The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven
By Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
From the 1986 issues of Vajra Bodhi Sea
Translated by Bhikshuni Heng Yin
Mencius (Mengzi)’s name was Ke, and his style name was Ziyu. He was from the state of Zhou and lived during the Warring States Period. A disciple of Zi Si, he aspired to continue the teachings of Confucius (Kongzi). While he approved of humane government, he disparaged tyranny. He advocated a democratic government in which “the people are most important, while the leader is of lesser importance.” Thus he was not well-received by the feudal lords.
He actively promoted the doctrine that human nature is originally good, saying, “All people are capable of empathy.” He also said, “Anyone can be like Yao and Shun.” He practiced benevolence and righteousness, basing his idea of benevolence on the injunction to “treat all elders as you would your own; treat all children as you would your own.” He felt that a person demonstrates righteousness when “riches and honors cannot make him dissipated, poverty and mean condition cannot make him swerve from principle, and power and force cannot make him bend.”...
In his later years, Mencius taught and established teachings that were compiled into the seven chapters of the Book of Mencius. He lived to be 84 and is venerated as being “Second to the Sage.”
China produced a Confucius and a Mencius. Confucius is referred to as the “Greatest Sage and Foremost Teacher,” while Mencius is “Second to the Sage.” These two sages have benefited the Chinese people tremendously. Their merit is even greater than that of the emperors throughout Chinese history. They let people know the basic requirements for being a human – not to overstep one’s position or neglect the rules of propriety, not to commit evil and create offenses. Their merit towards creating peaceful and well-governed states and benefiting the world and its people is especially great. Imperceptibly they have influenced the customs, allowing people to be happy in their livelihoods and occupations. Of course, China also has its share of unruly people, but that is another story.
Mencius’ surname was Meng, his name was Ke, and his style name was Ziyu. He was from the state of Zhou and lived during the Warring States Period. He was born in an ordinary manner, but was able to become “Second to the Sage” because he had a worthy mother. His mother helped her [deceased] husband raise and educate their son. She wove cloth to support herself and her son, and their life was extremely hard.
At first they lived in several places, but Mencius’ mother found them to be inappropriate. Their first home was next to a cemetery, so Mencius learned how to dig graves and bury people in the ground. She then moved next door to a meat market, and Mencius learned how to be a butcher – killing pigs and sheep and selling their meat. Mencius’ mother observed the way her son learned everything he saw, and decided this was not a good situation.
Thereupon she moved next to a school, and Mencius learned from the students how to study. Students went in and out of the school, bowing and showing their manners and etiquette, and Mencius learned it all. Mencius’ mother sent him to study. After he had studied for a while, he decided it was not that much fun and wanted to quit school. When he asked his mother if he could stop studying, his mother did not say anything, but took her knife and cut the threads on her weaving loom. When Mencius asked his mother why she cut the threads, she replied, “One must finish weaving the cloth before it can be exchanged for money. If it is cut halfway through, it will be useless. If you don’t study, you’ll be just like this piece of cloth which has not been completely woven – you cannot achieve much in the future.” After Mencius heard her words, he continued his studies with diligence. Later, under the training and guidance of Zi Si, he became a sage.
Mencius vowed to carry on Confucius’ teaching, so he went everywhere promoting the principles of Confucianism, which include benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, and forgiveness. Mencius wanted to continue Confucius’ resolve and narrate the deeds of his life. Thus he advocated a humane government and did not support tyranny. He endured the hardships of extensive travel in order to realize his ambition, but the feudal lords of the time selfishly sought personal advantages and were narrow-minded. They did not recognize his talent and usefulness as a political advisor. Thus Mencius was not able to share his talents; he preached but could not practice.
Mencius said, “All people are capable of empathy. All people possess a sense of shame. All people are capable of deference and humility. All people have the ability to distinguish right from wrong.” As for benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge, he said, “An attitude of empathy is the beginning of benevolence. A sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness. An attitude of deference and modesty is the beginning of propriety. The ability to distinguish right from wrong is the beginning of knowledge.”
He also promoted the idea that a person should aspire to be a great hero. What is a great hero? A great hero conducts himself such that “riches and honors cannot make him dissipated.” When he is wealthy and honored, he still abides by the rules and does not become dissipated. “Poverty and mean condition cannot make him swerve from principle.” When he becomes poor and lowly, he does not deviate from his resolve; he is not a loser. That is, he will not try to be clever or obsequious to gain advantages, or get involved in dealing drugs or smuggling goods, using any means he can to get money.
Even in times of poverty, he lives an honest life and accepts his fate. Confucius said, “If riches could be obtained, then even if I had to become a carriage driver to obtain it, I would do it. If riches cannot be obtained, then I will do what I like to do.” He also said, “Riches and honor are like drifting clouds to me.” To me, riches and honor are nothing but clouds; I don’t take them seriously. Mencius’ statement, “Poverty and mean condition cannot make him swerve from principle” is expressing the same point as, “Riches and honor are like drifting clouds to me.” “Power and force cannot make him bend.” No matter what kind of force or authority he is oppressed by, he will not submit.
Mencius also said, “Treat all elders as you would your own; treat all children as you would your own.” That is, “Just as I am filial to my own parents, I expand that filial piety towards the parents of other people in the world. Just as I show love and affection towards my own children, I expand that love to include everyone else’s children.” It was in this spirit that Mencius exerted his utmost efforts to teach other people’s children to be good...
In his old age, Mencius returned to his hometown to teach, write, and lecture. He wrote the seven chapters of the book of Mencius. Mencius went to see king Hui of Liang. The king said, “Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are likewise provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?”
Mencius replied, “Why must Your Majesty use that word ‘profit’? What I am ‘likewise’ provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics. If Your Majesty says, ‘What is to be done to profit my kingdom?’ The great officers will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our clans?’ And the inferior officers and the common people will say, ‘What is to be done to profit ourselves?’ Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit from each other, and the kingdom will be endangered. If righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all.” He spoke about benevolence and righteousness to king Hui of Liang. Finally the king said to him, “benevolence and righteousness, and these shall be the only themes. Why must you use that word—‘profit’?”
Throughout his life, Mencius endured the hardships of travel in order to teach and transform the citizens of China. He advocated a philosophy of benevolence, righteousness, and moral virtue. He lived to be 84. Chinese people refer to him as being “second to the sage,” because he came after Confucius.
He was pretty much on par with Confucius.