The Story of Han and Li

[Note: Most lottery winners either continue to work, or at least find new work. For most of us, this is a good idea. But the implications of the following parable go beyond simply work. And it’s not just for lottery winners. It’s applicable to life in general.]

chinese-painting-1600sIn a fishing village in ancient China there lived two boys. One was named Han, and the other was called Li. And the two boys used to play together along the shore of the great river.

Now the day came when Han’s father called him and said, “My son, the time has come for you to seek your way in the world. You must go and find a master, who will teach you how to live.” And Li’s father said the same thing to him.

Now it happened that two new masters had recently arrived in the village. So Han approached the first master and asked him, “If I become your student, what will you teach me?”

“I will teach you the way of the salmon, who swims upstream in the summer,” replied the master. I will teach you to climb the mountain in the hot sun. I will teach you to run until you are thirsty. And I will teach you to lift boulders until you are tired.”

Then Han went to the second master and asked him, “If I become your student, what will you teach me?”

“I will teach you the way of the seagull,” replied the second master. “I will teach you to soar upon life, just as the seagull spreads its wings and soars effortlessly on the breeze. I will teach you to live off of the bounty of the land. I will teach you to float, just as the seagull floats on the water. And I will teach you to be free — just as the seagull goes wherever he pleases, whenever he pleases, and is beholden to no man.”

“I should very much like to learn this way of the seagull,” thought Han. And so he stayed with the second master.

In his turn, Li also approached the two masters, just as Han had done. And when he had spoken with both, he thought to himself, “I should very much like to learn this way of the seagull, as my friend Han is doing. However, I have also wished my entire life that I might be able to climb the mountain, and at least once see its magnificent view. I think I shall go and stay with the first master, at least until he has taught me to climb the mountain. Then I shall return and learn the way of the seagull with my friend Han.”

And so Li went and lived with the first master. He began to learn the way of the salmon, who swims upstream in the summer. This path demanded effort from him every day. It was often challenging, but it was not beyond his ability. It simply took effort. As time went by, he learned the skills needed to climb the mountain. And when after some months of training he reached its peak, he found the experience and the view to be so exhilarating that he decided to stay and see whether there might be some reward also in learning to run until he was thirsty.

In the end, he forgot all about learning the way of the seagull at all.

Han stayed with the second master, and he learned the way of the seagull. He learned the silence of the ocean on a quiet day, and the roar of the ocean in the storm. He learned what foods there were in nature, and he roamed through the wilderness with his master, going where the master pleased. He enjoyed the bounty that life had to offer him. He learned to live without concern, without obligation to others, and almost without effort, because he understood all the things that grew in the forest, and which of them could be eaten, and how.

After some time, the two boys — who were now young men — were released by their masters.

Li went and lived in a village. He built for himself a house made of stone — for he had grown strong lifting boulders in the wilderness, and it was now not a difficult or unusual thing for him to carry rocks and use them to make buildings. He also began to build such houses for others, and was happy to see the things he had made. These others also paid Li, and he became prosperous.

When invaders came, he repelled them, for not only was he strong — he was also swift, because his master had taught him how to run until he was thirsty. And like the salmon, he had learned to follow a purpose to its end, and to expend effort to achieve a goal.

And so Li gathered his relatives and friends around him. He lived a long and mostly happy life. When he died many years later, he left children and grandchildren, and was sorely missed by those who knew him. And he had taught his children the way of the salmon as well.

Han went and lived in the forest. There he was fortunate enough to find a valley by the river that was overflowing with the riches of nature. There was fruit of all kinds, and he gathered it — almost without effort. Monkeys and golden pheasants lived in the valley, and some of them became his friends. He also lay beside the river with his fishing line in the water, and whenever a fish would attach itself to the line, he would pull it in, cook the fish, and toss the bones on the ground.

And so Han made his home there beside the river, and sheltered under an overhanging rock. When invaders came through the land, there was no need for Han to fight them, because he lived in the wilderness, and did not have anything that interested them anyway. Han grew soft and fat on the bounty of the earth, until he found it difficult to walk up the steep slope that led out of the valley. But he cared little to leave his valley in any event, because it provided for all of his needs.

Unfortunately, on a dark and moonless night just three years after he had left his master, Han was swarmed and eaten by mice. It was a sad way to go, but being badly out of shape from years of no effort, he was unable to fight them off.

And so ended the way of the seagull.

(Moral: An easy, effortless life may not be as great of an idea as it might first sound.)