How our perceptions influence our choices about how to live life:  Meditations on Tolstoy’s Three Questions

By Laura Good  8/29/18


the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.
a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.

A friend was visiting and I wanted to take her on one of my favorite hikes on the Blue Ridge. The usually well-travelled path had a lot of cobwebs so we figured we were the first ones hiking that route that day. We were talking loudly, laughing, catching up when she grabbed my arm. “A bear!” Not even 15 feet away poking its large head out of the leaves was a bear staring at us, slightly cocking its head. “It’s so beautiful,” my friend said, “but I know we have to get out of here, what do we do?” She turned around. Calmly portraying the experienced hiker I thought I was, I said, “We don’t run. We make lots of noise, try to look as big as possible and slowly back down the trail.” So we yelled, we clapped our hands, trying to slow ourselves down as we walk swiftly backwards all the way down to the trail head.

The bear never flinched or moved away. I was proud of myself for staying calm and knowing what to do, but my adrenaline was racing the rest of the day, playing out all kinds of scenerios in my mind about what could have happened.  As we recounted our adventure later that day to my family, already our versions of the story were different.

“Laura wasn’t loud enough,” my friend said. “I made all the noise!”

“No, I was shouting, and my voice isn’t as loud as yours,” I replied. “And, I was clapping my hands the whole time. Besides, you turned around to run!”

“Of course, I wasn’t going to run!” She said.

We had two different versions of the same event.  Our perceptions weren’t the same even though we were literally right next to each other. But it wasn’t just mental.  The physical manifestations of adrenaline were real as well as the shaky aftermath of limbs once we were safe. The mental and physical impression the encounter had made were now etched in each of us, but differed due to our perception.

We meditate trying to achieve clear states of mind as we try to observe our thoughts and perceptions without judgment. Yet our lives are mainly lived off the cushion where our past and current perceptions influence how we do things and we can’t stop every time there is something to observe and contemplate, we simply just have to “do”.  How do we know what he right thing to do is? Right action is part of the eightfold path. In fact some would say in Buddhism acting without thinking is immoral.  How does our perception affect how we react and where does choice come in?

One of my family’s favorite books is a retelling of a short story written by Tolstoy called “The Three Questions.” Russian author Leo Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), both of which I read in high school.  What I didn’t know at the time was how these and many of Tolstoy’s writings reflected his spiritual investigations into Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity.

During that time Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis, followed by what he regarded as a deep spiritual awakening. He was more than uncomfortable about how his affluent upbringing was at odds with his ever-growing belief in spiritual and social equality. He began experiencing bouts of depression, which at times were so severe that he considered suicide. He was trying to find a meaning for his life that would not be annihilated by death. Eventually he found Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to be the answer: universal love and passive resistance to evil. He urged people to live according to the dictates of conscience, which meant practicing universal love and living as much as possible by their own labor. He also declared all forms of violence equally wrong, including war and the oppression of citizens by the state.

The original story of “The Three Questions” takes the form of a parable, and it concerns a king who wants to find the answers to what he considers are the three most important questions in life. The version we’ll hear tonight is retold through the eyes of a boy. It was written and illustrated by John Muth who uses Zen Buddhism and other principles in his work.

Here is the story:

The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

(Three Questions was written for a publication intended to raise funds for the victims of an anti-Jewish pogrom in Kishinev. Tolstoy had written an open letter to the tsar accusing his government of being directly responsible for the massacre.)

When is the right time? Who are the right people?  What is the most important thing to do?

It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew just when to undertake everything he did, and which were the right and which the wrong people to deal with, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything.

Having thus thought, the king proclaimed throughout his realm that he would bestow a large reward on anyone who would teach him how to know the proper moment for every deed, how to know which were the most essential people, and how not to err in deciding which pursuits were of the greatest importance. Learned men began coming to the king, but they all gave different answers to his questions.

In reply to the first question some said that in order to know the right time for every action one must draw up a schedule of days, months, and years, and strictly adhere to it. Only in this way, they said, could everything be done at the proper time.

Others said it was not possible to decide in advance what to do and when to do it; that one must not allow himself to be distracted by vain amusements but must be attentive to everything that happens and do whatever is required.

