Traditional Chinese Culture: The Concept of “Being Content with Poverty and Happily Pursuing the Way”
(Clearwisdom.net) In traditional Chinese culture, the word “Tao” (or “Dao” or “Way”) refers to the law of the universe. The Tao has been the overall goal of and the ultimate realm in the various types of theories or schools of belief in China. The ancient Chinese took the ideal of “being content with poverty and happily pursuing the Tao” as a guide for their personal cultivation and living. “Being content with poverty and happily pursuing the Tao” is also a virtue that has been commended by Chinese people since ancient times. “Being content with poverty” reflects a tranquil, unperturbed attitude when one faces a poor life and lack of material sustenance, while “happily pursuing the Tao” refers to one’s tireless pursuit of truth. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, with their passing-down such virtues over the long history of traditional Chinese culture, have enabled many Chinese people to be content with poverty and happily pursue the Tao. These individuals were neither moved by poverty and richness, nor swayed by other external factors. They were steadfast in their pursuits and took learning the Tao, getting enlightened to the Tao, and attaining the Tao as their greatest happiness. Here are some examples.
What Confucius and Yan Hui were Content with
Confucius said, “With coarse rice to eat, with plain water to drink, and with my bent arm as a pillow, I still have joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness are just floating clouds to me.” (Lun Yu - Shu Er, that is, The Confucian Analects – Transmission) That is to say, if what one conforms to a righteous way, one can still feel happy even if one can only eat unpalatable food, drink plain water, and use one’s own bent arm as a pillow. Confucius also described himself this way, “He is simply a man, who, in his eager pursuit of knowledge, forgets his meals, who, in the joy of its attainment, forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that he is getting old?" (Lun Yu - Shu Er) When commending his disciple Yan Hui, Confucius said, "Admirable indeed is the virtue of Hui! He could live a life on a humble street with just a small bamboo basket to hold rice and a gourd ladle to hold water. While others could not endure such distress, it did not affect his enjoyment." (Lun Yun – Yong Ye, i.e., The Confucian Analects –Yong Ye) For such noble individuals as Confucius and Yan Hui, their enjoyment did not lie in material things, but in spiritual pursuits. People collectively call their happiness, which came from the depth of their hearts via assimilating themselves to the Tao, and their spirit of being content with poverty and happily pursuing the Tao, as “what Confucius and Yan were content with.”
Confucius promoted the principle of “being content with poverty and pursuing the Tao” and held the firm belief of “using the Tao to help people.” They believed that they had the social responsibility and historic mission of “taking what the nation needs as one’s own responsibility.” He advocated enlightening people with the Tao and virtues. He often asked people to be content with poverty, happily pursue the Way, and improve their own morality, free themselves from the desires for fame and interests, and not get degenerated if losing one's direction in life. He said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning knowledge and the Way. At thirty, I found the Way and established myself. At forty, I knew the Way and was no longer perplexed by things. At fifty, I understood the mandate of Heaven. At sixty, nothing I heard could disarray me. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired without transgressing what was right.” (Lun Yu - Wei Zheng, that is, Confucian Analects –The Practice of Government) Confucius told people to understand and follow the heavenly ordinance, and in this way, one could always be content with poverty and happily pursue the Tao.
Confucius and his disciples took the heavenly principles and righteousness as their ideal, faith, and guidance. They measured everything based on whether it is in accordance with the Tao. They traveled to many nations to spread the Tao. Confucius advocated that human principles be in accord with the requirements of the heavenly principles and that human minds be in accord with the heavenly ordinance, so as to achieve the “unity of heaven and man.” Later Confucian scholars took “what Confucius and Yan Hui were content with” as their ideal realm of mind, which they used to enrich them within. They pursued the sublime Tao and the “unity of heaven and man.”
Zeng Shen Promoted the Tao
Zeng Shen, a disciple of Confucius, was very accomplished in cultivating himself and behaving according to etiquette. He inherited Confucius’ ideals and promoted the heavenly principles. He said, “A nobleman cannot go without having great aspiration and perseverance, as he shoulders a great responsibility and has a long journey to go.”
Zeng Shen worked in the field during the daytime and studied in the evening until it was very late. He led a very poor life. When the King of the Nation of Lu heard about Zeng’s high morality, he was very concerned about Zeng. The king decided to give Zeng some land as a gift, but Zeng firmly refused the offer and continued his life of “wearing simple clothes and working in the field, and often not cooking meals in a whole day.” (Book of Sayings of Confucius and His Disciples) The King’s envoy tried to persuade Zeng, “You have not asked for this, so why don’t you accept it?” Zeng said to the envoy sincerely, “I often hear that those who have accepted gifts from others would be intimidated by the giver, and those who gave the gifts would become arrogant. Even if the giver does not become arrogant, how could I not feel intimidated? Furthermore, rather than receiving reward for doing nothing, I should make a living by my own effort.” So Zeng Shen still lived his poor life without grudge or regret. He found joy in his way of living.
