Once In ancient China, a young prince of a particular region was about to be crowned emperor; however, according to law, he first had to be married. Since this meant choosing the future empress, the prince needed to find a young woman whom he could trust absolutely. On the advice of his mother, the current empress, he decided to summon all the young women of the region in order to find the most worthy candidate.
A servant woman, who had worked in the palace for many years, heard about the preparations for the gathering and felt sadness. The servant woman knew that her daughter had nurtured a secret love for the prince, from the very first time they met and played together as little children .
When the servant woman got home, she found her daughter where she usually was, in the garden, and gently told her daughter about the gathering and was horrified to learn that her daughter intended on going to the palace.
The servant woman was desperate: “But, daughter, what on earth will you do there? All the richest and most beautiful girls from the court will be present. Don’t be ridiculous! We do not have the clothing or jewels to compete with their finery. I know you must be suffering, but, please, don’t turn that suffering into madness!"
The daughter replied: "My dear mother, I am not suffering and I haven’t gone mad. It’s my last chance to spend at least a few moments close to the prince before he becomes emperor, and that makes me happy, even as I know that he will not choose me to be his wife. I will continue my days with my garden and nurturing my plants.”
That night, when the young woman reached the palace, all the most beautiful young ladies were indeed there, wearing the most beautiful clothes and the most beautiful jewelry, and each vying in their own way for the prince’s favor.”
Surrounded by the members of his court, the empress, who was known for her wisdom and compassion, stepped forward and announced a challenge: “I will give each of you a seed. In six months’ time, the young woman who brings me the loveliest flower will be the future empress of China.”
Each of the young woman were given a pot with soil and a single seed. The servant woman’s daughter stepped forward, pleased. While she was not skilled in book learning or the customs of the court, she was confident in her skills in gardening. She brought the pot with the soil and seed home and offered it all the love and tender care that she gave to the plants in her garden. She believed that if she truly loved the seed as she loved the prince the flower would indeed be the most lovely.”
Three months passed and no shoots had appeared. The young woman tried everything; she added nutrients to the soil, she varied the length and intensity of sunshine on the soil, but still no shoot emerged. She consulted farmers and other peasants, who showed her the most varied methods of cultivation, but all to no avail. She prayed and chanted over the pot every morning and evening, hoping the focused energy might help the seed. Each day the sprout didn’t appear, she felt her dream slipping away, but she didn’t let this change her love for this seed. In fact, as the months went by, she worried less about becoming empress and more about the seed that didn’t grow.
Finally, the six months were up, and still nothing had grown in her pot. She entertained thoughts of transferring one of the flowers from her garden and putting it into the pot. She had so many stunningly beautiful flowers. Would it be a falsehood if I did so? After all, the flowers were grown by her own hands. She brought the barren pot to her garden to select the best of her flowers.
The young woman’s mother saw her daughter in the garden with the royal pot and grew concerned. She spoke then to her daughter: “You are not considering deceiving the empress?”
“How can I bring an empty pot to the court? If I choose one of the flowers I grew myself, would it be deceptive?”
“But it would not be the seed you were given. I watched you over these many months. You gave all your effort and love to that little seed. I saw you worry over it, seek the help of others. You even chanted and offered prayers for that seed. You put all that you could into that little pot. I believe that is what you should bring to the empress. Don’t you?”.
The servant woman’s daughter nodded. Even though she had nothing to show, she knew how much effort and dedication she had put in during that time, and so she told her mother that she would bring the empty pot back to the palace on the agreed date and at the agreed hour. This would indeed be the very last time she would be able to meet her true love and she would not want to miss that opportunity. Empty pot or not.
The day of the audience arrived. The servant woman’s daughter appeared with her barren pot. All around her were the other candidates each of whom had achieved wonderful results: each pot bore a flower taller and lovelier than the last, in the most varied shapes and colors. The other young woman stared at her and her empty pot, some tried to be polite and stifle laughter, others had no care for being polite and threw insults as she walked by. The servant woman’s daughter felt her face redden and she began to doubt her wisdom at coming.
Finally, the longed-for moment came. The empress and the prince entered the court, and they both studied each of the candidates with great care and attention. When they came to the servant woman’s daughter, they looked carefully at the empty pot, then looked at each other with a surprised look. The young woman could only hang her head in embarrassment, her heart pounding in her chest.
“I am so sorry to present this empty pot.” the young woman said, trying valiantly to speak with confidence, “I did all I could to get the seed to sprout. I watered it; fertilized it, gave it sun and shade; I even changed the soil. When that didn’t work, I asked for help from the farmers; and when that didn’t work, I prayed and chanted for this seed to sprout. I tried my best, so that is what I present to you. I hope you will accept my efforts.”
She lifted her gaze enough to see that the empresses’s countenance was firm and impassive. The prince appeared to be struggling to keep a calm appearance. She lowered her gaze again.
The empress and the prince returned to the dais and conferred quietly with each other, but very briefly. Then the empress stepped forward and announced that the prince would marry the servant woman’s daughter.
Immediately there was a clamor in the hall as all the young ladies and their chaperones protested. They began shouting all at once:
“How could she be chosen?”
“She was the only one with an empty pot! She didn’t fulfill the terms of the contest.”
“What about my flower? It is clearly the most beautiful, I should be chosen!”
“Can’t you see how tall and brilliant my flower is? Please have another look and choose me!”
“Smell the fragrance of my flower, and you will realize I should be chosen!”.
The empress raised a hand and the hall fell into an uneasy silence. Then she calmly explained the reasoning behind the challenge: “While it is true that every one of these flowers is lovely and well grown. This young woman was the only one who cultivated the flower that made her worthy of becoming empress: the flower of honesty. None of the flowers presented here are grown from the seeds I handed out. You see, before I gave you all the seeds, I boiled them, rendering them sterile. Nothing could ever have grown from them. All but this young woman chose their aspiration to marry my son over the integrity to show their honest efforts. She alone, demonstrated the courage and honesty to present the true results of her efforts, an empty pot. With this empty pot, she alone, presents her true self to the court.”
The prince stepped forth and took the servant woman’s daughter’s hand and bowed low before her then said, softly, “I am pleased that you, of all the young ladies of the kingdom presented an empty pot. For I have secretly held in my heart, from the time we were children, a deep love for you.” Then standing tall, still holding her hand, he spoke loudly and clearly, “Let me present, Joy, our future empress.”
(Adapted from a story by Maria Emilia Voss)
One realm we have never conquered--the pure present. One great mystery of time is terra incognita to us--the instant. The most superb mystery we have hardly recognized--the immediate, instant self.
I am Myohye Do'an, a bhikṣu (fully ordained Chán Buddhist monk) and Chán Master. Here I share my thoughts and observations about living a life of compassion, attention and gratitude.