A third group said that no matter how attentive the king might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man rightly to decide the time for every action, and that he ought to have a council of wise men, and act according to their advice.

A fourth group said that there were certain matters which required immediate decision, leaving no time to determine by means of consultation whether or not it was the right time to undertake them. In order to know this, one would have to know in advance what was going to happen, which is something that only a magician can know; therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult the magicians.

The answers to the second question also varied. Some said that the people the king most needed were his administrators; some said the priests, and some the physicians, while others said the warriors were the most essential.

The answers to the third question, as to what was the most important pursuit, were equally diverse. Some said that science was the most important thing in the world, some said military skill, and others religious worship. The answers were all different, therefore the king agreed with none of them and rewarded no one.

In order to find the true answer to the questions, he decided to consult a hermit who was famous for his wisdom. The hermit never left the forest where he lived, and there he received none but simple folk. The king therefore dressed himself as one of the people, and dismounting before he reached the hermit’s dwelling, he left his knights behind and went on alone.

The king found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When he saw the king, the hermit greeted him and immediately returned to his digging. He was thin and frail, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground and turned a little clod of earth, he breathed heavily.

The king approached him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you for the answers to three questions: How can I know which is the time I ought to heed, not allowing it to slip by only to be regretted later? Who are the most essential people, those to whom I ought to give the greatest attention? And what are the most important pursuits, which therefore ought to be undertaken first?”

The hermit listened to the king but gave him no answer; he merely spat on his hands and started digging again.

“You have exhausted yourself,” the king said. “Give me the spade. I’ll work for a while.” “Thanks,” said the hermit. He handed him the spade and sat down on the ground. After digging two beds, the king stopped and repeated his question. The hermit did not answer, but got up and held out his hand for the spade, saying: “No you rest and I’ll work.” But the king did not give him the spade; he went on digging.

An hour passed, then another; the sun had begun to sink behind the trees when the king stuck the spade into the ground and said: “I came to you, wise man, for answers to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so and I shall return home.”

“Here comes someone running,” said the hermit. “Let us see who it is.”

The king looked around and saw a bearded man running out of the woods. The man held his hands pressed to his stomach and blood flowed from between his fingers. He ran up to the king and fell fainting to the ground, where he lay motionless, weakly moaning.

The king and the hermit opened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The king washed it as well as he could and bandaged it with his own handkerchief and the hermit’s towel; but the flow of blood did not abate. Again and again the king removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, washed it, and rebandaged the wound. When the blood at least ceased flowing, the wounded man revived and asked for water. The king brought fresh water and gave him a drink.

Meanwhile the sun had set, and it grew cool. The king, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. He closed his eyes and grew still. The king was so tired from his walk and the work he had done that he lay down on the threshold and fell asleep. And he slept so soundly through the short summer night that when he woke up in the morning it was some time before he realized where he was and recalled the bearded stranger lying on the bed, who was now gazing intently at him with luminous eyes.

“Forgive me,” said the bearded man in a faint voice, when he saw that the king was awake and looking at him.

“I do not know you and have nothing to forgive you,” replied the king.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am your enemy, and I swore to take vengeance on you for killing my brother and seizing my property. I knew you had come alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But when the whole day passed and you did not return, I left my ambush to seek you out, and came upon your knights instead. They recognized me, fell upon me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but I should have bled to death if you had not cared for my wound. I intended to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and bid my sons to do the same. Forgive me!” The king was happy to be so easily reconciled with his enemy, and he not only forgave him but also promised to return his property and send his own physician and servants to attend him.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the king went out to look for the hermit. Before leaving him he wished for the last time to ask him to answer his questions. The hermit was on his knees in the yard sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before. The king approached him and said: “For the last time, wise man, I ask you to answer my questions.”

“But you have already been answered,” said the hermit, squatting on his thin calves and looking up at the king who stood before him. “How have I been answered?” asked the king.

