On another occasion, when Confucius was making comparisons among his students, he remarked, “Yan Hui’s character is almost perfect but he is always poor and in want.” [Analects – Xian Jin] Someone asked Confucius to name his best student. Confucius answered that if he had to select the student with the most impeccable character, then Yan Hui would probably be the one. However, he was very poor and always hungry. Yan Hui died at a very young age.
The Sayings of Confucius relates that Yan Hui’s hair had turned white at the age of twenty and that he died early at the age of thirty-one. In the Yong Ye chapter of the
Analects, it was recorded that Duke Ai of the State of Lu once asked Confucius, “Which of your disciples loves learning?” Confucius replied, “There was Yan Hui who loved learning. He never lost his temper and never made the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, he died young and there is none like him now.” What Confucius meant was that since the death of Yan Hui, none of his disciples could be said to love learning.
The Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian once lamented, “Yan Hui was always poor and even if he had only chaff for food, he never complained. Yet he died young. Is this the way Heaven rewards benevolent people?” [The Book of History – A Biographical Sketch of Boyi] As there were many unjust practices in Han Dynasty society, Sima Qian used the example of the ancients to put forth his query. Both Boyi and Shuqi were good people but they starved to death on Shouyang Mountain. Did they harbor any hatred and resentment? In this regard, Confucius said, “Boyi and Shuqi sought benevolence and were rewarded with benevolence. What resentment was there?” What both of them sought was a perfect character and in the end, they achieved it. As they had succeeded in their quest, what was there to resent? This was the Confucian point of view, which was what Confucius meant by, “If I could know the Way in the morning, then I could die in the evening without regret.” [Analects– Li Ren] However, it is very difficult for most people to attain such a state. Here, Tao Yuanming also expressed the same sentiments by asking, “Master Yan was well-known for his benevolence; Elder Rong was admired for his high principles. The former died young because of constant deprivation. The latter, though long-lived, was perpetually hungry.” Both Yan Hui and Rong Qiqi were such virtuous people, and yet one died young because of poverty while the other was perpetually hungry even though he lived to an age of ninety. Tao Yuanming remarked, “They may have left behind lustrous reputations, but neither had ever experienced comfort or pleasure.” In this context, it is similar to Du Fu’s lament about Li Bai: “You may have left behind an illustrious name for thousands of years. But it means nothing to you now that you are gone.” [Du Fu – Dreaming of Li Bai]
Li Bai’s poems may pass down through the generations and be admired by everyone, but then he has already been dead for a very long time. Some people, for the sake of pursuing a good reputation, are willing to endure poverty and hardship during their lifetimes. However, you must realize that it is wrong to do this only for the sake of receiving posthumous adulation. Li Bai was already dead and so was Yan Hui. Today, we are here heaping praises on them, but of what concern is it to the deceased? Moreover, in this society, not everyone will have a kind word to say about you. If someone were to speak ill of you, would you feel bad about it? That is not necessary. Tao Yuanming said, “Once we are dead, what do we know? When alive, we should be happy and content with our lot.” Being content means that you simply do the things you wish to do. Regardless of whether you pursue the Confucian concept of benevolence, or, for that matter, any philosopher’s principle of the Way, you should not be concerned about the results of your pursuits. Definitely, you must not covet posthumous accolades. The purpose of the pursuit should be to achieve inner peace and happiness.
Some people may then consider: “Alright. If the pursuit of fame is meaningless, and if this is the way Heaven rewards benevolent people, then what do I need a good reputation for? In that case, I’ll just go for wealth. As an official, I can be corrupt and take the law into my own hands; as a person, I can enjoy high position and live in the lap of luxury. I will indulge myself in all manner of material comforts.” Is this the best way out? Tao Yuanming cautioned, “We mustn’t pamper this precious body (like a guest), for when the end draws near, our prized possession will disintegrate.” There are various explanations for the character ‘ke’, here translated as ‘guest.’ It may refer to a particular person, or it can mean staying as a guest. Our lives in this world last only for a few decades and are over in the twinkling of an eye, just like a traveler passing through. In short, you look upon your body as being very important and you select the best food, clothing, shelter and transportation. However, when death comes knocking at your door one day, what will happen to the body that you treasure so much? Ultimately, will it not decompose and return to the earth? That was why Tao Yuanming finally said, “Why abhor a naked burial? People should understand the logic of such a practice.”
The term ‘naked burial’ is a literary allusion. In the “Biography of Yang Wangsun” in the
Book of Han History, it was mentioned that when Yang Wangsun was on the point of dying, he left a will to his son saying, “I wish to be buried naked. Do not go against my will.” You should know that in ancient China, a lot of emphasis was placed on funeral rites. When a person died, arrangements had to be made for the funeral clothes, the coffin and many other funerary objects. Some old people would spend a lot of money every year while they were still alive to prepare their own funeral clothes and coffins. However, Yang Wangsun was different. He did not want any of the funerary paraphernalia and instead wanted to let his naked body decompose in the earth. The reason was because he came naked into the world and at death, he wanted to return to his original state. As the saying goes: “We bring nothing with us when we are born, and we take nothing with us when we die.” Finally, Yang Wangsun’s son complied with his father’s will and covered the corpse with a cloth bag. It was lowered into a grave seven feet deep and then the cloth bag was pulled off. In this way, the naked corpse was laid to rest next to the earth. This is the meaning of ‘naked burial’.
To be continued