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Volume 5 No 2

From The Library

How much land does a man need?
Adapted from a story by Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910)

We crave, we plan, and we conspire, often at the expense of many people, to have more, more and more, but how much do we really need? Spare a thought. Written in 1886, this story is a marvellous metaphor which shows the need for us to set definite boundaries on our own appetites.

There once was a peasant named Pahom who worked hard and honestly for his family, but who had no land of his own. He yearned to be a land-owner.

One winter the news got around that a small landowner close to his village was selling her land. Pahom and his wife sold and borrowed what they could, and managed to scrape together half the purchase price for a farm of forty acres. The rest he would pay in a year's time.

So now Pahom had land of his own. They worked hard and within a year he had managed to pay off all his debts. He ploughed and sowed, made hay, cut trees, and fed his cattle - all on his own land. Everything that grew on it seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere. Previously, it had appeared the same as any other land, but now it seemed quite different.

One day a stranger passing through the village brought the news that beyond the village, there was much land for sale. The land was good and many people were making it rich there. One peasant, he said, had brought nothing with him but his bare hands, and now he owned six horses and two cows!

Pahom's heart was filled with desire. He thought it meaningless to suffer in his small land if he can live so well elsewhere. He sold whatever he had at a profit, and moved his family to the new settlement. Whatever the stranger told him was true, and he was ten times better off than he had been. But, he was not satisfied. To grow more wheat, he rented extra land from other farmers. After a while, he grew tired of renting other people's land and having to scramble to pay for it.

1. Roubles: Russian currency

Then one day a passing land dealer said he was just returning from the land of Bashkirs, far away, where he had bought thirteen thousand acres of land, all for only one thousand roubles [1]. All one needed was to make friends with the chiefs and give them presents. Pahom's eyes glistened with desire. He had to try.

Pahom took a servant with him and started on the long journey to the land of the Bashkirs. Upon arrival, they were treated to a warm welcome. He distributed the presents and told them he had come about some land. The chief listened for a while, and then said to Pahom, "Well, let it be so. Choose whatever piece of land you like. We have plenty of it."

"And what will be the price?" asked Pahom.

"Our price is always the same: one thousand rubles a day."

Pahom did not understand. "A day? What measure is that? How many acres would that be?"

"We do not know," said the chief. "We sell it by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is one thousand rubles a day. You may make as large a circuit as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from, otherwise your money is lost."

It was agreed and they assembled on a hillock on the following day just before sunrise. Pahom's eyes glistened at the sight of the land: it was all virgin soil, as flat as the palm of your hand, and as black as a poppy seed.

At the word go, Pahom set off in the direction of the rising sun, walking neither slowly or quickly. He gathered pace as he walked off his stiffness.

Before long, Pahom estimated that he had walked three miles. He took a break and thought, "I will go on for another three miles and then turn to the left. The land here is too good to lose."

By noon, the hillock was scarcely visible. The grass was high and it was very hot. Pahom began to grow tired. He sat down, and ate some bread and drank some water; but he did not lie down, afraid that he might fall asleep. A short while later, he went on again. At first he walked easily: the food had strengthened him; but it had become terribly hot, and he felt sleepy. Still he went on, thinking: "An hour to suffer, a lifetime to live."

He kept adding to the distance because "the land here was too good to lose". Some times he would double back to make sure that it is just the shape that he wanted. Soon it was time to turn straight towards the hillock. He was exhausted and walked with difficulty. He had taken off his boots and now his feet were cut and bruised, and his legs began to fail. He longed to rest, but the sun waits for no man, and it was sinking lower and lower.

He was still far from his goal, and the sun was already near the rim. It was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He began to run, threw away his coat, his boots, his flask and his cap, and kept only the spade that he used as a support.

He feared that he might have grasped too much, and that he could not get there before the sun sets. And this fear made him still more breathless. His clothes were soak in his perspiration, and his mouth was parched. His lungs were working like a blacksmith's bellows, his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way. He was seized with terror lest he should die of the strain. By now he heard the Bashkirs yelling and shouting to him, and their cries inflamed his heart still more. He gathered his last strength and ran on.

Now, yes now, the sun was about to set! "There is plenty of land, but will I be able to live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!" he cried.

Just as he reached the hillock it suddenly grew dark. He looked up - the sun had already set! He was about to stop, but he heard the Bashkirs still shouting, and remembered that to those on the hillock the sun was still visible. He took a long breath, ran up the hillock and saw that he was right. On reaching the top, he fell forward and, at last, he touched the agreed spot.

The chief exclaimed, "Ah, that is a fine fellow! He has gained much land."

Pahom's servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw blood flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead! His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre