ONE day Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha, the founders of the three sects of religion professed in China, were talking together in fairyland of the want of success which attended their doctrines in the world, and proposed a descent to see if there were any right-minded persons who might be commissioned to awaken the age. After travelling for some days, they came at length to a desert place where the smoke of human habitations was not visible. The three sages, being weary with their journey and their lack of success, looked about for some place where they might quench their thirst, when suddenly they espied a fountain, and an old man sitting by it on guard. They concluded that they had better ask him for a little drink, and consulted together upon whom the task should fall of soliciting the favour.
"Come," said the other two to Buddha, "your priests are in the habit of begging, you go forward and ask." Buddha accordingly put the request. The old man asked: "Who are you?" "I am Shikayamuni," replied Buddha, "who formerly appeared in the west." "Oh, you are the celebrated Buddha, then, of whom I have heard so much; you have a reputation of being a good man, and I cannot refuse you a drink; but you must first answer me a question, which, if you do, you may have as much water as you please; but if not, you must go empty away." "What is it?" said Buddha. "Why," said the old man, "you Buddhists constantly affirm that men are equal, and admit neither of high nor low; how is it then that in your monasteries you have abbots, priests and novices?" Buddha could not answer, and was obliged to retire.
The sages then deputed Lao Tzu to ask for water, who, on coming up to the old man, was asked his name. "I am Lao Tzu," was the reply. "Oh, the founder of the Tao sect," said the old man. "I have heard a good account of you; but you must answer me a question or you will get no water." "Pray ask it," Lao Tzu answered. "You Taoists talk about the elixir of immortality; have you such a thing?" "Yes," said Lao Tzu, "it is the partaking of this that has rendered me immortal." "Well then," said the old man, "why did you not give a little to your own father, and prevent his decease?" Lao Tzu could not reply and was obliged to retire, saying to Confucius, "Come, brother, you must try your skill, for I can make nothing of the old man."
Confucius therefore advanced with the same request. "And who are you?" said the ancient. "I am Confucius," said he. "Oh, the celebrated Confucius, the sage of China; I have heard much of your discourses on filial piety, but how is it that you do not act up to them? You say, When parents are alive do not wander far; and if you do, have some settled place of abode; why then have you strayed away to this uninhabited region?" Confucius was unable to reply, and retired.
Upon this the three worthies consulted together about the old man, and came to the conclusion that he was so intelligent, they could not light upon a better person to revive their doctrines, and spread them through the world. They therefore made the suggestion. But the old man replied with a smile; "Gentlemen, you do not seem to know who or what I am? It is the upper part of me only that is flesh and blood, the lower part is stone; I can talk about virtue, but cannot follow it out."
This, the sages found, was the character of all mankind, and in despair of reforming the world they returned to the aerial regions.