When Zeng Shen traveled to various nations, the Nation of Qi wanted to have him as its prime minister; the Nation of Chu wanted to appointed him as Ling Yin (another name for prime minister), and the Nation of Jin wanted to make him Shang Qing (a high ranking position). However, when he saw that his suggestions (which would have benefitted people) were not adopted, he firmly refused the offers from these nations. He devoted himself to teaching lifelong. He set up schools in many places. Later he went to the Nation of Wei. He and his classmate Zi Xia together taught in Xi He (West River) region, and they had many students. At that time, his classmate Zi Lu was an official for the Nation of Wei. Someone once suggested that Zeng Shen go to see Zi Lu, so he would be appointed a high ranking official and have a high income. Zeng said, “I have taken promoting ‘benevolence’ as my mission, and I do not seek for fame and interest. I would rather teach in Xi He and live a poor life pursuing the Tao!” So he settled on the bank of the West River. He sometimes did not cook for three days in row. For ten years he did not buy any new clothes for himself. Even though he lived such a poor life, he was always open-minded and optimistic. During a break from teaching, he walked on the river bank, enjoyed the breeze, and sang the “Ode to Shang.” What a peaceful and natural life! He also authored classic books like The Great Learning (one of the Four Books in Confucianism) and The Classic of Filial Piety, which were well-known to the future generations of Chinese.
Liu Yuxi’s “This House, Albeit Humble, is Glamorous Because of My Virtues”
Liu Yuxi of the Tang Dynasty wrote the famous “Epigraph for a Humble House,” which stated, “A mountain is famous not for its height but for the deities in it. A lake is soulful not for its depth but for the dragons in it. This house, albeit humble, is fragrant because of my virtues. Moss has covered the steps green; grass color filled up the window view. Confabbing here are all erudite men but shallow-minded people. Here I can play my undecorated qin (Chinese zither) and read my Diamond Sutra. I am neither annoyed by the noises of string and flute instruments, nor exhausted by working on government affairs. My house is like Zhuge Liang’s Thatched Cottage in Nanyang, or Ziyun’s Pavilion in Western Shu. Just as what Confucius had said, ‘Where would the humbleness be then?’” This article contains no more than one hundred characters, but it implicitly depicts the author’s aspiration of being content with poverty and happily pursuing the Way, as well as his independent character of not being bogged down with worldly affairs.
How could the author feel happy while living in such a humble house without feeling its humbleness? This is because Liu Yuxi felt that as long as he could improve his realm of morality, his house would “be fragrant because of my virtues.” So even though he lived in a humble house, he felt “where would be the humbleness then?” The author, in the beginning of his article, used the analogies of mountains with deities and lakes with dragons to describe his humble house, which very naturally reflects the scheme of the article. The colorful details like the moss, green grass, undecorated qin, and Diamond Sutra make the humble house no longer humble, but instead very glamorous and unique. With the description of the friends he interacted with, his aspiration, his playing of undecorated qin, and his dedicated reading of the Buddhist sutra, the author felt that his humble house was like Zhuge Liang’s Thatched Cottage in Nanyang or Yang Ziyun’s Pavilion in Western Shu, which, albeit simple and humble, are remembered by future generations for the great aspirations of their owners.
The author ended its article with “Just as Confucius said, ‘Where would be the humbleness?’” This was quoted from The Confucian Analects – Zi Han, “The Master [Confucius] wanted to go to live in the nine wild tribes of the east. Someone said, ‘Those places are very raw and undeveloped. How could you live there?’ The Master said, ‘If a nobleman goes to live there, where would be the humbleness then?’” This shows that the owner of the “humble house” also had the aspirations of the ancient sages. Although the author was in exile because of his having enraged the nobility, he would never change his aspiration. How could such a humble house be unworthy for me to write an epigraph for it?
Zhou Dunyi’s “Ode to Lotus”
Zhou Dunyi of the Northern Song Dynasty held governmental positions for several dozens of years. He was honest and upright. He viewed fame and interest very lightly and took nobility and richness as nothing. Confucius and Yan Hui were his models. He governed his region with benevolence. In his senior years, he resigned from his position and went to live a common life. He established the Lianxi School under the Lotus Cliff of Lu Mountain. So people called him Mr. Lianxi. He loved the lotus flower very much. He made a pond and planted lotus flowers inside it. He called the pond “Lotus Pond.” About this pond, he wrote the legendary prose of “Ode to Lotus.” He used the nature of the lotus flower to symbolize his character of not flattering nobility and of always maintaining his true self.
Zhou wrote, “I just love lotus because it grows out of mud without being polluted by it. Bathed in clean water, it is pure and not lascivious. It is hollow inside but upright outside and does not cling nor branch. Its subtle fragrance reaches far and wide. It stands erect in water, upright and graceful. It can only be appreciated from afar but not touched blasphemously." He saw the lotus flower as the noble among flowers. He endowed lotus flower with the significance of symbolizing the virtues of a nobleman. “Growing out of mud without being polluted by it” reflects the character of a nobleman, who, even in a filthy environment, does not drift along with the dirty current. “Bathed in clean water, it is pure and not lascivious” symbolizes a nobleman’s dignity, straightness, not seeking popularity, and not showing off. “It is hollow inside but upright outside and does not cling nor branch” represents a nobleman’s upright, unyielding, open, and forgiving character. “Its subtle fragrance reaches far and wide. It stands erect in water, upright and graceful.” denotes a nobleman’s rectifying power and the fragrance of his good virtues. “It can only be appreciated from afar but not touched blasphemously” embodies a nobleman’s great aspiration, pure behavior, and graceful demeanor, which makes people revere him and dare not to blasphemy him.
