It’s All Relative: Solala’s Blog for week of 8/11/14



There was once a rich man from the country of Chou. He had a huge estate and many workers, who he drove unmercifully. Day after day they toiled under the hot sun to fill the coffers of the rich man.

One of these was an old man who had been working for the rich man’s family for many years. His body was nearly worn out with hard work and little rest; his muscles were stringy and his breath came in gasps, but still the foreman drove him on. At the end of the day, however, once he had laid his weary head down on his rice bag pillow, he dreamed he was a rich man with a huge estate. All night long he was waited upon by servants, fed rare delicacies and entertained by beautiful women who played lovely and haunting melodies and danced ancient and graceful dances for him. He spent the entire dream in idle pursuit, dandling his fat young sons on his knees and laughing into the night.

Of course, upon waking, the old man was once again the lowly laborer who spent his day in endless toil. When the noonday break came and he sat heavily down to eat his rice, his face showed his weariness. His friends would then try to console him. “No need,” he would say. “By day I am a slave to the rich man but at night I am the rich man. I spend half my life working his fields but the other half I spend in ease and comfort. Therefore do not pity me.”

On the other hand, when the rich man, who spent his days in useless frivolity, laid his head upon his silken pillow, he tossed and turned and groaned all through the night. He dreamed he was a common laborer in his fields. All through the dream he worked, bent over, with muscles aching and sweat pouring down his face. For his noon meal he ate the coarsest rice with no flavor and, instead of sweet wine, he drank brackish water, not even tea. At the end of his labors he collapsed on his pallet, all alone in his little hut—his wife had died long ago and his children had left to find a better master far away. His life meant unending toil, with no rest and no respite, for his master was cruel and demanding. This life was truly miserable.

When he awoke in the morning the rich man’s muscles ached as if he had worked in the fields all night, his bed was soaked with sweat and his mouth tasted dry and dusty.

When he complained to his friends they told him, “Don’t worry. By night you may suffer but by day you are a rich man, well respected in the business community, and you have far more than you will ever need. You are at the top of the ladder; that is why you dream at night that you are at the bottom. You cannot have it both ways. Things must balance. That is why you have those vexing dreams.”

The rich man thought about this, as each day he awakened more weary than the day before. He took to walking over his estate to try to relax his agitated mind. He saw his workers there, toiling in the hot sun all day. He noticed in particular one old man who never stopped working, who was shriveled and bent over by many years of hard labor. Yet he never complained, never shirked, and always had a small smile on his face. “I envy that man,” he thought. “He has nothing yet seems so much happier than me.”

The old worker saw the rich man watching him. He noticed how the rich man looked drawn and tired. His skin was pasty and drooped from his face in an unhealthy way. He noticed that the hands of the rich man, as soft and manicured as they were, shook and that his soft, fat body looked weak and tremulous

After a time, the rich man decided it would be better if he changed his ways, since he was not happy with the way things were going. He lightened up on his workers, gave them more time off and began himself to be more physical, which after a time, made him feel immeasurably better. Not only that, but his nightmares went away and he slept more soundly than he had in years.

As for the old man, he too began to enjoy his waking life more and did not need to escape each night into dreams. Instead he too slept soundly. As the Ancient Sage says: “The Realized People of old forgot themselves when awake and did not dream when they slept.”

Liezhi (from Tales of the Tao by Solala Towler)