The Three Character Classic(三字经): What is True Goodness?

The Story of King Yan and the Five Monks

Massive Tang Dynasty statues of a bodhisattva Guanyin,
Massive Tang Dynasty statues of a bodhisattva Guanyin, an arhat Kshitigarbha, and Vairocana Buddha. Longmen Grottoes, Henan province, China.
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By Jade Pearce, 







Wei, Shu, and Wu, fought for the sovereignty of the Hans.

They were called the Three Kingdoms, and existed until the Two Jin Dynasties.

Then followed the Song and the Qi dynasties, and after them the Liang and Chen dynasties

These are the southern dynasties, with their capital at Nanjing.

The northern dynasties are the Wei dynasty of the Yuan family, which split into Eastern and Western Wei,

the Zhou dynasty of the Yu-wen family, with the Qi dynasty of the Gao family.

The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinglin (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorised by generations of Chinese, both young and old.

However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom for our modern-day lives.

After the Han Dynasty collapsed in 220 AD, China entered a lengthy period of fragmentation, instability, and war – first came the legendary Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), helmed by the rival warlords Cao Cao (曹操), Liu Bei (刘备), and Sun Quan (孙权). Then followed a short-lived unification of the South under the Jin Dynasty (265–420 AD), which dissolved into the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589 AD). Collectively, this era is known as the Six Dynasties period.

Despite the chaos and bloodshed, the Six Dynasties period was a significant age for Buddhist culture in China. While Buddhism was introduced several centuries before during the Han Dynasty, it only became widely practiced by the Chinese during this period, particularly during the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

Influential figures like Emperor Wu (梁武帝) of the southern Liang Dynasty — also known as the Monk Emperor — promoted Buddhism to royalty, noblemen and the masses. From there, Buddhism established itself as a widespread, core religion — a part of Chinese culture that has endured even today.

One of Buddhism’s core teachings is mercy and compassion for all living beings. It inspired Chinese beliefs like vegetarianism, donating to charity, and so on. But what counts as true charity and goodness? This story from the Southern and Northern Dynasties helps us understand this a little better.

King Yan Judges the Five Monks

During the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, there was a Buddhist monk named Huini of Chongzhen Temple. One day, Huini fell into a coma for seven days. After he woke up, he relayed this extraordinary tale of his journey to the Netherworld.

After Huini lost consciousness, his spirit travelled with five other monks from the human realm to the Netherworld. These five monks came from various temples of the Northern Wei State, and they had reached the end of their lives. The monks were brought before King Yan, ruler of the Netherworld, where they were judged for their lifetime deeds.

The first monk, Zhicong of Baoming Temple, described how he had spent his life sitting in meditation and enduring many hardships in Buddhist cultivation. After the first monk had finished, he rose from the Netherworld to the Heavens, where he became an immortal.

You speak of your achievements with egotism and arrogance, which is one of greatest deficiencies a Buddhist monk can possess.

King Yan, ruler of the Netherworld, to the monk Tanmozui

The second monk, Daoping of Banruo Temple, relayed how he had spent his life memorising all forty volumes of the Nirvana Sutra. Like the first monk, he too rose to the Heavens.

The third monk, Tanmozui of Rongjue Temple, explained to King Yan that his life’s biggest work was lecturing to the masses about two Buddhist Sutras — the Nirvana Sutra and Avatamsaka Sutra. He told of how his audience sometimes numbered over a thousand people.

But King Yan noticed a major flaw in the monk: “You speak of your achievements with egotism and arrogance, which is one of greatest deficiencies a Buddhist monk can possess.”

The third monk contradicted, “I, a lowly monk, have never been arrogant. I simply enjoy interpreting Buddhist sutra and spreading Buddhist teachings.” Realising that the monk could not see his shortcomings, King Yan gestured to his guards, who took the third monk away into the Netherworld.

The fourth monk, Daohong of Chanlin Temple, reported to King Yan, “I spent my life soliciting donations from the wealthy, which I used to build ten Buddha statues of gold.”

