Once, there was a gathering of three old friends. They were all scholars leading busy lives, but they made it a point to meet once a year to make sure they would always stay in touch with one another.
This time, the gathering felt different. They were all getting old and starting to feel their age. Sensing this, the first scholar remarked: “We are all here together this year, enjoying each other’s company, but who can say with certainty if we will all be able to come back and be together again next year?”
The second scholar laughed: “Next year? I think you may be looking too far ahead and assuming too much. Today I am alive, but who can say with certainty if tomorrow I will open my eyes to greet another day?”
They turned to the third scholar, who had been quiet. He looked up at them thoughtfully, and said: “Tomorrow? My friends, as I sit here with you, I do not know if each breath I draw will be my last. Who can say with certainty if one breath will be followed by another?”
This story is short but deeply meaningful. It points to how uncertain and impermanent life really is. We are all alive right now — but we can never know how long we will remain thus.
The first scholar measured life in terms of years, as most people do. When we talk about age, we think about the number of years we have lived. When someone passes away, we make references to his or her lifespan. The number of years is also how we measure our most significant milestones in life, like education (years of schooling), career (years of experience in an industry) and marriage (years marked by wedding anniversaries).
The second scholar pointed out that this measurement did not accurately reflect how fleeting life was. A year seems like a long time to the human mind, so we may think we still have plenty of time, and we can look forward to many more years down the road. The truth is that we may not have many years or even one year ahead of us. There is always the possibility that everything will suddenly come to an end in a matter of days, or even in just one day.
The third scholar spoke the most powerful truth of all. Ultimately, the transience of life is not measured in years or days. Rather, it flows from one moment to the next. We simply do not know how many minutes or seconds we still possess. We hope everything will continue on indefinitely, but it can all fade to black instantly, without warning. Therefore, every minute, indeed every second we experience is a gift beyond compare, something we should cherish and appreciate.
Through the friendship of the three scholars, this story also makes it clear that our connections to one another are just as precious as the gift of life. Our beloved friends and family members are the ones who make this transient existence worthwhile. We should never take them for granted, just as we should never take the present moment for granted.
Everything the three scholars said apply to the presence of loved ones in our lives. Sometimes we see them as fixtures, as if they will always be there. We expect, at the very least, to have them with us for years to come. This is why the loss of a loved one always comes as such a shock. How can it be that they are not around anymore? What about the many more years that we expected to spend with them?
It is as the second scholar pointed out — thinking in terms of years may be assuming too much. Perhaps we will only have them around for a few more days, and perhaps even thinking in terms of days is too optimistic. No one can guarantee that these special people will be around from one moment to the next. Sometimes, life seems tenacious and persistent; other times, it seems like a candle flame, ready to flicker out of existence in the wind.
The present moment is the perfect time to reflect on the blessing of having family, friends and relatives in your life. Just as every moment spent being alive is gift beyond compare, so is every moment spent being with them. Enjoy their company and treasure their presence while you still can. Despite the uncertainty and impermanence of life, you will always find the sacred Tao… when you look into their eyes.