Inspiring Karmic Account of Changing Destiny: The Record of Scholar Yu Jinyi’s Encounter with the Hearth Deity
The biography of gentleman scholar Yu Jinyi (recorded in the An Shi Quan Shu), who was a contemporary of Yuan Liao Fan (of Liao Fan’s Four lessons fame), is one of the two most famous recorded cases of repentance and changing destiny from the Ming Dynasty (the other being Liao Fan’s Four Lessons). After five centuries, this record of Yu Jinyi’s life has become more important and relevant than ever before. The karmic faults and wrong attitude that afflicted him bears uncanny resemblance to the ways of most people today. Thus, all who value their future must strive to cultivate as Yu had cultivated, and it is certain that all who do so will turn misfortune into fortune, and fortune into even greater fortune, in three years or less.
Moreover, the Ven. Master Chin Kung has strongly promoted and lectured this text [transcript here], which is arguably the most moving and inspiring recorded account in history of a man changing his faults to change destiny, successfully exchanging his all his sorrows for joy.
English translations of this important text are rare, thus, below is my humble contribution to bridge this gap:
During the reign of the Ming Emperor Jiajing [1521–1567], Yu Du of Jiangxi, courtesy name Liang Chen, was a talented gentleman and scholar well versed in many arts.
At the age of eighteen, he passed the preliminary imperial examinations with flying colors and attained the rank of Shengyuan [the first of the three scholarly honors]. However, throughout his entire life, his finances remained poor, and he eked out a living as a private tutor. He and a dozen of his colleagues established the Wen Chang Society [an association that promoted the teachings of the Lord Superior Wen Chang — the guardian god of scholars]. They vowed to cherish scriptures, release captive animals, and abstain from lust, killing and offenses of speech. In this way they cultivated for many years. During this time, Yu Du took the triennial provincial examinations [to obtain the second scholarly honor of Juren] a total of seven times and failed each of them. Moreover, four of his five sons died young. His third son, who was much loved by Yu and his wife, a talented child with a double birth mark under his left foot, went missing at the age of eight while playing outside. And of his four daughters, only one survived.
His wife, who cried and grieved constantly over their lost and deceased children, eventually went blind. By the time Yu Du was middle aged, he was utterly destitute.
Yu Du reflected on his own behavior, and believing that he had not committed any serious misdeeds, could not accept the heavy misfortunes Heaven had given him. From age forty onwards, on the eve of each lunar new year, he wrote a petition [on yellow paper to be ritually burnt as an offering] to the Hearth Spirit, and entreated the deity to submit it to the Jade Emperor on his behalf. For many years, there was no response…..until the year he turned forty seven. During the evening of New Year’s Eve, when he, his wife and only surviving daughter were huddled together amid desolate misery, they heard a knock at the door.
Yu Du then lit a candle and greeted the unexpected guest — a gentleman dressed in black robes who wore a cloth headdress [often worn by Taoist hermits]. His hair and beard were half grey. The gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Zhang, and said that while passing by from afar, he heard sounds of sorrow from Yu Du’s home, and wanted to console them.
Yu Du noticed that the gentleman was super-mundane in appearance, and thus treated him with utmost respect. Yu Du then poured his heart out, mentioning how despite his diligent studying, good deeds and lack of major faults, he was beset by myriad misfortunes — failure to obtain scholarly honors, the death of his children, blindness of his wife, crippling poverty, as well as the other complaints he listed in his annual petitions to Heaven.
Mr. Zhang replied: “I have long been familiar with the circumstances of your household, you need not recount it to me. The wickedness of your mind is massive ; you are hypocritical and vainly do good only for show. Your memorials to Heaven are all unrepentant and hate filled. I’m afraid Heaven will be forced to chastise you further.”
Surprised, Yu Du replied: “But I heard that even the smallest good deed is recorded by the spirits! How could all my contributions to the Wen Chang Society, the vows I have kept and the good I have done, be false and hypocritical?”
