Stories from Ancient China: Being Devoted to Spiritual Pursuits Even in Poverty

Mr. Yuan Xian was a disciple of the virtuous an wise Confucius. He was respected for living contentedly as a poor scholar and leading a simple, virtuous life. His thatched house had a door made of tree branches and straw and a leaky roof that often left the inside of the house wet. Despite this, Yuan Xian did not experience it as hardship; he devoted himself to studying Confucianism and lived happily.

One day Zi Gong, another disciple of Confucius, went to visit Yuan Xian. Zi Gong wore ostentatious clothes and rode in a carriage pulled by an expensive horse. Since the alley leading to Yuan Xian's house was too narrow for the carriage, Zi Gong had to walk to Yuan Xian's door. Yuan Xian opened the door. He was wearing a bark hat and had a walking stick in his hand. Seeing Yuan Xian's poor, pathetic appearance, Zi Gong teased him, "Hey! Are you ill or what?" Yuan Xian replied, "As far as I know, living without money is called poverty, whereas learning the Tao without carrying it out is called illness. Therefore I am poor but not ill." Zi Gong felt ashamed of himself after hearing that.

Yan Hui was also a disciple of Confucius. He lived simply on one dish of food and a gourd of drink, and he lived in a shabby place. No one could bear hardship like he could. He devoted his life to spiritual pursuits, and he was content with his life. Confucius praised him as a person of great virtue.

As a matter of fact, in China's divine culture, be it Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc., "attaining the Tao" is considered the utmost goal of human life. One is respected for living peacefully in poverty, being steadfast in spirituality, and taking pursuing and attaining the Tao as the grandest joy. Actually there is no direct relation between being poor and attaining the Tao. Being able to let go of wealth or poverty--so closely tied to one's sense of self-worth--is used to describe the idea that pursuing the Tao stays firm regardless of any worldly interests or temptations.

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