The Forever Beggar

Original story in Chinese by Prof. Lee Chack-fan; retold by Raymond Lam

There is a bustling street somewhere, far removed from our eyes and limited perceptions. Beside this road stand cafés that never close their doors and shops that stay open even when their owners have long since moved on. Spirits—strange things we don’t quite understand—come in and out of these cafés, and every time they make a wish, or utter a word to another spirit, or drink a cup of coffee, things move about on Earth. People are stirred.

Do you see that young man with stubble, sitting on the ground in brooding silence? They have a name for him around here: the forever beggar. He wears tattered clothes and an old jacket, garments billions of years old. He always wants something, his desires fuelled by the trillions of wishes of the sentient beings below. He has his hand outstretched, even though today he’s quite shamelessly sitting on top a pile of gold bars.

He has asked for things, for stuff, over many, many eons. It’s in his nature, because he is The One Who Longs.

An old man in even more ancient clothes stops before him and garbles, “There you are, Longing, at it again. No wonder why they call you the forever beggar. You’ve already got so much gold, and you’re not even bothering to hide it. What more do you want?”

“Hello, Giving. Before, I thought I just wanted riches,” says The One Who Longs, eyes gleaming. “But that’s not true. I want success among my peers. I want love. I want respect!”

“All things worth pining after, I suppose,” replies The One Who Gives, stroking his bearded chin. He raises his walking stick and grants him all the things he asked for, and the little creatures on Earth feel their hearts gladdened, if only momentarily.

We blink and another eternity, unbearably long to human minds, passes by. There’s The One Who Longs again, sitting along on the ground and waiting for something to be given to him. The old man, The One Who Gives, hobbles by again. He stops and scratches his head. “Didn’t I grant you everything you wanted last month?” he cries. “Everyone adores you now. What do you want this time?”

“Excitement and stimulation. I want to be entertained,” replies Longing. “The love of others was never going to do it. I need to go base-jumping. I want to ride the rapids. I want to hike up to the highest mountain! I need to feel like I’m alive in this dream-like world.”

Because Giving has so much to give, he grants Longing all these experiences and there is a surge of excitement in the hearts of the little ones throughout the universe. Then he leaves and doesn’t return for yet another eternity. When he returns, Longing is still sitting there with his hand outreached, on the same pile of stacked gold bars.

“What do you want now?” asks Giving.

“I thought I’d be satisfied if I felt alive, if my whole being was suffused with vitality and joy and fearlessness of death… but something’s missing,” admitted Longing. “I think I want satisfaction. How can I make peace with it all? How can I be content with myself?”

Giving strokes his beard once more. “So you wish to find contentment. That’s perhaps the only thing that is out of my reach, the only feeling that I can’t give you. But I have an idea. You might not like it at first, but give it a shot.”

“What should I do?”

Giving points a gnarled finger at the gold bars beneath Longing’s bottom. “Try to give those away to the spirits that imparted to you their riches. Then pass the love that you’ve been given on to someone else, or return it twofold to its source. Your success—give it to those who feel like failures. Your zest for life—give it to those who feel as if they’ve got nothing. Give your respect to those who have lost their sense of dignity, and haul them back to their feet again. Learn how to pass on what I’ve given you, especially to those who don’t have what you have, and you’ll be granted something far greater than I could ever have imparted to you.”

And so Longing tries. He wanders the planes of existence, giving away his gold bars to those who need it most, and all the lovely things that Giving passed on to him originally. The more generous he is, the more content he feels, and the more kind and bighearted he becomes until…

Until… one day, he discovers that he’s become the Giver. He has wrinkles now, and his hair is white. Gone are his teeth, his youth, because he’s given everything away.

Meanwhile, his old friend, The One Who Gave, has disappeared, never to return. The old man has flown away on his walking stick, into the Untraceable Void. And so the new Giver walks this street, searching the cafés, shops, and street for the next spirit who has a hand outstretched and voices out the manifold needs and wants of the little creatures.

And so The One That Gives and The One That Longs re-enact this cosmic drama of primeval wishes, over and over again, so that the two spirits can reflect the actions that make us better human beings.


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