I constantly dichotomize worldly phenomena, such as people, matters, and things that I encounter into old or young, men or women, pretty or ugly, tall or short, fat or thin, joyful or angry, sad or happy, light or heavy, slow or fast, good or bad, etc. Everyone has a ruler to measure or gauge things in his or her own mind. But is that absolute? My late father used to say, “Though lamb and the finest wine may be good, it is difficult to suit everyone’s taste.” Confucius was no longer deluded when he turned 40. But I am drifting farther and farther away. I am often indecisive about what is right and wrong. What I see, what I hear and what I think about people, matters and things are not the same. Hence I am confused.
I remember the story of a little prince taught by an old Brahman. When he learned to discriminate, his old master asked, “Is this good or evil?” Wherever the power of his sword went, he never mistakenly killed a single innocent person, nor did he ever release anyone that was guilty of a crime. Soon, every place they visited had a reduction in crime. When evil people heard that this teacher and student were coming, they quickly reformed their evil behavior. Over time, I vaguely remember the story and had forgotten why in the end the old master killed the Prince. Recently when I worked in the library, I rediscovered this book. I will briefly share the story. [Editor’s note: This is from a Chinese work of fiction called Ren Zi by Lu Chau, or Nelson Wu.]
There was an especially civilized kingdom within the ancient cultural region of India, known as
Chuan Yan Ku Si Ya. The main characters were the young prince who was to be inaugurated as the crown prince, inherit the throne and govern the country, and the old Brahman who was responsible and authorized to teach, protect and admonish the crown prince. The story started with the grand inauguration ceremony of the crown prince.
The nine-year-old little prince was dressed in gold threaded robes, with his hair swept up on his crown; the sleeves were hoops with gold cuffs. His trousers were tied with silver ankle bands. He wore rings on his fingers, earrings on his ears. He did not wear any socks. But his soles were dyed red with evenly smeared rouge.
The masses observed the ceremony in silence, and the little prince respectfully received the wisest teaching of the old Brahman master. He said, “The first lesson I will teach you as a crown prince is to distinguish between good and evil. Six years later, the last lesson I teach you to be a crown prince will still be to distinguish between good and evil.”
Later, the little prince took off the ceremonial dress and gold ornaments and put on the brown linen outfit of a little monk in public on the high platform. He left behind the new title of crown prince in the palace. Then he followed his teacher to be educated and gain experience. While carrying a double-edged sword, he wandered around the country with his teacher, planning to return to the palace when he turned 15.
When the little prince was twelve years old, his swordsmanship, fencing, and knowledge had progressed to quite an advanced stage. His discussions became more profound, and his fencing more graceful. However, the old master became worried about the prince. The Little Prince was able to blend life into philosophy, and integrate his limbs and body with the use of the double-edged sword. His words and speech, thought, and the myriad things and changes of nature fused into one harmonious blend. The more he studied, the more he was fond of study and the more progress he made. At all times, the old master was concerned for this extremely bright student.
He felt that this little student mastered the classics well, because he loved the beauty of the classics. He mastered the philosophies well, because he loved the beauty of philosophies. He mastered fencing well, because he realized deeply the beauty of swordsmanship both in his body and mind. It was as if he had never thought of how to make use of all that he learnt.
From then on, the old master, being a great teacher, emphasized the beauty of distinguishing good and evil in his teaching of the prince.
Once, during an almsround, one of the evil servants of a wealthy household was very rude to the little prince. The prince showed no unpleasant expression and harbored no unpleasant feeling. But before they walked far away, suddenly they heard boisterous noise, beating, and crying behind them. As they turned back, they saw that the evil servant had commanded his subordinates to insult and beat two little beggars. This caused grief and anger in the little prince.
The old master knew that the time had ripened. He inserted two small branches into the ground. On each branch was hung a small piece of cloth. One with “little beggars” written on it and the other with “the servant of a wealthy household” written on it. He then said to the little prince, “Your knowledge, judgment, kindness and compassion have surpassed that of most heads of state. Soon you will use all that you have learnt. Today the evil servant of the wealthy household had been heinous and hateful, yet still should not be immediately killed. After I lift the prohibition of killing for you, bear in mind that you can only kill the evil when both good and evil cannot coexist. Furthermore, you have to kill swiftly.
“Once the time to make such a decision comes, you have to listen to my order. I will say, ‘Is it good or evil?’ You have to judge immediately whether it is good or evil and immediately move your sword. You have to remember that fighting is different from training. You have only one opportunity to strike. If you do not hit the target with your strike, you will be hit and killed. While to be killed may be miserable, that is only a matter of one life and one death. However, if you err in your judgment, you will kill the good and set the evil free. The regret will remain for generations. That is why I want you to be able to distinguish good and evil first before you learn fencing.”
The drill was precise and accurate. It was as if the little prince were dreaming. He could only remember seeing that disorder and chaos prevailed in a village. He only remembered the unfair event that demanded his intervention. He recalled that in anger, he killed a man whom he never knew. He felt that his fencing was at its worst, most hasty, and most disorderly. His judgment today was sloppy and unfounded. He knew that because of his diligence in practice, he had killed in illusion that evil servant, and he himself was not killed. But he could not celebrate his fortune. He was fortunate that he did not kill a live person but only two twigs.
