Not all Chinese idioms have a proper story to tell. But one of my favorites, 悲心更微 (“The sorrow grows fainter“), has a story simple yet succulent. A sense of gratification ensues, every time I peruse –
Once upon an ancient time, China was divided into seven warring states. There’s an old man born in the state of Yan but living in Chu all his life, who finally got the chance to revisit Yan. So he set out on the long-desired journey toward homeland.
On his way, while passing through the state of Jin, his travel companion decided to play a trick on him by declaring, “Here we arrive at the capital of Yan!” Without suspecting a thing, the old man instantly felt sentimental. When they came across a shabby temple, the friend pronounced, “This is where your countrymen used to worship.” The old man took it to heart and got engulfed in a wave of nostalgia. Further on, the friend pointed to a desolate village and said, “Your ancestors used to live here.” The old man was gripped by a great sense of longing, with tears welling up. When they came to a gravesite, his friend spoke again, “Now, here is where your kinsfolk were buried.” The old man couldn’t hold it anymore, he broke down and sobbed with such deep sorrow.
Witnessing all the sentiments engendered by a mere prank, the friend couldn’t help bursting into laughter and finally told the truth: “I was just joking! We are in the state of Jin, not your homeland yet.” The old man stopped sobbing, feeling foolish and silly.
Eventually they arrived at the state of Yan. Standing before the village, the temple, and the gravesite of his people, the old man simply felt calm, coolheaded and unruffled, detached and neutral.
As it turns out, thoughts and feelings are just fleeting clouds – they come and they go in an empty sky. Without mental adornment or distortion of any kind, everything appears clear and undisguised.
Every time I revisit this story, it brings about a half smile on the outside, and a full grin on the inside. A secret sense of amusement permeates my whole space. Cozily, I am suffused with the feeling of a quiet happiness, something indefinable yet definite. As if a piece of good news has gotten verified in broad daylight. All the ostentatious chatter at the party have finally quieted down, and certain fundamental truth becomes self-evident in plain sight.
The collective perceptions you’ve clung on for lifetimes, the inherited mindsets you’ve taken for granted, all the cultural emotions hardwired in you before you’re even born, those conditioned thoughts and habitual reactions that have been driving your life up to this point … now you see them in new light.
The old man’s homebound journey turns out to be a rite of passage, for anyone who’s been stuck in a fabricated, contrived state of mind. Going home, is to reunite with a natural state beyond all concepts and mental formations, and arrive at a place where one is free to be – just be.