“How?” repeated the hermit. “Had you not taken pity on my weakness yesterday an dug these beds for me, instead of turning back alone, that fellow would have assaulted you, and you would have regretted not staying with me. Therefore, the most important time was when you were digging the beds; I was the most important man; and the most important pursuit was to do good to me. And later, when that man came running to us, the most important time was when you were taking care of him, for if you had not bound up his wounds, he would have died without having made peace with you; therefore he was the most important man, and what you did for him was the most important deed. Remember then: there is only one important time – Now. And it is important because it is the only time we have dominion over ourselves; and the most important man is he with whom you are, for no one can know whether or not he will ever have dealings with any other man; and the most important pursuit is to do good to him, since it is for that purpose alone that man was sent into this life.”

There are lots of themes in this story.  By the time Tolstoy wrote this he was considered a “Christian anarchist” who had had many brushes with Buddhismand Taosim. (Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu, 6th century BC, advocating humility and religious piety.) It’s easy to see the Buddhist principles of present moment mindfulness, dependent origination, loving kindness (metta) and purified perception at work.

Each of the questions concerns being mindful of the moment.
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?

When we ask ourselves what our personal answers to these questions are, we reflect on what came before in our lives.  What has caused our perceptions: memories about past experience. So we process the current moment through the five aggregates and then take action.  All of the meditation and mindfulness we’ve done in the past influences our current action, which influences the next moment and so on. This is Dependent Origination.

Dependent Origination: Pratītyasamutpāda,”if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist” is traditionally interpreted as a chain of causes which result in rebirth and dukkha (suffering). By breaking the chain, liberation from suffering can be attained. Everything except nirvana (nibbana) is conditioned and the result of dependent origination, in other words, everything is connected.

So let’s go back to the story.  Even though Nikolai/the king wanted answers, he was thrust into another outcome.  His personal desire meant nothing, all that mattered was his swift right action, which caused a beneficial outcome for everyone concerned.

Did Nikolai/the king consciously “choose” to act this way? When do we become aware of “choosing” our actions?  What is our role in the countless causes and conditions that came before and what happens when our karma happens to intersect with everyone else’s?  We are usually only aware of this when things hit a snag and they aren’t going the way we want.  It’s like a warning light goes off and suddenly we desperately want to become aware of the whole thing and what we can do to steer the result our way.  Our perception then usually is a deluded one. (See Bob’s talk Aug. 22)

What we don’t realize is the whole picture was there the whole time, we just were on auto pilot, selectively seeing what served only our needs and desires.   Our experience of most behavior is that it “just happens.”    It doesn’t feel like a choice at all. We breathe, we swing our arms when we put one foot in front of the other. We just do it without thinking.

What the three questions are asking is: what really is the whole picture (story) and what is your motivation? If your intention is to do what is best for all concerned in the moment, one doesn’t have to worry about the outcome. And even then the “outcome” is a fixed concept whichreally even isn’t ever finished.

For example, being a parent or caregiver.  Even when you are tired and you child or loved one is tired but needs you, you just do what needs to be done and you weigh your desires of the moment against theirs.

Tolstoy wrote many other works about the Buddha, ethics and non-violence. Ghandi sought him out and they corresponded, eventually influencing his non-violent resistance as well influencing Martin Luther King Jr.

The Dalai Lama has drawn modern parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Buddhist philosophy (concerning both the principle of dependent origination and the concept of no-self as a basis for morality). For example, “You reap what you sow” could be looked at as karma, “love your neighbor as yourself”as no-self, and “love your enemies” as metta, etc.

Regardless of where the basics of ethics and morality come from, the effectiveness of these principles lies in the doing.  We perceive, we act on the perception, we suffer or cause suffering, and if so, hopefully we break the cycle with love, awareness and purified perception.

So, again how do we know what the answers are to the three questions are for ourselves?

Try a different order, last one first:

What is the most important thing to do?  Always do good.
Who is the most important one? Who you are with, so do good for who you are with.
When is the best time to do things? Do good, now.

Tolstoy’s message is: a person never knows if this is the last person they could be with, so do good for them, now.

Ask yourself what causes suffering in your life and if you are perceiving the whole situation. Indecision, worry, ruminating, loneliness, anger are signs to broaden your perception.

So as we contemplate this, pause, breathe.  Recognize and name what’s going on. See if even a few moments of slowing down your perception daily without judgment can lesson suffering. How do we live a good life? Do what is best for all concerned.