Therefore, at the end of Song Dynasty, Wen Tianxiang said, "Confucius realized humaneness and Mencius achieved righteousness. What do we learn from reading the books of sages?" Confucius said, "When perfect conduct and physical health cannot simultaneously be maintained, you would rather sacrifice the body in order to realize humaneness, thereby fulfilling your quest for perfect virtue." Mencius also said, "When there is a serious conflict between life and righteousness, you should uphold righteousness even if it means giving up your life. That is the first thing anyone who has studied the sages' books should do. Otherwise, one has read those books in vain." Thus, ancient Chinese scholars considered humaneness and righteousness to be paramount. That is, "Only a scholar can preserve his integrity without a steady income."
Thus Rong Qiqi answered Confucius, "Poverty is the permanent condition of a scholar, whereas death is every man's end. Now, I am abiding in that permanent state and have reached the end." He was saying, "Poverty is a virtue that I should uphold. I am ninety and should have died by now, but I am still alive and healthy. Why should I be sad?"
Tao Yuanming mentions how Rong Qiqi could not even afford a belt at the age of ninety, implying that he must have been even poorer in his youth. But Rong Qiqi was not depressed at all on account of being poor. He basically held no expectations towards what consequences he would receive for good or bad deeds; he never considered the matter of whether good deeds are rewarded.
Then, what enabled him to "dwell in that permanent condition and reach the end," and to be content in poverty? It was the Confucian principle that "a virtuous person remains steadfast in poverty." Confucians are not at all concerned about the what retributions they receive for their good or bad deeds. Even if divine justice is not reliable and good deeds don't necessarily bring good results, how could one refrain from being good?
We should realize that rewards are not the reason that we do good deeds. This principle is fundamental not only to Confucianism, but also to Buddhism. Therefore Master Hsuan Hua said, "If you bow to Buddhas only to seek blessings, you are wrong." Furthermore, according to Buddhism, if you do good deeds hoping for a reward, you are just being greedy.
Therefore, at the highest level, a Confucian and a Buddhist will agree that the loftiest ideal is inner integrity. Tao Yuanming goes on to say: Were it not for those individuals who chose poverty so as to preserve their integrity, / What in history would be worth passing down to future generations? Were it not for "virtuous people who remained steadfast in poverty," such as Boyi and Shuqi, who preferred to starve in the western mountains, and Rong Qiqi, who "at ninety, used a rope as a belt," refusing to compromise their humaneness and righteousness, then our history would be filled with darkness, corruption, and turbidity!
Since there are virtuous people with noble aspirations in this world, there is a gleam of light in our history, and the past is worthy of being praised and passed down. Without their excellent virtue, what, in our thousands of years of history, would be worthy of praise and propagation? There would be no hope or light at all in our future, and that fact would be our greatest sorrow! This is the second issue that Tao Yuanming considered.
Although prosperity and decline are inconstant and divine retributions for good and evil are uncertain or even nonexistent, Tao Yuanming said: "I must maintain my integrity, for were it not for those individuals who chose poverty so as to preserve their integrity, / What in history would be worth passing down to future genera- tions?" Therefore, Tao Yuanming gave up prosperity, fame and wealth, as well as a government office, to take up farming in the country.
Sometimes, natural or man-made disasters destroyed his crops. Suffering hunger and cold, he felt very confused and anxious. In another poem, he said: "I constantly struggled with myself over whether to be poor or to be rich. When the Way prevailed, my face was no longer gloomy. " He had inner struggles over whether to uphold his virtue by choosing poverty, or to live a comfortable life by working as a corrupt official. In the end, the 'Way' prevailed in his mind!
Confucians talk about the 'Way,' and Buddhists speak of 'cultivation.' When the 'Way' overcomes all kinds of obstructions and eventually prevails, you experience a genuine sense of blissful peace within yourself. That peace and joy will naturally manifest in your speech, behavior, and attitude, and you won't have a gloomy face. You will not have a sad and miserable expression on your face. If you seek satisfaction externally, instead of pursuing it within, then you may achieve wealth and honor, but you will probably still feel unsatisfied and look gloomy; you will not be peaceful and blissful, for although you have external, material goods, you lack the 'Way' within.
To be continued