Once, long ago in China, there were two young men who laboured together every day in the same business. The work was physical, backbreaking and dirty, and every night they fell into their beds exhausted.
Then one day, as they paused for a moment, one young man said to the other, “I have heard that in the nearby temple there is a sage who is very wise, and able to answer every question. Let us go there and ask if we are right to keep working like this.” The other agreed, and so, when they were able, they made a visit to the temple.
The sage listened carefully while they explained that they worked every day to the point of exhaustion, and then asked him if they should continue to do so. After closing his eyes in meditation for a while, he said simply “Only a bowl of rice.”
The two men bowed respectfully, and departed, each one asking himself, ‘Only a bowl of rice? What could the sage mean? What does it signify?”
After some time, one of the men left that work, while the other stayed on, and it was not until many years later that they met each other again.
Then, said one, “Let us have some tea, and tell each other how our lives have gone.”
The one who had stayed at the hard work said, “After hearing the words of the sage, I decided that the meaning was this – that there is only a bowl of rice between me and hunger. This hard work is the source of every bowl of rice that I eat, so I must continue. Therefore, I worked even harder, rose to a position of responsibility, saved what I earned, and now have a business of my own. My success is due to the wisdom of the sage.”
The one who had left said, “How strange! I found a different meaning. When I reflected deeply about the words of the sage, I thought, one only needs a bowl of rice to survive but all my efforts at this work do not grow even a single grain of rice. Therefore I left, returned to my village, and began to work in the fields. Now I have a large, prosperous farm of my own, from which I harvest many sacks of rice every year, and it is all because of the wisdom of the sage.”
“But how can it be that we understood his advice so differently?” said the other. “Surely one must have been mistaken. We should visit the sage again, and ask him to explain.”
Therefore, they went to the temple, prostrated themselves before the sage, and told him their stories. ‘Master,’ they said, ‘we came together with one problem, and you gave one answer, but we took two opposite ways in our lives. Did we misunderstand you? Did one of us go wrong? Please explain.’
As before, the sage closed his eyes for a time. Then, emerging from the silence he said, ‘Only a difference of thought.’