We live in an age that touts “survival of the fittest” – only those who are defensive and will fight for their own interests can thrive in our impersonal, urbanised societies.
Yet in 2013, University of Pennsylvania biologists Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin discovered that this mindset is unsustainable for society. By applying the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a game theory) to a large, evolving population, they mathematically proved that generosity and forgiveness was the only way populations could succeed in the long term.
“Ever since Darwin,” said Plotkin, “biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature.”
“Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” said Plotkin of the seminal 2013 study. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones.”
Perhaps this is why many ancient, traditional cultures advocate selfless values like generosity, forgiveness, and tolerance. Tolerance, in particular, runs completely counter to the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” – when we let others walk all over us without lashing back, isn’t that an act of weakness?
Yet traditional Chinese culture, with its 5,000 year old history, is littered with stories that extol this value – and for good reason. Through these stories, we realise that tolerance is a special kind of strength, and that humans are much more complex than a simple theory.
Tolerating Small Matters for Great Plans
With forbearance comes aplenty, with tolerance comes great morals.
–Book of Shang
One of ancient China’s most famous examples of tolerance is Lin Xiangru (蔺相如), who lived during the Warring States Period. An intelligent and able politician of the Zhao State, Lin Xiangru quickly rose through the ranks to become Chief Minister.
But Lin Xiangru’s meteoric rise drew the ire of some of his colleagues, including Lian Po (廉颇), the most experienced military commander of the Zhao State. Unconvinced that Lin Xiangru was the real deal, Lian Po exclaimed, “If I ever meet Lin Xiangru in public, I will expose and disgrace him!”
When Lin Xiangru learned of this, he conscientiously avoided situations for conflict with Lian Po. He would report sick for court meetings that Lian Po attended, to avoid appearing as if he was challenging Liao Po’s authority.
On another occasion, Lin Xiangru was riding his carriage down a narrow street. Just then, Lian Po’s carriage turned into the street from the opposite direction. Lin Xiangru immediately instructed his driver to reverse his carriage up the street, so that Lian Po’s carriage could pass.
This proved to be the last straw for Lin Xiangru’s subordinates, who confronted him as a body. “We left our families behind to serve you, as we admired your noble righteousness. Yet despite ranking as high as Lian Po, you hide from him like a coward when he speaks ill of you. Even mediocre beings would be ashamed to act as you have!”
But Lin Xiangru held up his hand firmly and said, “Between General Lian and the King of Qin, who do you think is mightier?”
His subordinates replied, “The King of Qin is obviously mightier than General Lian.”
Lin Xiangru said, “The Qin State is the strongest nation in the land and our greatest threat. Yet a few years ago, when I was face-to-face with the King of Qin, I had no qualms reprimanding him in front of his court and shaming his ministers. How can a minor personal feud make me afraid of General Lian?”
“I believe that the King of Qin does not dare to attack our country because we have two tigers: General Lian and I. If the two of us were to fight, that would undermine our country’s strength. That is why I keep giving in to General Lian – because I need to prioritise the country’s safety over my personal feuds.”
Lin Xiangru’s words eventually reached Lian Po’s ears, who realised that his subjective grudges were placing his country at jeopardy. Deeply regretting his behaviour, Lian Po took off his clothes and strapped thorny brambles to his bare back. He then knelt in front of Lin Xiangru’s home asking for his forgiveness.
Immediately, Lin Xiangru warmly welcomed Lian Po into his home. From then on, Lian Po and Lin Xiang Ru became strong friends and worked closely together to protect the Zhao State.
Confucius once said, “A person who cannot tolerate small matters will foil great plans.” Lin Xiangru never lost sight of the big picture, tolerating where necessary to ensure greater success. Moreover, his tolerance won over his adversary, Lian Po, who came to respect and cooperate with him.
This astute politician demonstrated that in many situations, tolerance is not a weakness but a strength!
There are people of such great moral courage that when disasters befall them, they are not scared, and when humiliated for no reason whatsoever, they are not angry.
– Su Dongpo (苏东坡)
Tolerance Requires a Big Heart
Of the Six Perfections that embody the myriad of practices, Forbearance is the first in the line.
– Buddhist saying
What is the ancient Chinese concept of tolerance? To find answers, one doesn’t have to look very far – it’s all in the Chinese character for tolerance (忍, ren).
The character’s top half consists of the knife radical (刀) with a dot, representing a sharp knife. The character’s bottom half is the heart radical（心).
When we envision a sharp knife to the heart, we think of unimaginable pain. But significantly, the heart constitutes the base or foundation of the Chinese character for tolerance. A heart that is stable and unmoved while bearing unimaginable pain – that is the meaning of tolerance.
