Lieh-tzu’s Sense of Destiny

Except for a rather traumatic experience in Vietnam, I’ve never been a great believer in Fate or Destiny, so I’m a little surprised to discover how receptive I was to much of what Lieh-tzu has to say about it, perhaps because it also coincides with my own views on inherited traits. My grandfather was an architect who graduated from both Harvard and MIT, so I’ve always felt that I inherited whatever intellectual abilities I have from him. I certainly never had to work too hard in school to succeed, and, perhaps for that reason, I was always prouder if I did well in sports because I certainly didn’t inherit my father’s All-City Tackle body. Rather, I had to overcome a natural tendency toward scrawniness.

No matter what the reason, though, I enjoyed this story:

Pei-kung-tzü said to Hsi-men-tzü:

‘I belong to the same generation as you, but it is you whom others help to success; to the same clan, but it is you whom they respect; we look the same, but it is you whom they love; we talk the same, but it is you whom they employ; we act the same, but it is you whom they trust. If we take office together, it is you whom they promote; if we farm together, you whom they enrich; if we trade together, you whom they profit. I wear coarse woo] and eat coarse millet, live in a thatched hut and go out on foot. You wear brocades and eat fine millet and meat, live under linked rafters and go out in a car with four horses. At home you complacently ignore me, in court you treat me with undisguised arrogance. Certainly it has been many years since we called on each other or made an excursion together. Is it because you think your worth greater than mine?’

‘I have no way of knowing the truth of the matter. But whatever we undertake, you fail and I succeed. Does this perhaps show that there is more in me than in you? Yet you have the face to say that in every way you are the same as me.’

Pei-kung-tzü could find no answer, and went home lost in thought. On the road he met Master Tung-kuo, who asked him:

‘Where have you come from, walking by yourself with such deep shame on your face?’

Pei-kung-tzü described what had happened.

‘I am going to clear you of shame,’ Master Tung-kuo said. ‘Let us go back to Hsi-men-tzü and ask him some questions?’

He asked Hsi-men-tzü to explain why he had humiliated Pei-kung-tzü so deeply, and Hsi-men-tzü repeated what he had said to Pei-kung-tzü.

‘When you say that one man has more in him than another,’ Master Tung-kuo answered, ‘you mean only that they are not equally gifted. What I mean is something different from this. Pei-kung-tziI has more worth than luck, you have more luck than worth. Your success is not due to wisdom, nor is his failure due to foolishness. Both are from heaven and not from man, yet you are presumptuous because you have more luck, while he is ashamed although he has more worth. Neither of you perceives the principle that things must be as they are.’

‘Enough, Master!’ said Hsi-men-tzü, ‘I shall never dare to say it again.’

When Pei-kung-tzü got home, the coarse wool that he wore was as warm as the fur of fox or badger, the broad beans served to him were as tasty as rice or millet, the shelter of his thatched hut was as shady as a wide hail, the wicker-work cart on which he rode was as handsome as an ornamented carriage. He was content for the rest of his life, and no longer knew which was honoured and which despised, the other man or himself.

‘Pei-kung-tzü has been fast asleep for a long time,’ said Master Tung-kuo. ‘But a man to whom you need to speak only once is easily awakened.’

Even in a democracy like ours it’s impossible to deny that some are fated to have more than others, whether by inheritance or by birthright. It’s more important to be satisfied with what we have than to compare ourselves to others and envy them if they have more than we do.

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