The Old Capital 

A master potter sent his son to the old capital, both as a reward for his growing skill with ceramics and his good behaviour and also to test his true character. The master gave the son a large sum of money in a purse and sent along a servant as a bodyguard and companion. The servant, however, was forbidden to interfere in the choices the son might make, unless there was a serious risk of illness or death. On the first day in the capital, the servant showed the son all the stores and workshops of the pottery district. They observed other master potters at work, traders selling every kind of ceramic item imaginable, and labourers mixing and shaping clay or stoking the kilns. With their heads full of cups, bowls and flames, they went back to their inn and rested, the son demanding nothing beyond the frugal dinner and tea they were served. On the second day, they visited the furniture, paper, cloth, and wheelwright districts, followed by a grand tour of several shopping districts. Sometimes, the son would reach into his robe to pull out his purse and count a few coins or make a mental calculation, but after a moment or two, he would replace it and stroll on. The servant was puzzled. On the third day, the servant took the son to see medicine shops, incense stores, tobacconists, liquor stores, confectioners, butchers, rows of restaurants, barber shops, acupuncturists, teahouses, taverns and brothels, but the son hardly even read the signboards, inspected any merchandise or set foot in most establishments. The servant realized that the son was either a madman or a saint. And thus, on the fourth day, he took him to see all of the temples and shrines, monasteries and sacred groves, schools and libraries, but the son expressed not a single word of praise or criticism, nor did he bring out his purse to donate to a single monk, mendicant or holy place. On the fifth day, they made their way home. As they were traveling, they passed a famous waterfall. The son rushed down to the blue waters and stood under the cascades to meditate. After several hours, he emerged from his trance and the waters and shaved himself in the shallows of the stream with a dagger. Astonished but mindful of the master’s instructions, the servant led the son home. When they arrived, the servant prostrated himself and begged forgiveness for his failure. The son calmly and politely handed the full purse back to his father. What has happened, my son? the master potter asked, shocked and dismayed. Forgive me, father, the son replied, but I will never be a potter or a merchant. I will become a hermit. Why? the father wept. What happened? The son answered, In the old capital, everything looks like heaven, but it is truly hell. For four days, I felt every kind of desire possible, but I quickly saw something ferocious in it. A man will never shape, fire, or sell enough pottery, buy enough books, smoke enough tobacco, take enough medicine, sleep with enough women, drink enough tea and liquor, eat enough dinner, build enough temples or walk enough streets. The old capital is hell, a bottomless pit, and I wish to forget it all by becoming a hermit. After some silence, the father handed back the purse to the son and said, You will need some supplies to build and stock your hermitage. Take this. It is the only inheritance you would have from me. After the son departed, the father took in an orphan to train and mentor. The orphan learned quickly and would be a master potter himself one day, for he possessed real genius and a strong work ethic. One afternoon, the servant found the aged father smoking his pipe on the veranda overlooking the garden. The servant burst into tears and apologized once more failing with the master’s own son. The master took a thoughtful drag on his pipe and said that on his own first trip to the old capital, he had blown all of his money on his first night and had been forced to work several months for a potter there. Those were the days. To travel to the capital is to test the nature of your character, he said. My son had no character at all, no character to test. I do not fault you. The only thing you may have failed in was forgetting to show him the poor district, where men and women desire at least something, are grateful for anything, and work for nothing. 

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