English: The Three Stars of Happiness, Wealth, and Longevity, c. 1500, Ming dynasty, ink and light colors on silk by Wang Zhao, Kimbell Art Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a legendary monarch by the name of Yao. One day, he traveled to the Hua region, where he came across a local man. The man said to him: “Greetings, great sage! Please accept my offering of auspicious wishes.”
Yao stopped to listen, so the man began: “I wish for the sage to have longevity.”
Yao replied: “I decline.”
The man offered another wish: “May the sage have great wealth.”
Again Yao did not accept: “I decline.”
The man offered one last wish: “May the sage have many sons.”
Yao was still unreceptive: “I decline.”
The man found Yao’s attitude quite strange. He said: “Longevity, wealth, and many sons are sought after by just about everyone. You alone have declined all three. Why?”
Yao explained: “The more children you have, the more you worry and fear for them; the more wealth you have, the more complexities you must manage; the longer you live, the more embarrassing mistakes you will make. These wishes do not help us cultivate virtues, so I must decline all of them.”
The man was disappointed. He said to Yao: “I thought you were a great sage, but now I see you are no more than an ordinary person. Heaven gave all of us life so we can get things done. Having more sons simply means you can accomplish more through them. What is there to be afraid of? Similarly, having great wealth means you can share more with everyone. What complexities do you have to manage?”
Yao had nothing to say, so the man continued: “The sage is comfortable living anywhere without extravagant luxuries, and enjoys simple meals without elaborate delicacies. He is like a bird flying through the air while leaving no trace. When the Tao is prevalent in the world, he enjoys the flourishing with everyone; when the Tao is forgotten in the world, he cultivates his own virtues in solitude. After a thousand years, perhaps he grows weary of the world and leaves it all behind. Perhaps he rides a white cloud and rises up to heaven, where he cannot be affected by the three mortal concerns and the problems of the physical body. Tell me: what embarrassing mistakes will he make?”
The man turned around to leave. Yao, sensing great wisdom in the man’s words, followed him to learn more. He called out: “Please, I would like to ask…”
The man no longer wished to talk. He waved at Yao to dismiss him: “Begone!”
This story comes from the teachings of Chuang Tzu, and delivers uncommon wisdom for those who are ready for its message. It points out a misconception that many people have: the assumption that spiritual cultivation must be completely separate and apart from worldly success.
When we are trapped by this misconception, we think we have to rid ourselves of all desires. We should not want the things that most people want, because we are, after all, much more spiritual than they are. We must transcend to an ethereal level, while they roll around in the mud far below, engaged in all kinds of material pursuits.
This was Yao’s thinking in the beginning of the story, and it is easy to see how he might have acquired such ideas. Simplicity is a central concept in the Tao. We learn about the virtue of discarding clutter and doing more with less, so it seems only natural that we should have no interest in success as defined by society.
Chuang Tzu teaches us that this is actually not the Tao. He and other Tao sages lived full and fulfilling lives, filled to the brim with happiness both spiritual and material. To them, living a short and miserable life is no proof of piety or spiritual attainment. The only thing it really proves is a lack of skill in the art of living.
We can see the misconception at work most clearly with money. It is something many people perceive as somehow unclean or unsavory. Some see it as a necessary evil; others see it as the root of all evil. Relatively few see it like the Tao sages do: a tool that is neutral in itself, and can be used for good or bad depending on the hand that wields it. To the sages, the reason to achieve great wealth is not to satisfy greed, but to expand one’s capacity to give, so one can engage in charity or further worthwhile causes. It is as the man of Hua pointed out: great wealth simply means having more to share.
The thought process is similar when it comes to children. Yao assumed having less must be better in the Tao perspective, but the man pointed out that having more isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If one understands the Tao of parenting, and raises children who are intelligent, considerate, and well-versed in Tao principles, then one has made a significant contribution to society and the world. A life spent in creating and nurturing such a family is meaningful, joyous, and ultimately satisfying.
Some may think that the wish for a long life is equivalent to a fear of death, but this is not the case for Tao cultivators. The more we study the Tao, the more we understand that life and death are perfectly natural processes. There is no need to fear them, nor is there is a need to hurry through them. This means Tao cultivators take care of themselves physically, and constantly remind themselves to be mindful of health in order to honor the gift of life.
The story is quite specific about how to live like a sage. It is a life of simplicity that does not require luxuries or delicacies to be enjoyable. It is also a life of freedom where you are at home anywhere, either with company or just by yourself. Living this way maximizes the human potential, and takes you beyond the three mortal concerns of disease, age, and death.
The division between the spiritual and the non-spiritual is a powerful illusion, so there will always be people who fall under its spell. It may not be possible to convince them that the concept of success is not contrary to the Tao.
If you are not fooled by the illusion, then you can perceive the greater reality that all are one in the Tao. You understand that the human body can be just as divine a temple as any man-made structure, and the generation of wealth can be just as spiritual as any prayers or rituals. Congratulations! You belong with the advanced students of Chuang Tzu, and you are ready for even more of his uncommon wisdom.