Once upon a time, a puppet-maker’s son left home to find his way in the world. All his life the young man had dreamed of leaving his father’s shop; nevertheless, as he was departing, his father gave him four marionettes to take with him. “Let these be your guides,” he said, “but remember, always allow goodness and wisdom to serve knowledge and strength.”
“Yes, yes,” said the young man, eager to be on his way. He set off into the jungle. That night, as he sat before a small fire, he wondered where he might sleep safely. His heart pounded, and he half-wished his father was with him to give him advice. Then he remembered the marionettes. He reached into his bag and one by one lifted them from their resting places. “Is it safe to sleep here?” he asked them.
To his astonishment, the first marionette, the one his father told him was king, jumped from his pole and instantly grew to life-size. Then he spoke. “Open your eyes and look around you,” he said. “That is the beginning of wisdom.”
The young man was stunned and silent as the marionette shrank again and leaped back onto his pole. Still, he knew the king of the gods was wise, and so he looked around.
It was then he noticed tiger tracks at his feet, and so he climbed into the highest branches of a tree. There he slept safely through the night. Below him, tigers prowled, and the young man knew he had taken the first step on the road toward wisdom.
The next day the trail led him up into the mountains. As he walked, he saw below in the valley a caravan piled high with carpets and other goods. His heart swelled with envy. “I wish I were as rich as that merchant,” he thought, and with those words, one of the marionettes, the demon, grew to life-size, leaped from his pole and stood before the young man.
“I am the strength,” said the demon, “and with strength, you can take anything you wish.” He stamped his feet hard, and the earth shook and massive rocks began to tumble down the mountainside, blocking the road the caravan traveled.
“There,” the demon said, “run and takes what you will.”
The young man hurried down the mountain, and when he reached the carts, he cried, “All this is mine!” He began to gather things into his arms when he suddenly heard someone weeping from one of the carts.
When he looked inside the cart, he saw a beautiful young woman shaking with fear. “Who are you?” the young man asked.
“My father owns this caravan,” said the girl. “I was on my way to meet him.”
The young man at once wished to keep her. “I’ll take you with me, then,” he said, “and I’ll care for you.”
“You’re just a thief,” she said angrily.
“Don’t listen to her,” the demon whispered. “She’ll fall in love with you when you are rich.” And so the young man leaped into the driver’s seat and drove the horses forward.
Suddenly, though, he stopped and reached for his marionettes. “But where am I going?” he asked, and he was not at all surprised when the sorcerer grew to life-size and jumped down from his pole to answer. “To make your wealth grow,” said the sorcerer, “you must know the secrets of the universe.” The sorcerer tapped the young man with his wand, and a moment later they were both raising high above the countryside. From his perch above the world, the young man could see exactly which lands were rich in soil and which were rich in minerals, and now he knew all the land had to offer. This knowledge gave him power.
He drove the caravan toward the city, and there he became a wealthy merchant, for he knew which farmers could provide him the best vegetables and which prospectors and miners would provide him with silver and gold. He consulted frequently with the sorcerer and the demon, for he wanted to keep his knowledge and strength.
He did become rich, and every day he begged the young woman to marry him. He gave her gold and sapphires and rubies, but nothing would convince her to love him. She knew him as greedy and a thief. She refused to speak to him, and one day she ran away and was never seen again.
The young man was grief-struck. “My wealth means nothing to me without the one person I love,” he cried to his marionettes. “Please, lead me to that which I most love.”
And it was only then that the fourth marionette, the holy hermit, grew to life-size and spoke. “You never asked me for help,” he said. “You imagined wealth would bring you happiness, and you grew greedy and relied too much on knowledge of the land and your strength. You’ve forgotten your father’s words, and it was he who loved you most. You’ve forgotten wisdom and goodness.”
Then the young man remembered his father’s words: Wisdom and goodness must serve knowledge and strength.
That very night he began to build a holy pagoda. When he had finished, he offered food and shelter to all who passed by. In time he began to feel peace and knew that his father, though but a puppet-maker, had been among the wisest of men. As he grew old, he kept his marionettes close to him and remembered always to listen to strength and knowledge but to allow wisdom and goodness to guide him.
In Burma, today is also known as Myanmar, and in many other East Asian lands, no deed is considered more worthy than building a pagoda, a towering shrine that houses relics and sacred images.