Zhang explained to him: “Let us take the example of cherishing scriptures, which is one of the rules of your society. Everyday, you see your pupils or friends disrespect old scriptures by using them to paper their windows [grease paper windows], wrap objects, or even to wipe their desks before ritually burning them, yet you never say a word of reproach. However, when you encounter a stray piece of scripture in public, you make a big show of ritually burning it [the proper way to retire old texts]. Is this not hypocrisy?
Moreover, your society releases life every month, and though you are a founding member, you merely go with the flow. If others’ do not organize the life release events, the matter would be an afterthought for you. Thus, you have no actual compassion and mercy. Besides, your kitchen is often filled with shrimps and shellfish — are they not living beings as well?
Let us move on to your wrong speech. You are eloquent and persuasive — a powerful debater. Though your conscience tells you to carefully guard your tongue, you often forget yourself when you are among your friends and acquaintances. Thus, you unleash a torrent of sarcasm and ridicule, enraging the ghosts and spirits with your sharp tongue. This hidden evil [ sharp and eloquent speech is often admired by people, but is actually a karmic offense] you have committed countless times. Yet you think of yourself as a honest and magnanimous person. Do you really think you could deceive Heaven?
Furthermore, while it is true that you have not actually committed acts of lust, you still gaze lasciviously whenever you encounter beautiful women. If the opportunity for an illicit affair ever presented itself, you wouldn’t be able to resist. For instance, if you were tempted like the Gentleman from Lu [a man from the Spring and Autumn period famous for resisting temptation], do you think you could have remained pure like him? Thus, your arrogant claim that you have always been chaste offends both Heaven and Earth, the Ghosts and Spirits!
As you have failed to hold even these vows [precepts of the Wen Chang Society], how much more numerous are your other offenses? The annual petitions you have ritually burnt have been submitted to the Jade Emperor, and his majesty has ordered Spirit Observers to record your good and evil — and they have not found a single good deed to record in all these years. On the other hand, they have seen that when you’re alone, your heart is swamped by avarice, lust, jealousy, prejudice, extremism, arrogance, and vengeful thoughts. You are obsessed with your past and fantasize about your future. With myriad such thoughts overflowing from your heart, the Spirits have observed enough. As you can barely escape further divine punishment, what makes you think you are entitled to blessings?”
Yu Du fell to the ground in trepidation, and tearfully begged: “My lord, as you know all of these hidden things, you must be a god or deity, please save me!”
Zhang continued: “You are a gentleman scholar well versed in scripture and the rules of propriety. You also rejoice in admiring virtuous behavior, feel encouraged by words of kindness, and delight in the good deeds of others. But after the sight fades, you forget. You are irresolute and have weak faith. The good deeds you do and kind things you say are all perfunctory and hesitant, with not one deed being sincere. Moreover, your heart is smothered by a dense knot of wicked thoughts. Yet you complain to Heaven that you have not received your rightful due of bountiful rewards. Are you not like the one who plants only thorns but hopes to reap a harvest of fragrant rice?
From this day forward, whenever avarice, lust, false politeness, wandering thoughts and the like arise, you must uproot them with all your strength, and sweep them away until no traces remain. Let all your thoughts be virtuous ones.
When you are able to do good deeds, you must do it without desire for reward or renown, and not discriminate whether the task is big, small, difficult or easy. Simply do it with sincerity and patience. If your strength proves inadequate, then diligently give it your best to demonstrate the genuineness of your virtuous intent. Foremostly, you must have patience, secondly, you must always persevere. Never deceive yourself or become indolent. Eventually, your cultivation will become unimaginably efficacious.
As you have been sincere in your offerings to me, I have come today to repay the kindness. If you move quickly, you will be able to change your destiny.”
After he had finished this statement, he walked into the interior of the house, followed by Yu Du himself, and disappeared beneath the stove. At that moment, Yu realized that his guest was the Hearth Deity (the Magistrate of Fate) and immediately burnt incense out of gratitude.
The very next day, the first day of the new lunar year, Yu Du prayed to Heaven and Earth, vowing to change his ways and sincerely do good deeds. He gave himself the Dharma name Cultivator who Purifies the Mind [ Jin Yi Daoren ]. Resolving henceforth to eradicate all wandering thoughts.
