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. “That was interesting,” one of the young men broke the silence. “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. 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 exclaimed in puzzlement. “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.”