No story encapsulates this better than that of the Buddhist monk Da Xing (大兴), who lived long ago in Jiuhua Mountain.
Da Xing was a devout and respected monk, who led a simple life of seclusion. One day, while meditating in his temple, an angry mob of villagers appeared and began to beat him.
It turned out that the landlord in a nearby village had a daughter, who had just given birth to a boy despite being unmarried. When her furious father interrogated her, she claimed that Da Xing was the father of the child.
The enraged landlord led a group to the temple to make the monk pay for his atrocious act. After beating and abusing him, they left Da Xing with the baby boy.
News spread rapidly, and the monk’s reputation quickly deteriorated. Once well-respected, Da Xing was now treated with contempt and derision. But the monk bore the humiliation and ridicule without complaint, going to the village day after day to beg for alms, so that he could feed and raise the little boy.
A few years later, Da Xing and the little boy were meditating together in the temple when the landlord again appeared with a group of people. This time, they knelt before Da Xing and cried, “Reverend, we have wronged you. Please forgive us!”
It appeared that the truth had come to light – the landlord’s daughter had had an affair with a scholar, producing the baby boy. In her panic, she falsely accused Da Xing of fathering the child.
Now, the scholar had successfully passed the imperial examinations and become an official, and he had returned to ask for the lady’s hand. As such, the landlord’s daughter was finally able to disclose the truth to her father.
Monk Da Xing smiled at everyone and said, “I have never been angry with any of you, so what is there to forgive? You can bring the child back to his parents!”
Da Xing’s response, which held no hatred or bitterness, deeply humbled the villagers. Da Xing was thereafter treated with utmost respect, and ultimately completed his cultivation to Buddhahood.
As written in the Tao Te Ching (道德经), “The Way of Heaven is not to fight, and yet skilfully prevail; not to speak, and yet skilfully answer.” Da Xing did not simply bear the unjustified humiliation, but was emotionally unaffected by it.
It takes a higher level of tolerance for the heart to be completely unmoved in the face of slander. Without fighting or speaking back, Da Xing prevailed and provided an answer far more impactful than anything he could have said.
The Way of Heaven is not to fight, and yet skilfully prevail; not to speak, and yet skilfully answer.
– Laozi (老子)
Tolerance Is Not Cowardice
The Superior Man has nothing to contend.
Han Xin (韩信) was a brilliant military general who aided Liu Bang (刘邦) in the founding of the Han Dynasty. While talented, Han Xin was also known for his ability to forbear.
As a young man, Han Xin practiced martial arts and always carried a sword. While walking down a street one day, a young delinquent blocked Han Xin’s path and sneered: “Why are you carrying a sword? Are you trying to show off that you can kill people? In that case, why don’t you start by killing me?”
Han Xin thought, “Killing this youngster would be a piece of cake, but for that I will be sentenced to death. Moreover, there’s no purpose in picking a fight with this unreasonable youngster.”
Seeing that Han Xin was not going to kill him, the delinquent jeered, “Looks like you don’t have the guts to kill me! In that case, I want you to crawl between my legs or I won’t let you pass.” So the tall and strong Han Xin crawled between the delinquent’s legs, while the onlookers pointed and laughed at him.
Inferior men would have thought Han Xin a coward. But men of superior character like Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, recognised and valued Han Xin’s innate strength and maturity.
In his essay “How to Keep Worthy Leaders”, the great Song writer Su Dongpo said:
“The so-called heroes of ancient times inevitably had extraordinary attributes. There are people who cannot tolerate due to their human emotions – when humiliated, they will draw their swords and fight, and they are not fit to be called courageous.
“There are people of such great moral courage that when disasters befall them, they are not scared, and when humiliated for no reason whatsoever, they are not angry. This is because they have strong will and great ambitions.”
Being tolerant is a display of strong will and self-control. It is a mark of one’s self-cultivation and realm.
A person who cannot tolerate small matters will foil great plans.
Tolerance Without Desire
As humans, we are submerged in emotion and desire. Our desires sway us to pursue self-interests – be it fame, material gain, or emotional gratification, and we experience pain when these interests are undermined.
But if we are able to relinquish our desire for a particular self-interest, we simultaneously free ourselves from being hurt by its loss. This is the foundation of tolerance – where we are able to tolerate humiliation, loss, and other setbacks, because these setbacks do not affect us emotionally anymore.
Tolerance is a realm where one keeps gaining as one keeps giving up. In Taoism and Buddhism, tolerance is the ability to relinquish everything in the pursuit of the True Way. Such great tolerance is truly solid and unwavering.