Once upon a time in ancient China, there lived a sage who was known for his ability to solve difficult problems. One day, he had two visitors who needed his advice. Both were polite young men, and each insisted that the other should go first. After some discussion, they discovered that their questions were essentially the same, so they settled on speaking with the sage at the same time.
One of the young men asked: “Master, our problems are similar. We are both low-level employees being treated badly at work. We get no respect at all, and our employers constantly push us around. Can you please tell us if we should quit our jobs?”
The sage closed his eyes and meditated at length. The two young men waited patiently, until finally the sage opened his eyes. He gave them the answer in five words: “Only a bowl of rice.”
The two young men thanked the sage and departed. They contemplated the answer as they walked back to the city. After a while, one of them broke the silence: “That was interesting. What do you think the sage meant?”
The other one was thoughtful: “Well, it’s fairly obvious that the bowl of rice represents our daily meals.”
“I agree,” said the first young man. “I think he was telling us that the job is nothing more than a means to make a living.”
“Yes, when you come right down to it, that’s all we get out of the job — our daily meals.”
They went their separate ways. One of them continued working at the same place. The other one submitted a letter of resignation immediately upon his return. He went home to the countryside and took up farming.
After several years, this young man achieved considerable success as a farmer. He used what he had learned in the city to import high quality seeds. The fruits and vegetables he grew became known as the best in the region. He enjoyed not only great profits, but also a reputation as an expert.
The young man who remained at work also did well. It was as if he became a different person. He took on difficult tasks and demonstrated an ability to handle adversity. He rose up through the ranks and received one promotion after another, until he became a manager.
One day, the two of them met again by chance. Once they got caught up with one another, they realized that they had taken two very different paths — based on the exact same answer from the sage. They were both wealthy and happy, but which path was the correct one?
“How strange!” the manager was puzzled. “The Master said the same thing to us, and we both heard it the same way. Why did you quit?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the farmer was also puzzled. “I understood his words immediately. The job was nothing more than the means to get my daily meals, so why force myself to stay in a horrible situation just for a bowl of rice? Quitting was obviously the right thing to do. Why did you stay?”
“I also think it should be obvious,” the manager laughed. “The job meant nothing more than a bowl of rice, so why was I getting so worked up over it? As soon as I understood this, I realized there was no need for me to get so upset. I did not have to take the abuse heaped on me personally, so of course I stayed. Isn’t that what he meant?”
“Now I am completely confused,” the farmer shook his head. “Did he mean for us to take your path or my path? Let’s go see him again and get to the bottom of this.”
Once again they presented themselves before the sage and explained the reason for their visit. “As you can see, Master, we would really like to know the real meaning of your advice all those years ago. Can you give us some insights?”
Again the sage closed his eyes. The two men waited patiently as before. After a spell, the sage opened his eyes and gave them his answer… again in five words: “Only a difference of thought.”
Upon hearing this story, some may think it does not have a proper ending. The sage did not say which was the right path. Doesn’t this make the story ambiguous? How can we learn anything from it?
The perceptive reader will understand that the ambiguity is the point. The first teaching of this story is that nothing is fixed in the Tao. The two young men took paths that seemed diametrically opposite (staying versus quitting), and yet both achieved the same dream (wealth and happiness). In a similar way, we all have our own paths to follow, and even the paths that appear to have little in common can nevertheless lead us toward the same destination of spiritual enlightenment.
The Tao state of mind is like a stream flowing downhill. It wanders this way and that, following the lay of the land. Sometimes, depending on local conditions, it may change course. But no matter which way it takes, it ends up flowing into the ocean. This makes the Tao unlike spiritual traditions that insist there is only one correct way to the divine, and only they know what it is. The Tao does not care which way you take to get to it. It knows that you’ll get there one way or another.
The second, and more important lesson from the story is exactly as the sage expressed: one small difference in thought can make a huge difference in life. Both young men in the story made the right decision, but this was a stroke of luck. It does not mean all paths are equally correct. Although we can take countless different roads to reach the same destination, there are just as many roads that take us further away. One decision to turn left or right at an intersection can mean the difference between arriving safely and being hopelessly lost.
This is true because the Tao isn’t just present in the universal and macrocosmic. It also manifests in the small and seemingly insignificant. Thus, the sage pointed to the power of a single thought making a single choice. We may not think of this as being important, but it is a lever that has the potential to move the world and change your life.
How do we know which thoughts will impact the future, and which won’t? Tao cultivators do not attempt to distinguish between the two. Instead, they treat everything they do, and all of their thoughts great and small as being worthy of attention. They do not try to figure out when to practice the Tao and when not to; they want to make living mindfully a habit, so they want to be in tune with the Tao at all times.
Only a difference of thought. That’s really all it takes. One impulse, one idea, one decision can change everything. This is is why every thought counts… in alignment with the Tao!