Things had been going from bad to worse. It’s that no matter how the emperor ruled, things turned out badly. There had been famines and wars throughout the land. There was even conflict within the household itself. The emperor’s many wives quarreled among themselves continually and his advisors stood in the great hall shaking their heads and pulling on their ancient beards. It had begun to be whispered in the marketplace and in the fields of the laborers that the emperor had lost heaven’s favor and so would soon lose his place on the throne. For, as everyone knew, once a ruler loses heaven’s favor, it would not be long before he would be overthrown.
His advisors seemed to be of no help whatsoever. In truth, all they ever wanted was to advance themselves in his favor and would tell him only what they thought he wanted to hear. When he was young he enjoyed this but as he became older and more interested in being a good ruler, he found himself becoming impatient with the lackeys and sycophants around him.
He had spent many nights locked in with his astrologers, who had assured him that he had been born under a lucky star and could do no wrong. Then he had spent further nights with the experts on the Book of Changes, only to be told that all hexagrams pointed to great success and longevity for his dynasty.
But he knew something was wrong and that he would get no honest answers at court and so he decided to travel to the mountains to visit a certain Taoist sage who lived high on the craggy top. It was said that the sage lived on moonlight and dew and he knew the future of any man that came before him. He was sure, of course, that this was all nonsense, but he decided it would not hurt to try.
For many days he traveled, with a large escort in case of bandits. He enjoyed sleeping under the stars at night, which he had not done since he was a boy. He also enjoyed beginning each day’s journey in the brisk bright air of the morning. His usually poor appetite improved and he even put on a little weight.
Finally, they reached the path that led to the cave where it was said that the sage resided. The emperor decided to go on alone, ordering his personal guards to stay behind, much to their dismay.
When he reached the cave he found it abandoned, and felt bereft and sad that he had missed the one man who could help him. On the way down the mountain from the cave, he ran into an old man sitting by the side of the path, combing his fingers through his long beard and humming to himself.
This must be the sage, he thought to himself, and though he was the emperor and ruler of all under heaven, he knelt before the old man and beseeched him to give some advice on how best to rule the country.
The old man seemed to ignore the emperor for some time and the emperor began to wonder if this was indeed the man he had been looking for. With his min in turmoil, the emperor began to make ready to leave this addled old man and give up on his quest for the sage when he suddenly noticed that, though the old man seemed to be sitting on a stone on the side of the path, he was actually floating a few inches above the ground. Then he knew that he had indeed found the sage that he had been looking for, and began to plead with him for advice on how to rule his vast country.
“I have knowledge only about ruling my own life,” said the sage. “I don’t know anything about ruling a country.” He then went back to humming and combing his beard, which was extremely long.
“But I have a responsibility to manage the shrines of the royal ancestors,” said the emperor. “I also must conduct the ceremonies to give thanks to gods of the earth and sky. I have so many responsibilities. The people look to me as their ruler and protector. Yet I often feel so confused that I do not feel I can fulfill these obligations.”
“I have made great sacrifices,” he went on, “and have spoken with many men of knowledge and have studied the history of my family, but I cannot seem to find a way to learn how to be the ruler that I wish to be.”
The old man stopped combing his beard and fixed his old, yet surprisingly clear eyes on the emperor’s. “It takes someone who can manage his own life properly before he can expect to manage an entire country. I see before me a man full of doubt and worries, mostly put there by others in their own self-interest. And so, I as you, how, if the ruler’s own life is in turmoil, can he expect to be able to rule a country properly?”
At this, the emperor felt as though a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He felt that the scales had dropped from his eyes. Of course, he had been so concerned with his abilities as the ruler of the country he had given no thought to his own personal nature. Truly, if he were to be a wise and judicious ruler, he must begin to know himself.
Thus he began a lifelong journey into his own self-nature, that not only enabled the emperor to rule his own country wise and well, but led him, at the end of his life, to be lifted to the heavens on the back of a golden dragon to sit by the side of the Jade Emperor himself.