A new disciple of a Zen Master asked "Master, how do you define success?"
The Zen Master replied, "Go to the village cobbler and spend a month with him".
The disciple went to the village cobbler and told him about his conversation with his master. The cobbler nodded and allowed the disciple to stay in his house. The young disciple saw that the cobbler would wake up exactly at day-break, get ready for work, have breakfast and go for work. The disciple followed him to work. There he conducted his business honestly, no matter if there were many customers or few. With whatever earning of the day, he would get provisions for his family. The evening he would spend with his family and friends and retire in the night. The same pattern continued the next day. The cobbler did exactly the same things at the same time. The disciple was surprised. Every day, the cobbler went about his daily life in exactly the same way, and the disciple was amazed at the consistency of his routine. He could not understand why the cobbler was doing things exactly the same way at the same time daily. And what relation has this to do with the question he asked his Master.
He also observed that the cobbler did not earn much. There were days when he could not buy any provisions at all for his family. Those days, the family had to do with whatever crumbs and scraps were available. But the cobbler, nonetheless, was a very happy and contented man.
On the last day the disciple asked the cobbler, "Tell me, I have seen you doing exactly the same things every day for the entire month; your life is just like a clock. Why is it so? "
The cobbler said, “Yes, my daily life is planned that way. I love to follow a routine. Each night, I set myself a goal on what I would do the other day and try to do those things within that time. But, there are days when intentionally or otherwise my routine breaks"
The disciple asked, “But why do you do that?” The Cobbler said “I just like it that way”.
The disciple was even more confused. How can someone "like" a boring routine?
He remembered his question to his Master and asked the cobbler "Do you know what success is?"
The cobbler replied "I am a lay man. I have never studied any text books or scriptures. Neither have I had the chance to listen to any discourses or speeches. I do not know what success is. But what I do know is if I am able to follow my routine and go to work every single day; I feel happy. May be that is success. Those days, that I am not able to go to work, I feel bad. Now, you know, my work is not very interesting. But I have set a goal to myself to be consistent in opening the shop, waiting for customers and closing the shop at a particular time and then carry on with my other activities. If I am able to do that, I feel I have achieved something. May be that is success"
The disciple came back to the Master and told, "Master, I think I now know something of what success is. It has to do with setting a goal and reaching the same. But is that all there is to it?"
"Well", the Zen Master replied, "Go to the cow-shed and take care of the cows for a month".
The disciple was astonished. What could he learn about his quest from the cows? Also, the work at the cowshed is very strenuous. No one was interested to work there as it was seen by others as a lowly work. It was considered a punishment to work there. Nevertheless he decided to go there.
He set a goal for himself that he will keep the cowshed as clean as possible.
He diligently did his work. Every day, he would get up in the morning, draw water from the well and fill the tank. Then he would provide water to all the cows and calves. After that he leave them in the fields for grazing. Before they came back, he would draw more water and clean the cowshed thoroughly. By the time the herd was back in the evening, the cowshed would be clean.
It was not a very inspiring job. He managed to do it the first day. But, he failed to clean the shed in the next day. Again he pulled himself up. After a week of cleaning and failing to clean, he learnt something. He felt bad if he did not do clean it any day. But if he was able to clean it, he felt good. By end of second week, he was quite consistent. The results showed up. He felt happy as he was able to reach his goals. Now he committed that he will do his daily shed cleaning every single day for the rest of the month.
One day some folks from his village met him while he was herding the cows. They said "Look at you. You came from the village to become a monk. But is this what you are doing now? Herding the cows and cleaning the cowshed?" Couldn’t you get any better job at the monastery? What an utter failure" The young disciple did get perturbed. But he maintained his composure, smiled at them and enquired about others in the village before bidding good-bye.
Every night, he thought about the incident. He knew he had a goal that he has set for himself. And he was happy on his being able to achieve his goals of keeping the cowshed spic and span. But others thought he was a failure. It was then that he realized, only the person who is working on the goals knows whether he is a success or not. It is very personal. It differs from person to person. It is not appropriate for others to comment on it.
After the month was over, he went back to the master and narrated the major incidents and what he had learnt. He said "Master, success is quite personal. It doesn’t depend on what others feel, think or say".
Master nodded and asked “Are the cows successful?"
Disciple said, "Cows take life as it comes. They do not spend time in thinking, but do naturally whatever needs to be done at that moment. They eat when hungry and drink when thirsty. I do not even have a yard stick with which to measure if they are successful of not. Howver, they seem to be happy with whatever they are doing."
Master asked, "What about your village friends?"
The disciple said, “Master, between the two extremes - life with a purposeful goal like that of the cobbler, and life without an explicit goal like that of a cow - there are many shades and variations. There are those who have goals, but hardly work towards it. Then, there are others who do not really have a goal, but rather have some pipe dream or wishes; and they think that they have a goal. Some are Zen like and have a goal of not having a goal. So, I am not in a position to tell if they are successful or not. It is for them to decide.
The Master smiled peacefully and then asked “How do YOU define success?”