There was once a young man who was very restless. He travelled from one village to the next, hoping to find a teacher who could teach him something of value. People would see him going from one place to another and treated him kindly, because he was a good young man, very well-mannered. One day he met a sage who was regarded as very wise indeed.
The youth said to him, “I am very restless and I cannot stop running from one place to another. It’s the way I am and people think it strange. I wish I could be happy and I wish I could settle down.”
The wise man listened to the boy, thought for a while and replied: “I understand your condition and I can help you. But if you want me to be of help, you must not question the remedy that I am going to prescribe.” “O wise sage,” he replied, “of course I would not question your orders. I shall follow them exactly even if it means I do nothing else in the remainder of my days.”
‘The wise man then said: “You must take to the road and travel far and wide. On your travels you must search for the happiest man in the world. When you find him, you must ask him for his shirt.” It sounded like an unusual treatment, but the young man had made a pledge to do as he was asked and so he said farewell to the sage and took to the road.
He travelled north, and he travelled south, and he travelled east, and he travelled west, and he met all sorts of people. Some of them were rich, others very poor. Some were brave and others were cowards. And he asked them all if they knew where he could find the happiest man in the world.
The youth got many replies. Some people said to him: “I am very happy, but there is someone much happier who lives over that hill,” and other people said: “Leave us alone or we will knock you down.” The young man searched throughout his own kingdom and travelled to the next kingdom and the next. Days became weeks, and weeks became months and then years. He didn’t rest for a moment. Until, quite exhausted by the search, he stopped to rest under a tree on the edge of a great forest and slipped off his shoes.
As he sat there, he heard laughter. It was so loud that the birds did not roost, but circled round and round. And it was so thunderous that it caused the leaves to fall off the trees. Anyone else would have been shocked by the sound, but the young man — who by now was not quite so young — grew very excited. He slipped his shoes back on and followed the sound of laughter.
The forest was thick and dark. It would have been silent, too, but for the rumbling sound of laughter coming from the distance. The man followed the sound and, presently, he came to a lake. On the lake there was an island, and on the island stood a small house. The laughter seemed to be coming from the house. The man could not see a boat and so he jumped into the water and swam over to the island.
Dripping and cold, he went up to the house and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but the laughing did not stop. So, plucking up his courage, the man pushed the door open. Inside, on a carpet, sat an old man. On his head he wore a big turban, the colour of strawberries. He was laughing so wildly that tears were rolling down his cheeks. The seeker crept up, until he was standing at the edge of the carpet. He said very quietly: “Excuse me, Master, but I am from a kingdom far from here and I have been sent to find the happiest man in the world. You look remarkably happy to me. Please tell me, is there anyone happier than you?”
The laughing man pulled a handkerchief from up his sleeve and blew his nose. “I am very happy,” he said, howling with laughter again, “and I can tell you that I certainly don’t know anyone as happy as I am. Hahahahaha!” “Then, sir, could I ask you a favour?” “Yes. What?” “Would you take off your shirt and please give it to me?”
At that point the old man laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed so much that all the animals in the forest called out in fear. “My boy, if you had taken the time to look at me,” said the sage, weeping tears of laughter, “you would have seen that I am not wearing any shirt at all.”
The young man’s eyes widened as he realized it was true. He was about to say something, but the sage was unwinding his turban. He unwound coil after coil, laying the red cloth on the carpet. It was only as he got to the end that the man realized the truth: that the sage was none other than the wise man who had sent him on his journey in the first place.
“Tell me, O Master,” said the young man, “why didn’t you inform me you were the happiest man in the world at the start? It would have saved me a lot of time and bother.” “Because,” said the sage, “for you to be calmed, you needed to experience certain things, see other things and meet various people. I knew it would be a long process, but if I had told you at the beginning what it would involve, you would have run away and would never have been cured.”
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