By Steve Clayton
In the last couple of newsletters I have talked about how we derive a lot of our self -knowledge from how others see us. We can also learn a lot about ourselves by our reactions to the world around us. (i.e. How news stories affect us; social gatherings intimate or large; and public sporting events, or plain chitchat with neighbours or workmates.) We can learn a great deal if we are willing to look closely at ourselves. That is the trick. A close self-examination is not always a comfortable exercise, especially if we are totally honest with ourselves. As I have always loved to read, tell, or listen to a story, I have found that people’s reactions to the story are just as interesting (if not more so) than the story itself. If you bear with me I will give you perhaps my favourite example of this.
I have been telling the following parable for roughly thirty years now. It is called The Stone Cutter and goes like this:
Long ago in ancient China a poor humble stone cutter was plying his craft. He loved his work but as there were many stone cutters in the area, he was only paid a very modest wage. He wished he could earn more solely to provide his family with some of the finer things in life, for he himself was not a greedy man. As he was thinking these thoughts, a local magistrate passed by, his comfortable looking sedan chair born upon the shoulders of four strong young men. A small retinue followed in their wake. The stone cutter paused from his work to watch this important man pass. “Now there is a man whose family probably lacks for nothing”, he thought to himself. “I wish I was him.”
The thought had no sooner entered his mind when the stone cutter found himself sitting on the sedan chair. His surprise quickly gave way as he felt a surge of power unlike anything he had ever felt before. He had a large satchel by his side filled with coins of every description. His left hand absentmindedly, yet lovingly, stroked the satchel every so often. A scroll that bore the names of those who had paid their taxes, as well as those who had not, was clutched a little too tightly in his right hand.
As his journey wore on, the stone cutter became excited to see his lodgings, imagining the splendour of his family’s home. His anticipation slowly turned to dread as he realized he was not going to his home but was being taken to see the Emperor himself. He had to turn in the taxes he had collected from his province, and he had to explain why some were still owing. As his retinue approached the royal palace, the stone cutter found himself breaking out into a cold sweat. He was going to present himself to a truly powerful man, a man who commanded the armed forces, a man who with a simple word or gesture could condemn a fellow human being to life in prison or death.
The sedan chair came to a sudden halt and the stone cutter looked up to see the Emperor standing at the top of the wide ornate staircase which led to the main entrance of the palace. Without a doubt, the Emperor was a true man of power. His clothes, his bearing and his aura, emanated power. The stone cutter wished he was the Emperor rather than the magistrate and again, within an instant, he found himself to be, indeed, the Emperor.
The feeling of power and importance he felt now was totally intoxicating to him. Gone were thoughts of what his family lacked. They lacked for nothing, but he lusted for more. His mind played with battle plans so that his army could conquer more territories and bring him greater wealth and power. He glanced at the stricken magistrate whom he had been only moments before and he despised him. It was obvious the fool had not collected all the taxes owed the Emperor. He would grovel before the Emperor begging for mercy and promising to do better.
The Emperor was not certain he should spare this cretin’s life. Why should he, the Emperor, suffer because of this dolt’s incompetence? As these thoughts surged though the Emperor’s mind he suddenly felt hot, uncomfortably hot. He glanced up at the sun and instantly a beautiful young woman ran forward and held a parasol over his head. The rays were blocked but the heat was not. The Emperor glanced inside the palace remembering he had come outside as it was too hot inside. It was too hot out here as well. There seemed no escape from the sun’s heat.
The stone cutter realized the Sun was even more powerful than the Emperor and he wished he was the Sun so he could experience such great power. As before, the stone cutter found himself to be the Sun. The feelings of power were so vast as to defy definition. The Sun had the power to create life, to help it grow and flourish. The Sun also had the power to destroy and, as he shone over the earth, the stone cutter saw the Emperor in his discomfort and smiled gleefully. Who was this puny man to think he was so great; he was nothing compared to the Sun. The stone cutter increased the heat upon the Emperor and his realm.
Soon the people caught in a heat wave began to suffer, some to the brink of death, and the stone cutter reveled in his new found power. Nothing could stop him. With a start he realized his rays were being deflected away from the Emperor’s realm. The stone cutter looked closely to discover a cloud bank sat between him and his old country. He focused all his heat upon the cloud but to no avail. The cloud remained in place. “Aha”, thought the stone cutter, “clouds are more powerful than the sun! Then I wish to be a cloud”, he thought and he was the cloud.
Again he felt vast power as he warded off the Sun’s rays and dropped life-giving water upon the earth below, water that was essential to life on the planet below. Water could also take life it was so powerful and the stone cutter released a deluge of water upon the dry lands below. The parched lands soon became dangerously flooded as they could not handle the amount of water the cloud released upon them. Suddenly the stone cutter became aware of the fact he was moving and there was nothing he could do about it.
The wind was pushing him with all its might and he quickly wished to be the strong and powerful wind and, as before, he became the wind. He blew the clouds quickly before him until they were no more. He knocked over trees, houses and anything that dared to stand before him. He felt strong until he hit something so solid he bounced off. He looked to see a large monolith of stone before him and, try as he might, he could not budge it.
“So, Monolith, you are stronger than the wind. Then I wish to be you.”
He became the stone monolith and he felt a solid power, an eternal power that coursed through him and deep into the stone roots of the planet upon which he sat. This was true power.
As he sat enjoying these sensations he became aware of tiny vibrations down at his base. A slight steady sound accompanied these vibrations and he realized part of him was slowly being chipped away. ‘Who could be doing such a thing,’ he asked himself angrily? And when he looked down at his base there stood a humble stone cutter quietly plying his trade.
That is the parable of the Stone Cutter…pretty straightforward and open to the interpretation of all who hear or read it.
The parable itself never changes but the reactions of those who hear it vary. I have discovered I can group these reactions into one of three categories.
The first is of those who respond, ‘This is but a story Emperors tell stone cutters to keep them in their ‘place’. They say this with a smug smile a wry laugh and move on to something else.
The Second response is by those who latch on to the evils of power. They cite the fact that even though the stone cutter in each new form is more powerful than the last chose always to do evil rather than good. They eschew power in all forms, falling upon the quote ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
The third response is to see the interconnectedness of all things in the parable. Every element in the parable from the stone cutter, to the people and the world in which they all live, to the Cosmos itself, is bound together in individual equality. One can exist either in harmony or discord depending upon the choices one makes. We are more powerful when we work together.
What were your thoughts about the parable? Do you believe everyone has his or her ‘place’, and that they should remain there? Did you react out of fear of power and all that is implied by power? Did you see the possible beauty inherent in a world where everyone and everything works together in loving harmony? You do not have to tell anyone else of your reactions if you do not wish, but they are worth pondering if you are interested in knowing more about yourself.