Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hearing but Not Listening & Other Modern Chinese Parables

with many thanks to Little Alys for all her encouragement

(1) Hearing but Not Listening

It seems on Taiwan there was a teenage lad who lived just with his mother in their small home.

From morning to night, the mother would say in a particularly grating voice such things as "Hurry up! Time to get up and read for school!" Then, she'd screech, "Your rice porridge's over there in the corner, getting cold! Hurry up and eat it!" At night, he'd hear, "Go and do your homework!" and "Get to bed! It's already late!"

Day in and day out, he'd hear the same annoying voice ordering him to get up, to wash, to eat, to go to school, and so on. He got to the point where he couldn't stand it anymore.

He ran away from home one day.

After the first two days and nights on the road, he found employment as a laborer for the owner of a small factory. After his first day on the job, the boss invited him after work to eat some beef noodle soup. The boss remained silent and smiled to himself as he watched the hungry boy dig into his meal.

"Wow, Boss," said the boy, talking between slurps, "you are so nice, much nicer than my own mother!"

"Oh?" asked the employer. "How so?"

"Well, you don't know the half of it. All day and night long, she screams at me to eat, to rest, to bathe, to study, to do this and to do that--always with the same horrible, raspy voice! I reached the point where I just couldn't take it anymore!"

The boss looked at him for a moment and then said, "You fool. Your mother worked hard to feed and to care for you! Did you ever consider what her life must be like? All she has ever done was to show you her love for you. Can't you see that?"

The boy suddenly felt ashamed. He excused himself and then ran from the noodle stall. He didn't stop until he was back on his own front porch. He entered as his mother was washing clothes.

"Where have you been, coming back so late?" she squawked in that voice of hers. "Huh! Your food's over in the corner, getting cold as usual! Hurry up and eat it!"

He had never heard such a sweeter sound, the boy decided.

(2) Let There be Justice

A young man, a scion of a family that had produced its share of judges and attorneys, had just finished his first term in law school at the age of eighteen and returned home to visit his mother and his father, a well-known and respected judge.

He sat down with his father in his father's study to catch up on family matters and other things of interest. Finally, they started discussing the law.

"Dad, in your long career," asked the son, "have you ever rendered the wrong judgment in a case?"

"A wrong judgment?" the judge asked. "Well, perhaps one could say there was one."

"Would you tell me the story?"

The judge then told his son a story that had happened when his son had just been born. It seemed there was an altercation and murder at a hotel. A tribesman from one of Taiwan's indigenous groups had gotten into a brawl with the hotel manager and stabbed him to death. The tribesman was arrested, imprisoned and sent before a tribunal. The presiding judge happened to be the man telling the story to his son. After hearing the facts of the case and the testimony from the witnesses and the accused, the judge pronounced the defendant guilty. The defendant was then given the capital sentence.

Something was bothering the judge, so he went to visit the condemned man in prison.

"Tell me now," said the judge. "Are you guilty or innocent? I'm offering you a chance."

"I'm guilty," replied the tribesman. "I took a life. That much is true and totally undeniable. You know the details, Your Honor. The man who I killed had taken my identification papers when I registered at the hotel for some kind of scam and wouldn't return them to me. I lost my temper. I guess he did, too. But yes, I did take a life. I will not deny it."

"You will not petition extenuating circumstances or other mitigating factors for a reduced sentence?"

"No. As I said, I willfully took someone's life."

"I see," said the judge. "Well, is there anything I can do for your family after the sentence is carried out?"

"Yes. My wife has just given birth to a baby. He will be doomed to poverty if some other family doesn't take him in. After I am gone, will you do whatever you can to look after him?"

"Yes. I'll do my best."

The tribesman refused to appeal, and the sentence was eventually carried out.

That concluded the judge's story.

"Well, what happened, Father?" asked the judge's son. "You just ended the story without explaining what became of the baby. Did you keep your promise?"

"Yes, I did," said the judge. "I have been keeping my promise to that boy for eighteen years so far . . ."

(3) Selling a Comb to a Monk

A small comb factory owner called in all his salesmen.

"All right," said the factory owner, "I need you to go out there and sell our product as it's never been sold before! I need people who can show me the greatest skills in sales as well as commitment. So, here's what I am going to do. I will offer a bonus to any salesman who can, within a week, sell a comb to a monk. Anyone who can pull that off has got to be one of the greatest salesmen in the world! Now, there's your assignment. Hop to it!"

The salesmen left the factory in different directions, each headed towards a temple or monastery.

Only three who were actually able to sell combs to monks came back a week later to tell their stories.

The first salesman located a monk sweeping temple grounds. The salesman made his pitch: "How would you like this deluxe comb?" The monk, being, of course, totally bald like all monks, bought one comb because he felt sorry for the salesman, especially for his having to use that very amateurish sales line.

The second salesman had better luck: he sold a monk, an abbot, ten combs. He had located this abbot of a windswept temple on a mountainside.

 "You know what?" the salesman asked the abbot. "You can really use a bunch of these combs!"

"I can? Please explain how," said the abbot.

"Well, look how windy this place is!" said the salesman.

The abbot looked around at the wind surging through the palm tree fronds, the balls of dust blowing down the mountain, and the sand and dirt hitting the plastic awnings. Yes, it was windy on the mountain.

"Think of your congregants!" said the salesman. "They can comb their hair before and after kneeling and praying! Tidying themselves up before prayer would make them more respectful, wouldn't it?"

The abbot thought there was logic in this, so he bought ten combs.

The third salesman had even better luck when he visited a huge temple complex.

This particular temple was, naturally,  bustling and had lots and lots of congregants, and as a result, the incense they purchased to burn in their rites made the temple quite smoky.

Interesting, thought the salesman. He knew the angle with which to approach the abbot.

"I have an idea to increase the donations to your temple," said the salesman to the abbot. "Are you interested?"

"Go ahead. I'm listening."

"Take a look at this comb I am selling. What if you offered an inscribed comb for every donation or purchase of incense? The comb could be inscribed with something like 'Goodness-accumulating comb.' Think of all the people who'd cherish a comb with such a felicitous message!"

The abbot thought for a moment. This particular abbot was a man whose imagination and vision matched the salesman's, and he could see all the possibilities.

"It's a deal," said the abbot. "I'll take a thousand combs to start with . . . "

And so of the salesmen who set out to sell combs to monks, only three succeeded, with one of the three selling more combs than he had ever dreamed of. One barely had any luck; another had a little more luck. The third succeeded beyond anyone else's wildest expectations, for he had done something the other two had not done. He had marshaled all the powers of his imagination to envision just how a monk might actually need--not merely want--combs.


I heard these three stories at a business meeting on January 25. They were related by my dear friend and brother, Joseph Tu, a great raconteur and all-round wonderful, delightful gentleman. The story of selling combs to monks already exists in many places on the web, making my translated version a Johnny-come-lately entry! In fact, more than one Chinese book on sales techniques has "selling combs to monks" or a close variation of it as a title. 

The metaphor of "selling combs to monks" thus speaks for itself: to accomplish the unthinkable.


  1. Good stories, Fred. I especially like the first one.

    1. Hi, Granny Sue
      thanks! It's great hearing from you.