Lotus does not drift along with the current. The lotus’ beauty lies in its nobleness, purity, and sacrifice. Comparing man to the lotus flower, Zhou emphasized the character of a man, who should have a steadfast faith in truth and morality and should keep himself pure and from being polluted. Reading “Ode to Lotus” reminds people to muster their spiritual power to pursue righteousness and remove all filth.
The Two Cheng Brothers Were Content with Poverty and Kept Their Noble Characters
Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, two brothers, were famous philosophers and educators in the Northern Song Dynasty. They both “learned diligently, liked history, were content with poverty, and kept their noble characters.” Although they had different life experiences, they continued learning throughout their lifetimes. They kept teaching and pursuing the same ideal. Cheng Hao worked as a government official in multiple local regions. He wrote “Care for people as if they were patients” as a motto to caution himself. He also politely refused a gift of one hundred rolls of high-quality, delicate silk from Prime Minister Lu Dafang, saying that he was not the only poor man, “There are many poor people in the world.” He always, after completing his government affairs, then went to teach his students. Cheng Yi served as a teacher to the emperor; he proposed to Emperor Zhezong that a nobleman should pay attention to “cultivating his character and nourishing his virtue.” He liked being close to those who had noble character and dared to give advice to the emperor. All these have shown that the two brothers were not disturbed by poverty, and they instead were concerned about others rather than wealth. The two brothers later enraged the nobility and were forced to resign from their positions and return home.
The Cheng brothers exhibited noble and moral character in the aspects of learning, governing, conducting themselves, etc. They believed that the supreme goal of education is to have the students follow the heavenly principles, be benevolent to people, care about the world, and be in accord with the recognized principles. Although they lived a life of often “having no vegetables” for food, they never stopped teaching. Their noble characters were widely known. So many people came to learn from them, even from a thousand miles away. The famous classic stories of “Cheng (Cheng Yi) Men (door) Li (standing) Xue (in snow)” (see http://www.clearwisdom.net/html/articles/2011/3/23/123981.html) and “Ru (like) Mu (bathing) Chun (spring) Feng (breeze)” (Cheng Hao’s students felt that they learned from him as if they were bathing in a spring breeze) have become legendary for future generations.
The Cheng brothers authorized many writings. They once described their own experiences, “We studied under the direction of Zhou Dunyi. He often told us to find what Confucius and Yan Hui were content with and why they were happy.” They believed that assimilation to the Tao (heavenly principles) and unity of heaven and man are where spiritual happiness lies. Cheng Yi wrote, “Heavenly Tao and heavenly principles are the fundamental causes for the creation of everything in the world. They are inside everything and also above everything. Every existence has its own course. Why the sky is high above, why the earth is deeply beneath, why everything exists as it naturally does, they all have their own causes.” “A sagacious person follows the heavenly principles and also wants all living beings to follow the same.” Cheng Hao wrote in his poem, “Observing all living beings in tranquility, they are all contented and at ease, everything in the four seasons is the same as human beings having its taste and good spirits. Tao reaches heaven and earth and beyond any material existence, ever-changing thought is as unpredictable as wind and clouds.” He understood Tao’s stateliness and sublimity. His joy lay in knowing the spirit of heaven and earth, and the thoughts of the immeasurable sentient beings, as well as everything in the universe. He also wrote the poem, “It has separated from the secular world that is thirty miles away. The white clouds and red leaves are floating far and near.” (“Autumn Moon”) The poem of “The clouds are leisurely reflected in the water; the sound of spring water flowing naturally comes in the quietness.” (“Walking on the Moon Slope”) depicts Cheng Hao’s inner peace, indifference to fame and interest, and calmness.
There is an ancient saying, “Only by not pursuing glory and wealth can one have great ideals, only by being in peace at heart can one think and see far ahead.” There were many individuals with high virtues in history, who were practitioners and promoters of the truth and heavenly principles, as well as exemplary individuals of personal cultivation. Cultivators have their own pleasure from cultivation. Cultivation in itself is a pleasure to them. They look lightly at poorness, richness, and nobility, as they want to cultivate away all kinds of material desires and human attachments, keep their inner peace, and feel fulfilled and contented. Their happiness is in their knowing the heavenly principles, understanding the truth of the universe and the meaning of life, and in having a bright future! The ideal of “being content with poverty while happily pursuing the Tao” symbolizes their pursuit for a sublime, spiritual realm. Regardless of what circumstances they are under, they firmly hold onto their inner noble characters and pursue the truth without reservation or slacking off!