During the beginning of his practice, he continued to be swamped by distracting thoughts, bogged down by doubts, indolence, sometimes advancing, and sometimes retreating. Troubled by this, he prostrated with utmost sincerity (to the point of bruising his forehead) before his household shrine of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva [Guanyin Bodhisattva], and vowed that if his good thoughts were not pure, his good deeds not diligent, or if he tolerated even a hint of complacency, he should fall forever into the hells.
Every morning at sunrise, he sincerely recited the name of The Greatly Compassionate, Greatly Benevolent Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva for a hundred times. Praying for the Bodhisattva’s blessings and support. From then on, he was honest in every word and deed, in each single thought and moment, treading carefully — as if ghosts and spirits were by his side recording his every deed.
Whenever there was a deed that was of benefit to a person, or even just a small critter, he did not care whether it was large or small, whether he was busy or not, whether others knew about it or not, or whether he had the strength to complete it, he enthusiastically carried it out to the best of his ability, not stopping until he had either succeeded or met the limits of his strength. He did good deeds whenever the opportunity presented itself, and sowed the seeds of hidden merit far and wide.
Moreover, he exhorted all to be broadly compassionate, fulfill the virtues of the five relations, diligently study the scriptures, and to practice humility and patience. He also expounded the principles of karma. He preached to all he met — converting many to goodness. Soon, there were not enough hours in the day for him to complete all the good deeds he was doing.
At the end of each lunar month, he reported his monthly deeds to the Hearth Spirit [out of piety and respect]. Eventually, his cultivation matured, and whenever he did something, he embodied myriad virtues, and whenever he was at rest, his mind was pure and still.
Thus he practiced for three years. In the second year of the reign of the Wanli Emperor , when he had turned fifty, Zhang of Jiangling [Zhang Juzheng], the Grand Secretary [from 1572–1582], was personally presiding over the metropolitan level examinations being held that year. After the exams had ended, he toured his home region and wanted to find someone of good character to act as household tutor to his sons. Everyone recommended Yu Jinyi. As a result, he and his family moved to the Grand Secretary’s residence in the capital, greatly improving their living standard.
Zhang appreciated Yu Jinyi’s virtue and good character, and therefore enrolled him in the Imperial Academy. In the fourth year of the reign of Wanli, he finally passed the provincial examinations, and in the year after, he obtained the rank of Jinshi [the highest scholarly honor].
One day, he was invited into the home of an Imperial Household Eunuch surnamed Yang, who also asked his five adopted sons to greet him. They were from across the realm, and kept him company in his old age. One boy, sixteen years of age, looked oddly familiar, and so Yu asked where he was from. The boy, who still remembered his original surname and had memories of his hometown, replied: “I am from the Jiang region, when I was very little, I accidentally boarded a grain ship and became lost.” Yu was very surprised, and immediately asked the boy to show him his left foot — where he saw the double birth mark of his lost son. He exclaimed: “You are my son!”
Astonished by the touching scene unfolding before him, Yang blessed this reunion of father and son. Yu rushed to tell his wife, and when the blind mother tearfully embraced her son, she shed tears of blood. The crying boy then clutched his mother’s face and kissed her eyes — causing her sight to be instantly restored! Yu Jinyi’s happiness was now complete.
Having experienced both the joys and sorrows of life, he made the decision to refuse a magisterial appointment, resigned from his post as tutor, and returned home. The Grand Secretary was impressed by his humbleness, and thus presented him with many precious gifts before he left. Upon his return, he wholly dedicated himself to helping others. After his son married, his wife bore him seven sons in succession, and all of them later became well established in literary circles. Yu wrote down his encounter with the Hearth Deity and his efforts to change destiny in order to educate his posterity. He thereafter enjoyed health and peace for the rest of his life, living until the ripe old age of eighty eight. Everyone attributed his later good fortune as Heaven’s reward for his sincere acts of goodness. Transcribed by Luo Zhen (junior colleague from Yu’s hometown).
Source (original language) — Scroll to very bottom, second to last article.
This translation can be freely copied, shared and printed for non commercial purpose.
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