Although everyone has ikigai, the Japanese concept for a life of purpose, finding it can be as challenging as it is rewarding. It doesn’t come easily to some and not knowing what yours is can be discouraging. Indeed, failing to find what is meaningful to you may open the path to dissatisfaction and envy of others who seemingly have more than you. This is what happened to a stonecutter in the Japanese folktale, The Stonecutter.
There once lived a poor Stonecutter who would wake in the cool early morning just before the sun rose to travel the long distance from his small house in the valley to the mountainside where he would cut and polish headstones, garden statues, and other objects for the families in the village.
He was a laboring man without family who took on his father’s business after he passed and built his life out of necessity. His back was strong and his hands were skilled from long hours of cutting. But, he always felt that there was something about his life that wasn’t very satisfying. He felt worthless because no matter how hard he worked, he earned very little.
Unsuccessful in the eyes of society and envious of those with power and riches the Stonecutter convinced himself that if he only had wealth, he would be successful and respected. So, each day he prayed to the Mountain Spirit to grant him wish.
One spring day the Stonecutter received an order from the son of a famous Merchant who lived in a large house by the sea in a neighboring town. His father, who was adored by the townsfolk had passed and his son wanted a large headstone at his father’s grave for everyone to see.
Needing the work, the Stonecutter, accepted the order and took great care in making a beautiful piece hoping he could fetch a good sum. Carefully he measured all sides of the stone then cut and polished it to perfection. He engraved the Merchant’s family crest with respect and precision. When he finished, he loaded his carriage with extra hay to protect the stone and traveled to the seaside to deliver it.
Upon arriving, the Stonecutter met the Son of the Merchant and set his father’s stone at the exact location overlooking the sea. The Son was so grateful for the beautiful work that he invited the Stonecutter to stay the night in his magnificent home. It was the Stonecutter’s first time to ever experience such an extravagant lifestyle.
The Stonecutter received the finest food, wine and other comforts of wealth. He listened to lovely music and relaxed on the softest pillows while the Merchant spoke of his father’s grandeur. As he closed his eyes to sleep, he prayed, “Oh Mountain Spirit, how wonderful it must be to live a life of excess. How I wish I could be a merchant.”
To his surprise, the next morning the Stonecutter woke from his sleep to find himself dressed in merchant clothes. Thinking that he was still dreaming, he rubbed his face hard. But as he looked down at his hands, he found that they were no longer the rough tools he developed over time. They were now smooth and uncalloused.
After a moment or two, he accepted with great delight that he had become a Merchant. He instantly felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride. Now that he was richer than his wildest dreams, surely everyone would give hime the respect he desired.
However, after spending a few weeks in town, to his dismay, the fresh Merchant realized that the others disliked him. They were not as wealthy as he and despised him for it.
Although, he had all the money he ever needed, he made no friends. After a while, he became agitated and was no longer satisfied. He felt his success fading quickly as his wealth could not buy their respect.
After some time on one summer day, it was announced that the Prince was arriving. So the Merchant and all of the other town folk rushed to the main road to greet the great Prince.
The Merchant was amazed by the Prince and his procession. Being carried in his velvet chair, surrounded by servants holding his umbrellas and fanning him with palm leaves the Prince looked ever so elegant. He sat boldly and straight up with his musicians in front playing drums and flutes for his majesty. The palace guards all walked beside, protecting him from any danger. The townsfolk bowed their heads with love, admiration, and fear. Even the Merchant bowed deeply. All had such admiration for the Prince.
With his head lowered the Merchant closed his eyes and listened with envy to the entourage as it passed. “How beautiful,” he said under his breath, “Oh Mountain Spirit, to be so royal, so loved, and yet so feared! There is none greater than the Prince. How I wish I could be the Prince.”
Then, as the spirit listened to his thoughts, he opened his eyes to find himself atop the Princes’ luxury sedan.
Passing the common folk beneath him, the Prince stared down at them. Smug and proud he smiled as he watched them honor his arrival. “Loyalty,” he thought, feeling respected and powerful.