The old master greatly applauded him. He thought that the Little Prince was no longer a child. He prayed that all the spirits would permit the Little Prince to kill from now on. With his double-edged sword, he would distinguish good and evil in the world. The Little Prince himself immediately followed along with silent prayer, seeking more wisdom and experience from the spirits in order to diminish his mistakes. When the master returned the sword to him, he felt as if the weight of the sword had doubled.
From then on, when the teacher and student roamed about, there were many incidents in which the little prince eradicated evil and saved the good. The juvenile prince worked conscientiously, abounded with knowledge, became more compassionate, intelligent and decisive. In no time, word of his deeds and illustrious reputation had spread far and wide. But no one knew this brave little monk was the prince.
Another day, the master brought the prince to cross a large river. The ferryman signaled to them to get on board. On board they inquired about the scenery on the other side of the river and the road ahead. Suddenly the old boatman laid down his oars and laughed, “On the other side of the river there is no heroic career. Do you want to cross the river still to distinguish between good and evil, and to kill with your sword?” As the prince listened, he suddenly felt a tingle in his heart. He could not figure out who this old boatman was. But he himself could not cope with the old boatman ridiculing all the things he had painstakingly learned from his teacher. He was not sure how to respond. The old boatman continued, “Because of you, there are no more offenses in the world. The other side of the river is the underworld, which is completely contrary to the human world. Can you still distinguish between good and evil? In the underworld, life is death and death is life. Good is evil and evil is good.”
The Little Prince could not understand and did not really believe what he had heard. He turned back to look at his teacher only to find that his old Brahman master had fallen into a deep slumber.
The Little Prince was a little panicked. He turned back again to look at the old boatman. The old boatman behaved as if he were crazy, he drew randomly with the oars. The boat spinned several times in the midst of the river. By then the Little Prince had lost his sense of direction. The old boatman laughed and asked the Little Prince, “Which side of the river do you want to go to? You can see that it is wilderness on both sides. There is no difference. Which side do you want to go to? I will take you across.”
The Little Prince immediately took a closer look at both sides. True enough, they were equally barren. He could not find any trace of the path they had taken. The old boatman was still laughing. He did not wait for the Little Prince to figure out whether he was good or evil. Was he an immortal that led him on a wild-goose chase or a demon that lured cultivators? He strode over the shipboard, glided into the water and vanished without leaving even the oars behind.
The Little Prince alone faced the flowing current of the river. Guarding his soundly sleeping teacher, he started to worry. Soon, he fell into a deep slumber too. In his dream, he held tight to the double-edged sword and hacked to the left, to the right and then center. He slayed quite a number of demons that were easier to identify.
When he was awakened, he discovered that the ferry they were on had drifted back to the border of his homeland.
The Little Prince felt that six years had flown by and he had endless questions to ask. The old master seemed to be worrying and he was not as eager to answer his questions as usual. The Little Prince recalled several times that this situation was somewhat like that in the ferry. When he needed the wisdom of his teacher most, unfortunately his teacher fell asleep. He wanted to ask why the old master suddenly fell asleep on board the ferry. He wanted to ask what kind of boat it was. Who was the old boatman? What kind of river was that? But he dared not ask.
After both teacher and student entered the city, the scene reverted back six years in time, to the high platform in front of the palace. The master announced to the assembly that the prince had learned invincible swordsmanship. Under the ardent hopes of the assembly, the prince waited silently for the master to transmit the final lesson of distinguishing between good and evil. The old master transformed into two, and urged the prince to launch his sword immediately, and distinguish between good and evil. However, the prince could not bring down his sword. Finally the bouncing teachers suddenly leapfrogged and joined together as one person, who jumped up to the platform, snatched the prince’s sword from his hands, and slayed the prince into two halves.
Among all those who attended the ceremony, only the old master knew that this brilliant prince of his time was not appropriate for the throne. The old master had taught him for six years. Eventually, he recognized that his effort to educate the prince had failed.
The remains of the prince did not collapse nor shed any blood. It ascended slowly from the platform into space and took the form of the meditation and preaching posture. The assembly watched him putting his palms together and worshipping the four directions. Then he prostrated to his teacher to show his gratitude. From above, people could vaguely hear the sigh and his voice of gratitude.
The master laid the sword on the square platform. He knelt down to pray to his disciple who had ascended into space. All those who witnessed this miracle, including the king, the queen and the populace, all knelt and prayed. The prince who had become the Buddha, rose slowly until he vanished.
“Laud the prince! Laud the prince!” the old master said as if he were chanting. All those who heard him responded in chorus.
Lao Tzu said, “When beauty is universally known to be beautiful, it becomes evil. When goodness is universally known to be good, it becomes wicked.” He also said, “Superior goodness resembles water. Water benefits all things, yet strives with none. It rests content in a situation that others despise, so it nearly resembles the Tao.”