The Stonecutter (A Japanese Folktale) with an Afterword

The Stonecutter A Japanese Folktale With Afterword by Dennis LoweryOnce upon a time, there lived a stonecutter who went every day to a great rock in the side of a mountain and cut out slabs for houses or gravestones. He understood very well the kinds of stones wanted for the different purposes, and as he was a careful workman, he had plenty of customers. For a long time, he was quite happy and contented and asked for nothing better than what he had.

In the mountain dwelt a spirit that now and then appeared to men and helped them in many ways to become rich and prosperous. The stonecutter, however, had never seen this spirit and only shook his head—unbelieving—when anyone spoke of it.

One day a new customer ordered dozens of small slabs of building stone to be used in expanding the house of a wealthy man. Each day for a month, cutting in the morning and delivering at the end of the day, the stonecutter worked harder than he ever had to meet the demands of this affluent customer. As he carried the cut stone to the man’s house, there he saw all sorts of beautiful things of which he had never even dreamed. Suddenly his daily work seemed to grow even harder and heavier. The last day with the final delivery, as he trudged home, he thought of the roughness of his dwelling and bed that awaited him, ‘If only I were a rich man, and could sleep in a bed with silken curtains and golden tassels, how happy I would be!’ The next morning on the mountain, tired and not looking forward to the workday ahead, that was still on his mind as he muttered it  aloud. The surrounding stone caught it and echoed back. And a voice answered him: “If that is your wish, so shall it be!”

At the sound of the voice, the stonecutter looked around but could see nobody. He thought it was all imagination but couldn’t shake how distasteful the thought of work was and picked up his tools. “I can’t work today.” As he walked, he thought of what the voice told him. When he reached the little house where he lived, he stood still with amazement. Instead of his wooden hut was a stately palace filled with lovely furniture and most beautiful of all was the bed, in every respect like the one he had envied. He was nearly beside himself with joy, and in his new life, the old one was soon forgotten.

It was now the beginning of summer, and each day the sun blazed more fiercely. One morning the heat was so high that the stonecutter could scarcely breathe, and he determined he would stay at home till the evening. Life was rather dull, for he had never learned how to amuse himself. He was peeping through the closed blinds to see what was going on in the street, when a little carriage passed by, drawn by servants dressed in blue and silver. In it sat a prince, and over his head, a golden umbrella was held, to protect him from the sun’s rays.

“Oh, if I were only a prince!” said the stonecutter to himself, as the carriage vanished around the corner. “Oh, if I were only a prince, and could ride in such a way and have a golden umbrella held over me, how happy I should be!”

And a prince he was. Before his carriage rode one company of men and another behind it; servants dressed in scarlet and gold bore him along, the coveted umbrella was held over his head, everything his heart could desire was his. But yet it was not enough. He looked around still for something to wish for. When he saw that in spite of the water he poured on the grass, the rays of the sun scorched it. And that in spite of the umbrella held over his head each day; he still perspired and his skin burned darker. He cried in his anger: “The sun is mightier than I. Oh if I were only the sun!”

The mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard; the sun you shall be.”

And the sun he was and felt proud of his power. He shot his beams above and below, on earth and in heaven; he burnt up the grass in the fields and scorched the faces of princes as well as of poorer folk. But in a short time, he began to grow tired of his might, for there seemed nothing left for him to do. Discontent once more filled his soul. When a cloud covered his face and hid the earth from him, he cried in his anger: “Does the cloud hold captive my rays, and is it mightier than I? Oh, that I was a cloud, and mightier than any!”

Again the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard; a cloud you shall be!”

And a cloud he was and lay between the sun and the earth. He caught the sun’s beams and held them, and to his joy, the ground grew green again, and flowers blossomed. But that was not enough for him, and for days and week he poured forth rain till the rivers overflowed their banks, and the crops of rice stood in water. Towns and villages were destroyed by the power of the shower, only the great rock on the mountainside remained unmoved. The cloud was amazed at the sight and cried in wonder: “Is the rock, then, mightier than I? Oh, if I were only the rock!”

The mountain spirit answered; “Your wish is heard; the rock you shall be!”

