“What then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world while forfeiting his soul?” Matthew 16:26
A long while ago on a day now long forgotten, someone told me (or perhaps I read) this story.
One day in May the Master Hua-Shih was teaching the Art of Calligraphy to one of his pupils. Summer had not yet arrived and the quiet afternoon invited reflection. Hua-Shih asked his student to paint the character of Man on a rice paper sheet. The student uncorked the inkpot and took the brush between his fingers. With respectful concentration he began to draw the strokes to complete the symbol.
Without even raising his head he waited for the Master’s approval. Looking over the boy’s shoulder Hua-Shih silently approved the delicate, perfect lines. “You have done well. Now please take the inkpot, paper and brush and follow me”.
The Master then walked towards the path leading to the seaside. Peasants coming the opposite way genuflected and waited for the Master to pass. A very respectful fisherman coming from the sea, put his load aside to better greet him in the traditional way. Hua-Shih looked benevolently upon the fisherman but did not stop.
On reaching the seashore the tutor and his pupil stood there for a few seconds. A slightly warm breeze blew soothingly. It was an unusually beautiful day for this time of the year for it was the rain-season. A few clouds crowded together far in the horizon and the cold air was especially humid because of the seabreeze.
“Empty your inkpot in the sea”. Said Hua-Shih.
The youth obediently did so.
Hua-Shih sat on a rock as comfortably as he could inviting his disciple to do likewise.
The boy sat where the sand was slightly wet and prepared himself to listen.
“Write the character of Man once again”. Said Hua-Shih. with a grave tone.
“Excellent Master, I do not have any more ink.” Answered the boy fixing his gaze on his mentor’s feet.
“Oh yes! We do have ink! Isn’t it in the sea?” Asked Hua-Shih arching his eyebrow while inclining his head slightly forward.
The boy recognized the gesture. Something important was about to be learned.
“My Master. My Light” Said the child humbly “How can ink be useful if it has been dispersed into the sea”.
“Well said. Ink dispersed into the sea is no longer useful. Isn’t it true?”
“It was useful when it was inside the inkpot”. Observed the boy.
“That is true. While the ink rested between the walls of the inkpot it was good and you could use it to write. But now, even when we know where it is, we cannot recover it and the character of Man will remain unwritten”. The master used the sad tone of those who speak about something irretrievably lost. Then he added: “What have you learned?”
The boy reflected for just a second and said: “I have learned that the walls of inkpots make ink useful”. “You have said well, Li-Ch’ung. Virtue is useful to the soul of man in just the same way . Forget the limits of virtue and your soul will dilute in the immensity of the world. Respect the limits imposed on you by the world and you shall become a man complete and the world shall belong to you”.
A few minutes went by while they silently gazed upon the seascape. The humid breeze was now turning cold, a certain sign that rain was imminent. They returned to the house walking a different path.
Once in the house the Master gave his disciple a new inkpot.
 Hua-Shih, Glory of Revelation. Li-Ch’ung, Appropriate Reverence.
Taken from One Minute Stories.