(Minghui.org) (Continued from Stories of How People in Ancient Times Repented and Started Anew)

2. Ma Zhou: Fulfill One's Mission

During the Tang Dynasty, Ma Zhou from Chiping, Qinghe (today's Shandong Province), lost both his parents when he was a small child and was thus very poor. However, he was a keen learner and was well versed in the classics such as the Book of Songs and Zuo Zhuan (Commentary of Zuo).

When he worked as an assistant teacher in Bozhou, he often drank and did not take his job seriously. When he was criticized for his shortcomings, he quit. From then on, he abandoned himself to drinking and fooled around even more.

"You Have No Future Left to Tell"

Ma Zhou's life began spiraling down further, and everyone kept their distance from him. When he heard that Yuan Tiangang was good at fortune-telling, he went to him to have his fortune told. Yuan looked at him and said, “Your five spirits have already left your body and you are in grave danger. You have no future left to tell!”

This shocked Ma Zhou, and he asked Yuan to help him. Yuan said “You can follow the old man in the front riding on an ox. He may be able to help you.”

Ma Zhou found the old man and followed him up a mountain. When the old man saw him, he said, “You were originally a deity in heaven and were entrusted to come to the human world to assist wise kings, but you've completely forgotten your heavenly mission and indulged in drinking. Now you've fallen into a miserable state. Your five spirits have left and your righteousness is gone. Your death is just around the corner. Don't you want to hurry up and repent and mend your ways?”

Criticized for Failing to Fulfill His Mission

Ma Zhou was so shocked that he couldn't fully understand what the old man was saying. So the old man took him to a grand hall, where an official was reading out an imperial edict. The edict criticized Ma Zhou for failing to fulfill his mission. He was ordered to return to his original place to reflect on his mistakes.

The old man took Ma Zhou to a grand mansion and he saw his name on the door. Ma Zhou unlocked the door and walked in. He saw the mansion was decorated with furniture he recognized. He thought hard but still couldn't understand what was going on.

Just then, five people suddenly appeared, wearing clothes marked with the five directions of east , west, south, north, and center. The men, all tall and strong, said to Ma Zhou, “We're the 'spirits of your five organs.' You indulged yourself in drinking and wandered about doing nothing. You've polluted your body, so we left you and went to the heavenly palace. Close your eyes so that we can return.”

Remembering and Apologizing

Ma Zhou closed his eyes and immediately he felt refreshed and clearheaded, and he remembered his mission.

He locked his room and went to the grand hall for the king of deities. He bowed deeply and apologized for his offenses. He also reported to the king of deities about his mission and asked to return to the human world once again.

An Auspicious Future

After Ma Zhou came down the mountain, he went to visit Yuan Tiangang again. Yuan was surprised to see the change in him and said, “What happened to you? You look so good now! I can tell your future: 'You will be promoted many times and will become the prime minister in 100 days.' I hope you cherish yourself!”

Ma Zhou traveled to the capital city, Chang'an, which was plagued with drought. Emperor Taizong of Tang was very worried and he led his court officials to pray for rain numerous times and sincerely blamed himself for the drought. At the same time, he called his ministers to work out ways to deal with the situation. He ordered his ministers and generals to point out the shortcomings of his administration and to provide sound advice for governance.

Ma Zhou paid great attention to the situation, made over 20 suggestions and each one of them was to the point. Emperor Taizong was very pleased with his suggestions and summoned Ma Zhou to come that day.

The emperor was so keen to see Ma Zhou that he sent people to ask him to hurry up four times. When they met, the two talked about current affairs and the way of governance. Ma's audience with the emperor was very pleasant, and they talked as if they had been old friends for a long time.

Serving with Great Loyalty

Emperor Taizong always paid great attention to moral character when he appointed people. Ma Zhou showed both integrity and ability and was immediately appointed to work in the ministry of supervision. Soon afterward he was promoted to the position of imperial censor, and later to three other posts—assistant auditor, imperial adviser, and tutor to Emperor Taizong's son, Li Zhi, the Crown Prince.

Ma Zhou served Emperor Taizong with great loyalty. He said with sincerity, “Whenever I read the classics and history I find stories about the loyalty and filial piety of gentlemen of virtue. I'm only a small man, but I long to follow the great way and think carefully about how to follow suit. I'm very unfortunate to have lost both parents when I was young, and therefore I cannot provide for them. But what I can do is to be loyal to the sovereign and be righteous. In the heavens, loyalty and righteousness are considered most important, and one must base himself on such principles.”

Lessons from History

Ma Zhou did his best to fulfill his duties and submitted memorials to the emperor on the rise and fall of earlier dynasties and the gain and loss of previous ways of governing.

He wrote, “...the ancient emperors and kings educated their subjects with virtue and they set examples for later generations so that people would not forget this. The few dynasties prior to ours only lasted 50 or 60 years at most and the shortest lasted only 20 or 30 years. The main reason for their short reign was that the sovereign didn't understand how to care for the ordinary people and failed to benefit the interests of the people, so they didn't have a solid foundation.

"The Sui Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Wen (Yang Jian) did have a solid foundation and it could have lasted longer in peace. But Yang Jian became suspicious of others in his later years and left hidden dangers behind.

"When Emperor Yang (Yang Guang) became emperor, he was corrupt and led a decadent lifestyle. He exploited the people and lost their support and eventually led the dynasty to destruction. We should draw a lesson from the fate of the Sui Dynasty. An emperor should cultivate virtue when he can, instead of having regret after he loses his country. The rise and fall of a country does not depend on how much wealth it has accumulated, but on whether the emperor follows the heavenly principles and the will of the people.

"With regard to the heavenly principles, if one follows them, things will go smoothly, otherwise things will fail. One should practice virtue in governance and work for the wellbeing of the people; uphold morality and appoint people of virtue; advocate frugality; and reduce the burden of taxes.”

Ma Zhou also said in a memorial, “It's of great importance to appoint good prefecture governors and county magistrates to ensure peace, as they do play a crucial role in terms of the stability of the country. We must carefully choose those with virtue to be prefecture governors and county magistrates. For those being promoted to the positions of generals and ministers in the future, Your Majesty must first appoint them to local positions so they can have direct contact with the people to see if they are fit for those positions.”

Emperor Taizong adopted Ma Zhou's advice and personally appointed each prefecture governor and asked officials above the fifth rank in court to each recommend a county magistrate of virtue and ability. Emperor Taizong also recorded the names of local officials on the screen in his room so that he could always see them. If one of them did something good, the emperor would make a note under his name.

Ma Zhou submitted many memorials during the Zhenguan era and accomplished his mission of being a valuable court official in the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Taizong personally wrote him an inscription: “A phoenix needs the help of wings to fly high, a sovereign needs a close assistant that is loyal and honest.” (From Tai Ping Guang Ji)

(To be continued)