Craftsmen, Painters, and Monks

Once there was an emperor who wanted to make a temple in his capital holier and more elegant. His servants looked far and wide and found two crews of workmen for the job.

One crew consisted of renowned craftsmen and painters, and the other, a band of faithful monks. The emperor could not make up his mind, so he decided to host a contest. The emperor asked each crew to renovate a small temple in the countryside, and whichever side wins his favor wins the bid. After hearing the details of the contest, the craftsmen and painters asked the emperor for paint in thousands of colors, in addition to hundreds of nifty tools. The monks, however, only asked for a handful of clean cloth and water buckets.

Three days later, the emperor went to inspect the renovated temples. The craftsmen and painters decorated their temple in the most brilliant colors and with impressive skills. Then, the emperor turned around to see the monks' temple. Rather than adding any color, the monks merely wiped the walls, tables, chairs and windows clean. But everything inside the temple was restored to its original color, and their spotless surfaces became mirrors that reflected the colors outside. The serene and beautiful sight immediately took the emperor's breath away.

At the time I was reading this tale as told by Hong Yi[1], I felt a great deal of sympathy toward the craftsmen and painters in the story. I couldn't help but wonder what went wrong?

The craftsmen and painters were clearly more skillful and talented, yet they lost to the monks. After I read through the story a couple more times, I realized that they lost because they ignored what their customer requested. The emperor was looking for a temple capitalizing on elegance, but they erected him a pompous and superfluous house of worship. The craftsmen had failed to keep the customer's best interest in mind.

The craftsmen also demanded a copious amount of paint along with other accessories, while the monks merely asked for a fraction of the cost to bring the project to life. The fact that the craftsmen had a great selection of tools at their fingertip and not being able to pick the most appropriate one seemed to have worked against them. If I were a servant of the emperor, I would definitely keep tabs on the high cost and maintenance of the craftsmen.

In the end, the craftsmen had no one to blame except for themselves. They painted the temple in their own colors, displayed amazing craftsmanship, but failed to deliver a satisfying experience.

The lesson for me here is that technical skill is not everything. As service providers, the moment we enter a contract, our customer's project becomes our temple. Our job is to polish every nook and cranny inside the temple to reveal their true intent, break convention and introduce new elements only with the consent of the customer, be mindful of the customer's budget, and always tread the project carefully as if we are standing on a sacred ground.

[1] Hong Yi, a Chinese Buddhist monk, artist, and art teacher (1880-1942).

Li-Hsuan Lung enjoys reading, writing, and translating between Chinese and English and is part of the ongoing effort to bring the Agile Manifesto to a Chinese audience.