Alas, this was not to last.
The newly appointed Prince told his carriers to walk up and down the streets throughout the morning so that he could take in all of the attention. However, as mid-day approached he noticed that his servants were having trouble keeping up no matter how much he pressed them. Looking out from under his large umbrella the Prince also noticed that people were moving indoors and the crowds had thinned. The summer sun was becoming too much to bear.
Annoyed by the sun’s heat and his people’s lack of stamina to brave it, he brought his entourage to halt and ordered the townsfolk out.
Hoisting umbrellas, waving fans and covering their eyes from the sun, reluctantly the people made their way outside. They gathered in doorways and under shady trees. It was obvious that they were feeling less enthusiastic and somewhat perturbed. The sun and its blistering heat annoyed them.
The Prince soon became offended and shouted at everyone and even at the sun. He wanted obedience from them all. The more enraged the Prince became, the more uncomfortable he felt in his robes on his chair.
As the sun beat down and the temperature intensified, the Prince cursed it for its impudence. He deliriously tried to defy it by shaking his fist and looking directly into it, but he quickly turned away.
“What great power,” he said retreating. “The Sun, so mighty, so strong there is nothing more powerful and respected as the Sun.”
And without a moment’s delay, the Mountain Spirit transformed him into the Sun, shining brightly down on everyone, loved and feared by all. No one would dare look at him for fear of scorching disaster. He became all-powerful and ever vengeful.
He shone ever more brightly on the townspeople to spite their lack of fealty. Spitefully, he burned the backs of laborers in the fields and brought about great temperatures. His drought lasted all summer.
Until one day the clouds rolled in and blocked his awesome power, bringing cool winds and rain to the fields.
The Clouds, the Wind, and the Rain
Unrelenting, the Sun tried to break through the clouds, but could not. They merely got darker and more powerful coming between him and the people.
“Oh, so powerful,” he thought as he looked at them with respect. If only he could become the clouds, he would be able to wield power over both the sun and the people.
So, in his in all his wisdom, he made yet another wish. He wished to be the Clouds, the Wind, and the Rain, and once again he was granted great power.
He blew to all corners of the world again and again. So effortless and powerful that the peoples of the earth began to pray for his arrival and departure.
With the slightest breath, he ended droughts and brought storms and heavy rains to the fields and streams flooding the towns for days. If anyone angered him, he would uproot the trees and destroy their houses. His storms blew all his fury and madness onto the people below. He was happy and content in his power. The people surely respected him now.
Until he realized that there was one thing that would not bend to his will. No matter how hard he tried, for all the howling and all the might from which he blew, he could not move the mountain below. It remained defiant.
In its insolence, the mighty rock resisted the Wind, unmoved by his pathetic efforts to blow it over. Its very silence mocked his powerlessness. The Clouds, the Wind, and the Rain were no match for its strength.
Sensing his defeat, he made yet another wish to become the mountain below. And so it was that he became the stone of the mountain.
Solid he sat there listening to the wind wisp by, watching the clouds blow away revealing the hot summer sun that shone on the royalty, the rich and the poor. He laughed to himself, “Haha! None as strong as me. None as mighty as the Mountain. I will always be respected,” until he heard the chisel of a stonecutter at his feet.
Finally having learned a valuable lesson, he understood that success was not found in the power over others or the respect in their eyes, but rather within oneself.
The once before Stonecutter realized his mistake and humbly asked the Mountain Spirit for one last wish, but the Spirit had been released and was no longer there.
Find your ikigai
Finding your ikigai is an everlasting journey without a destination. It begins by taking a deep look at who you are and recognizing your own values. Envy and jealousy will not bring you any closer to finding purpose and meaning in your life.
Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not achieve peace. – Buddha
Your road to ikigai is right before you. Look inside yourself and find your own passions and talents. For many, this is the toughest part of the journey because it takes unwavering commitment to point your toes towards your first step, but unless you put in the effort, you risk sitting by the roadside watching others pass you by. Apply yourself towards a cause that is worthy of your life, and grow that spirit inside of you.