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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!

9.26.2011

The Three Questions (2002)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy

Watercolor
Text set in Hoefler Requiem Fire

Scholastic Press

This book is next because I'm following the watercolor trail left by Jon Muth, and it seems to me a perfect extension of his Zen... series - thematically and certainly artistically. However, I wasn't certain if it constituted a Buddhist story or not. After all, the byline reads, "Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy."

In the Author's Note (and I love that he always includes an Author's Note), Muth writes that he first heard the tale from Thich Nhat Hanh. As I am currently reading Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, that was good enough for me.

Not that I'm a stickler for such definitions. A story is a story, after all. But I am trying to remain on-theme.

Coincidentally, I found another version of the same story in Rafe Martin's collection, One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. That sealed the deal.

The eponymous three questions are these:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?


In this version of the story, they are formulated and pondered by a young Kite-wielding protagonist named Nikolai. He shares an early morning beach-stroll with his talking dog, Pushkin, a monkey and a heron. They are all themselves philosophers, and very ready with their own answers.

If that sounds like an absurd premise for a story, then that is the beauty of Muth’s watercolors. I’ve read this story about a dozen times now, and it did not occur to me until just now, writing it out, how patently absurd it seems, these three mismatched talking animals, sharing a kite and deep- if not unwieldy – philosophical eschewment. But it's all crafted so perfectly that it seems no more absurd than a giant Panda bear taking up residence in a suburban neighborhood. It just is what it is. A story is a story, after all.

"To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance," says Sonia the heron.

"You will know when to do things if you pay close attention," answers Gogol the monkey.

Pushkin the dog offers this: "You can’t pay attention to everything yourself. You need a pack to keep watch and help you decide when to do things."

Though well-meant, these answers do little to satiate the ponderance of poor Nikolai, who then asks the second of the three questions. Who is the most important one? His animal friends are eager to offer their advice:

"Those who are closest to heaven."

"Those who know how to heal the sick."

"Those who make the rules."

There is most assuredly a classic fairy-tale structure at work, with the number three being so integral. Three questions asked and three answers for each question.

When it comes for the next series of answers, I felt resigned, as though I were already one step ahead of the game.

What is the right thing to do?

"Flying!"

"Having fun all the time!"

"Fighting!"

Then the story takes a drastic turn. We suddenly leave the familiarity of the classic story-form, as Nikolai goes on a quest to find Leo the wise turtle, and to pose to him the three questions which haunt him so. With nary a hello, he shouts to the turtle,“When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”

With Muth’s watercolors, it has all the tenor of an epic quest though the wilds of the world, a trip to the wise man on top of the mountain, though still with his red kite in hand. Instead of an answer, the old turtle instead resumes his gardening. Then the sky darkens and there is a sudden rain storm, a cry for help. Nikolai runs off through the wind-swept panorama.

We are now in a very different sort of story. It’s hard to say where this is all going, and I found myself reading with quickened pace, resignation absent.

Nikolai’s quest will take him deep into the darkened woods, rescuing not only a mother, but her young child as well, who lay helpless beneath fallen branches, scared and alone. They are both brought to Leo’s dwelling, and nursed back to health.

Within these actions lie the answers to Nikolai’s three questions. I would hate to ruin the final reveal, but I’ll just say that they are answers which are at once immutable and transitory. They lift young Nikolai with their simple profundity, and he leaves Leo’s mountaintop promontory in the company of his good friends.

“For these are the answers to what is most important in the world," says Leo the Wise. The final page reads: "That is why we are here."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!

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