Now, we will discuss some of the richest, the noblest, the poorest, and the lowliest figures in Chinese history.
Shi Chong was wealthy, and Fan Dan, poor;
Gan Luo’s fate was to be late, while Tai Gong’s was to be early.
Peng Zu was long-lived, but Yan’s life was short.
These six people are all within the five elements.
Shi Chong, who lived in the Jin Dynasty, was one of the wealthiest and most famous people in Chinese history. His fortune was comparable to the national treasury. Once Shi Chong went to a banquet at a friend’s house. His friend told him how he had obtained a coral “tree” two feet eight inches high and then brought the piece put out to show Shi Chong.
Shi Chong took a look and scoffed, “What’s so great about that?” He then stomped on the coral tree and smashed it to bits.
“Oh no!” his friend cried ruefully. “It was so hard to find in the first place, and now you’ve ruined it. How awful!”
Shi Chong retorted, “What’s the big deal? I’ve got zillions like this in the storerooms at home. Come see for yourself.”
The friend went to Shi Chong’s house where he saw several hundred coral clusters over three feet tall.
Shi Chong said, “Go ahead! Take one! Choose whichever one you like!” What his friend had prized as a treasure was a dime a dozen in Shi Chong’s house. This shows how tremendously wealthy Shi Chong was. No one knew the true extent of his fortune.
Fan Dan was a beggar who had nothing of his own. Each day he would go out and beg for his food, and then he would eat however much he got. He didn’t work at all. When he ran out of food, he would go and beg for more. His situation was such that:
Barely getting by on a day’s scraps, he was on the verge of homelessness.
Every place was home to him. Although it was true that Fan Dan was poor and always had to beg for food, he probably started saving up some food. Confucius and his disciple ran out of food when they were travelling through the state of Chen. Since they had nothing to eat, Confucius told his disciple, Zi Lu to go and borrow some rice from Fan Dan. Confucius had so many followers, and yet he needed to borrow rice from a beggar – strange how things work, isn’t it? Zi Lu went to Fan Dan and explained, “My teacher has run out of food in the state of Chen, and I’ve come to borrow rice from you.”
Fan Dan said, “If you want to borrow rice, that’s fine, but first you must answer my question. If you give the right answer, I’ll lend you the rice. If you don’t, I won’t lend it to you.”
Zi Lu confidently replied, “Ask away!”
Fan Dan said, “Tell me, in this world, what is numerous and what is few? What makes people happy and what makes them sad? If you tell me the right answer, I’ll lend you the rice with no string attached. You can borrow as much as you want. If you answer wrongly, however, I won’t lend the rice to you. I have to make that clear first.”
Zi Lu said, “Your question is way too easy! In this world, there are many stars and few moons. Weddings are happy and deaths are sad.”
When Fan Dan heard Zi Lu’s answer, he waved his hand and said, “Wrong!”
Zi Lu felt that his answer was perfect, that none could be better. He was sure that Fan Dan hadn’t planned to lend him the rice to begin with and had just been teasing. So, he refused to admit defeat. But Fan Dan still wouldn’t lend him the rice. Since there was nothing he could do about it, he left in exasperation and went to see Confucius.
“Teacher! Teacher! That Fan Dan is truly abominable! He wasn’t reasonable at all.” Zi Lu faithfully reported the entire conversation to Confucius. Confucius said, “You did give the wrong answer!”
Zi Lu was completely taken aback and protested, “Fan Dan said I was wrong, because he was arguing for himself. But Teacher, you should be on my side! Why do you say that I’m wrong as well?”
Confucius said, “Listen to my answer: ‘In this world, there are many petty people and few noble people. People are happy when they borrow things but sad when asked to return them.’ Go give Fan Dan that answer.” Zi Lu went back to Fan Dan and repeated Confucius’ answer to him. Fan Dan considered this answer to be completely correct, so he lent the rice to Zi Lu. He filled a bamboo tube with rice and gave it to Zi Lu to take back. This bamboo tube was actually a magic treasure that provided an endless supply of rice no matter how much rice one wanted to use, the tube could provide that amount. You see, poor men also have their poor men’s treasures.
During the reign of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, a boy named Gan Luo was made prime minister when he was only twelve. He should have become prime minister at the age of nine, but he was late by three years. Jiang Tai Gong [a sage who lived during the time of King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty] didn’t meet King Wen until he was eighty. Even so, he was early by three years. Gan Luo become the prime minister, at a very young age, but Jiang Tai Gong didn’t meet King Wen until late in life.
Peng Zu lived for over eight hundred years, so he is considered to have been long-lived. Confucius’ disciple, Yan Yuan, on the other hand, died at age thirty, so he’s said to have short-lived. Even so, he was the most intelligent of Confucius’ disciples, and the most avid learner. Upon learning one principle, he could deduce ten others. When Zi Gong (another disciple) heard one principle, he could only deduce two. At Yan Yuan’s death, Confucius lamented, “Heaven is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me!” What he meant was, “Heaven has doomed my teaching! Heaven has doomed my teaching!”
These six people include some of the richest, poorest, most noble, and most long-lived people, and also one whose life was rather short. However, none of them was able to transcend his fate, which was determined by the five elements. None of them could escape the endless cycle of transmigration. Life is just like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow, a dewdrop, or a lightning flash; that’s how we ought to contemplate. Be attached to nothing and you will have no affliction. If you can see through everything, put it all down, and come here to cultivate, that’s even better. If you can’t put everything down right away, then let go of things little by little. Don’t hanker after this transient existence in the six paths.
A talk given on June 6, 1982
At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas