept pressing for answers and the sage smiled enigmatically. At length they reached the border and the mystic kept going. The king stopped even though the other pressed him to follow.
“It is not safe,” protested the emperor. “I have to hurry back. There are affairs of state to tend to and much to do. I regret that I indulged you again. Tell me the difference and begone.”
“That is the difference, my son,” said the sage as he discarded his raiment. “I was in the lap of luxury and I leave with no regrets, not a moment’s sorrow. The time for such enjoyment is past. Like all things it comes and it goes and I accept this fully with total equanimity.”
“You, on the other hand,” he continued, “Are so stuck with being an emperor that you are prepared to forgo your own quest. This is the tragedy. What you seek is within your grasp, but you can only reach it if you let go of what you are clasping so tightly to your bosom. I understand this. You do not. That is the difference between us and it is a mighty chasm.”
“Return to your palace. Rule wisely, my son, and I pray that some day you, too, will discover this truth for yourself.”
The scales fell from the king’s eyes and he remembered their evening sessions and how much he learnt. He earnestly begged for forgiveness and entreated the other to return.
“No, my son,” said the sage firmly. “If I return now you will forever doubt whether I was a master gamesman or a true master. There is no more I have to teach you. Go back to your kingdom.”
He turned and strode off. He did not look back.
The king returned to his palace and resumed his rule. He pondered on the sage’s words and reflected on his teachings. And suddenly, one day, he understood.
Thanks to Srikumar Rao for writing and sharing this spiritual story with us!
Srikumar Rao conceived “Creativity and Personal Mastery” one of the most popular and highest rated courses at many of the world’s top business schools. He is a TED speaker and best selling author. Visit his website at www.theraoinstitute.com