Demi's The Magic Pillow
Book review by Monica Friedman
An Ancient Chinese Legend about Vanity, Contentment, and the Illusion of All Material Wealth
It’s human nature to dwell on what we don’t have. There will always be someone with more wealth, more power, more fame, but, for most of us, dwelling on these inequalities results only in sorrow.
In this kindly picture book, a little boy named Ping has only a little black pony and “a poor little patch of land,” but he and his family are “all very happy together.” Not until a chance meeting with a magician does Ping begin to consider what he lacks. When the magician shows him the illusion of jewels, Ping is initially delighted, but as the vision fades away, he suddenly remembers his family’s poverty, and grows sad.
“It seems that in life,” he tells the magician, “a person should do great things: He should have money, power, fame, and everything life can offer. But my family is so poor. All I have is my little black pony and I don’t think I’ll ever have any more.”
The magician counters that wisdom is the gift most worth having, as it leads to truth and enlightenment, and to prove his point, he offers Ping a magic pillow, which, he promises, will make all Ping’s wishes come true.
And, indeed, in Ping’s dream, all his wishes do come true. He experiences all the nuances of success, including fame, wealth, love, jealousy, punishment, redemption, and honor.
But the magic pillow does not stop there. Ping witnesses his sons’ and grandsons’ lives, “seeing the family fortunes rise and fall and rise and fall, like endless waves upon the ocean.” And thus, the dream makes clear, those things for which he yearns are mere ephemera: “Money was like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, power was like a flickering lamp, and fame lasted no longer than a bubble in a stream.”
Ping awakes filled with great wisdom and knowledge. “Now,” he says, “I know that I am happy just the way I am!” Review continues.
The illustrations of this story are ringed in gold, with gold accent, and a variety of backgrounds creates the illusion of texture throughout the book, so that Ping’s story comes alive, and the family’s poor farm, the magician’s tricks, and the dream’s imagery all hold the same degree of reality.
The story ends with a final golden circle, filled with rings of golden stars, along with the conclusion, “He who finds peace in his heart has found his palace of gold.” There is also a historical note about the original version of this tale, penned in 700 A.D. by one of the Eight Chinese Immortals, Lu Tung Ping, the Patron Saint of Literature. The note ends with the quote, “within life/Heaven can be found,/and within Heaven/is life without end.”
For many Americans, young and old, the concept of contentment and acceptance is a foreign one. Why should we accept what we have when others have more? The Magic Pillow shows us that this endless struggle to acquire is the true cause of suffering, while contentment leads to happiness. Ping leaves the inn, “singing all the way” home, suggesting that true joy lies in living in and embracing the moment, rather than grasping at the future.
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