But King Yan saw through him immediately. “As a monk, you should be using your time to self-reflect, chant scriptures, meditate, and adhere to Buddhist precepts. A monk should have no attachments to human desires.

“But in soliciting donations, you fostered a heart of greed and obsession. Now, you must pay for your deeds.”  Again, the guards led the fourth monk into the Netherworld.

Then it was the fifth monk’s turn. “Before I became a monk, I was the Prefect of Longxi. After discovering the greatness of Buddhism, I used all my wealth to build the Lingjue temple, and resigned to become a monk. Although I cannot meditate and have never read Buddhist scriptures, I pray to the Buddha every day.”

But King Yan studied his records and said, “After you became a prefect, you misappropriated public funds to line your pockets. Lingjue temple was built using the hard-earned money of the Longxi people. And you dare to brag about this as a lifetime achievement!” The fifth monk, too, was cast into the depths of the Netherworld.

Finally, King Yan turned his attention to Monk Huini, but discovered that he had been summoned to the Netherworld by mistake. Huini was released and sent back to the human realm.

Huini’s detailed and incredible tale eventually reached Empress Hu of the Northern Qi Dynasty. The curious empress had her men conduct a thorough investigation of the five monks, and found that the monks’ names and life stories were exactly as Huini described.

Of the five monks, only the two monks who devoted their minds to meditating and studying Buddhist scriptures rose to Heaven. By contrast, despite their seemingly noble public contributions to Buddhism, the last three monks were cast into Hell.

This story illustrates an important lesson: that true goodness is not judged by one’s superficial actions, but from one’s actual thoughts and intentions. A truly good person reflects on his flaws and immoral thoughts, and earnestly tries to better his inner state. Good deeds then manifest unconditionally from his better self, but they are merely a by-product of his spiritual cultivation. What is of greater value is one’s inner character and true goodness.

Doing “charitable deeds” with unwholesome intentions — to feed one’s ego, to elevate one’s reputation, to curry favour, and so on — earns no merit in the eyes of the gods. To us, the monks appear to have done many “selfless” and “pious” deeds, but even a lifetime of charitable deeds is as good as useless if one’s character remains impure.

Emperor Wu of Liang Meets Bodhidarma

Among the many legends of the Six Dynasties period is an encounter between Emperor Wu of the southern Liang Dynasty and Bodhidarma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in China. The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “What good deeds did I do in my past life to be blessed with my current life as emperor?”

Bodhidharma replied, “You were once a wood cutter. One day while out working, you were caught in a sudden downpour. You sought shelter in a ruined and abandoned temple, where you noticed the temple’s Buddha statue had become drenched by the rain. Out of kindness and respect, you placed your only hat on the Buddha’s head.

In soliciting donations, you fostered a heart of greed and obsession. Now, you must pay for your deeds.

King Yan, ruler of the Netherworld, to the monk Daohong

“To reward you for your pure and compassionate heart, the Buddha made you an emperor in this life.”

Emperor Wu of the southern Liang Dynasty. While he encouraged the spread of Buddhism in China, he had many shortcomings that contributed to the downfall of his empire.

Emperor Wu was delighted. “All it took was a straw hat to become emperor! In that case, if I build Buddhist temples and statues across the country, I may enjoy a long reign as emperor.”

Emperor Wu thus spent the next three years building many Buddhist towers and temples, inflicting great burdens on the government and the people.

Three years later, Emperor Wu met Bodhidarma again. The emperor asked, “Given all that I’ve done, is my rule as emperor cemented?” Bodhidarma replied, “No, in fact your reign will end prematurely.”

The emperor was shocked. “Why is that so?”

Bodhidarma said, “In your past life, your good deed was unconditional and pure in intent. In this life, however, you built those temples with selfish intentions — to solidify your reign. Moreover, the construction created a huge financial burden on your people. For that, you must pay your dues.”

How do we know if a do-gooder is truly good? It is more than just doing good deeds, but also requires pure thoughts, unconditional intentions, and the willingness to self-reflect.

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