And the rock he was and gloried in his power. Proudly he stood, and neither the heat of the sun nor the force of the rain could move him. “This is better than all!” he said to himself. But one day he heard a strange noise at his feet, and when he looked down to see what it could be, he saw a stonecutter driving tools into his surface. As he watched, a trembling feeling ran all through him, and a great block broke off and fell to the ground. Then he cried in his wrath: “Is a mere child of earth mightier than a rock? Oh, if I were only a man!”

Once more the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard. A man—as you were before—you shall be!”

And a man he was. With sweat on his brow, he toiled again at his trade of stone cutting. His bed was hard and his food scanty, but he had learned to be satisfied with it and did not long to be something or somebody else. And as he never asked for things he did not have or desired to be higher and mightier than other people, he was happy at last, and never again heard the voice of the mountain spirit.


We all have questions and search for answers in our life. But getting those answers right depends on a proper understanding of who we are and what are the things that make us most content.

The stonecutter is happy at the beginning of the story but questions what he’s done with his life and who he is (as a person). He starts to desire things he’d seen that the wealthy had. It was so much when he had so little. The lure and the trappings, of wealth, were dominant in the mind of the stonecutter.

He had heard but never believed because he had no need of it, of a spirit that lived on the mountain. If called upon, stories claimed it would make men rich. Once he saw what others had that he did not… oh, how he craved the things money could buy and lamented aloud. And the mountain spirit appeared.

Through the magic of the mountain spirit, the stonecutter mistakenly abandons the benefits of his life, to change the type of person he was so he could have what the rich had. But he’s still not content and sees things he feels he must have or a person or thing he must become to be happy. The spirit accommodates him; making change after change in him until finally, he becomes his last request; a rock that can withstand the storms and floods. And he feels he’s attained what makes him most content.

Then one day he—the stone he had become—looked down upon a stonecutter. A man as he had been. As he is broken by the man’s pick, he pleads with the mountain spirit to change him back to what he had been at the beginning. A man who understood who he was and what made him happy and content.

Sometimes we chase too much and long for all the things we want (but in some cases probably don’t need) for all the wrong reasons. The stonecutter had come full circle to find that all he desired, once he had it, did not make him happy. All it did was take him further and further away from his real self.

“A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.”

Escher's RelativityThat was written by St. Augustine (b. 353AD, d. 430AD), as cited by Robert Burton in his 1621 work titled, Anatomy of Melancholy. He talked about what is known as the hedonic treadmill, also the hedonic adaption. That’s the theory that as a person makes more money, expectations rise in tandem, which results in no personal gain in happiness. Most humans are running in place or running to keep up with someone… chasing something just ahead of them. We’re not happy (or can’t stand still), and we always feel behind. Or perhaps we feel like we live inside M.S. Escher’s artwork titled, Relativity. A place where up is always ahead of us with another set of stairs to climb, but we’re starting to sense that they all lead nowhere.

Originally this belief and theory posited that humans can achieve a happiness set point in their life. Despite events that occur we reach an equilibrium, a place where we’re happy or content. You can research online and find a lot of academic, sometimes seemingly abstract, clinical discussion and debate about hedonic adaption.

I see it like this. The many people who gauge their self-value and accomplishments in life by the things they own; what they can acquire that serves as some form of a status symbol, can never truly be happy. I contend (and know its truth in how it applies to my life and others I’ve met): no matter how many material items we acquire, they are not going to make us happy. It’s not a chase, and it’s not a race. There is not any competition… just a human being on a gerbil wheel. Or in this case, a treadmill. Running awful damned hard only to stay in place.

That situation has many things in common with what happened to the stonecutter.

The good thing is we can make a choice, but we have to know there are always consequences dictated by and a result of those decisions. Only we can make ourselves climb on that wheel or treadmill and go go go until we’re exhausted spiritually. We can also decide to get off.

What makes us happy is what’s inside; how we feel about who we are and what we’ve done. And a large part of that is shaped by our experiences. I happen to believe it is possible to form your life through concrete—positive—experiences. You plan them based on knowing that similar or equivalent experiences have made you happy. When you realize that and try it in real-time, in the real world, you understand how compelling experiences, memories, and anticipation of them are in making your life truly happy and content. Most people, whether intuitively or by reading something that sparks them, will see they can create a much more contented life by shifting their efforts to having the types of experiences most meaningful to them. And not by chasing bright, shiny, expensive things that in and of themselves bring little intrinsic value to our happiness and real quality of life.

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