a tale

The Magic Urn

Once upon a time  in ancient Japan there lived a samurai. When the time had come to retire from warfare, he was put in charge of the protection and government of several villages. One day, he went for a long walk in the mountains. He climbed up a steep hill, and when he sat down to enjoy the view and rest from the ascent, he said to himself:

“If only I had more time for things like this, and for thinking about the villager’s long term future! But alas! it is not possible. Not only am I the most experienced man, and the most knowledgeable about running villages, and about dealing with the requirements of the adminstration. But apparently I have to tell everybody what to do in their own back yard, too. Which crops to plant, when to harvest them, and how to replace the back wall of their hut! Every day they come to see me about their small decisions, or I have to monitor something because otherwise they are not doing it right. I’ve tried to leave them alone, but there have been some mistakes, and generally people have been way too passive. So my day is packed with little decisions about all the bits and pieces of everybody else’s life. There just isn’t time left for myself!”

Suddenly an old woman with a hunchback appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. “I can help you. I will give you a device which delivers answers to every question the villagers ask, and the answer will always be correct and useful. It has worked many times before.”

Magic Urn 2

After a moment of surprise, the samurai thought about the proposal. There was no risk in taking on the offer, he concluded. If the device didn’t work, he could simply throw it away and continue the old ways.

“Ok, Obasan. Give me the device, and I’ll make sure you will not be in need of anything for the rest of your life.”

“The device is already at your house. Go to the back door, and there you will find an urn. Put it in front of the house, and tell people to ask their questions to the urn. The spirit of the urn will answer.” With those words, the woman disappeared.

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The samurai went back to his house, and found the urn where the woman had told it was. It was a large earthenware urn lavilshly decorated with unknown mystical figures. He had it placed on his front porch, and instructed the villagers to ask their questions to it. Whenever someone asked a question, the urn would tremble for a moment. Then, a small slip of paper would appear in a slot at the bottom, containing the correct answer.

From the very first day, people stopped coming into the samurai’s house. They went to the urn, asked their question, got an answer, and went off to do their job.


When the samurai went on a tour of the village, he saw that everybody was doing just the right thing. He was delighted, and started spending more and more time on his solitary walks. Every now and then, he would call for a big meeting, discuss his new ideas, and the rest woud be taken care of by the magic urn.

The next harvest was richer than any before, and everybody seemed more happy about their lives.

By now even the samurai didn’t open his front door anymore.

One day, when he was on a walk through the meadows, he met one of his favorite young peasants. In the past, he had given him many special tasks, and secretly considered him a potential for a promising career.

The samurai asked him how he felt about the villages.

“Really great” said the peasant. “We are becoming richer, and everybody is very satisfied and engaged.”

Magic Urn 4

The samurai was pleased. “I’m so glad I got that magic urn.”

“That was a good decision, San”, said the peasant, “but things only really took off when after some weeks the urn started showing cracks and gradually stopped working alltogether.”

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10 replies on “The Magic Urn”

I liked the oriental context of this one, it is refreshing for the mind to follow the story and see an everyday management problem set in a completely different context. Sebastian Marshall

Bernhard – I really enjoyed the way you brought the lesson of the leader’s dilemma (do or delegate) and the innate power of self-direction to light through this lovely story. Your gift for storytelling is delightful, and I look forward to seeing more of these tales as you bring them to light.

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