An Ancient Chinese Story: Doing Business as Cultivation

August 30, 2019 Updated: August 30, 2019

Two thousand years ago, a scholar failed the imperial examinations over and over again. He finally tired of pursuing fame and money. He became determined to learn the Tao and went to a mountain cave to seek discipleship with a Taoist master. 

After carefully examining the scholar, the Taoist was delighted to have him as a disciple. The Taoist taught the scholar how to meditate, and taught him something new every day. 

Several years later, the Taoist told the scholar: “I wish to build a magnificent palace. However, I don’t have the money needed. Please go to the city during the day to sell rouge. Then meditate each evening when you return.” 

The scholar asked: “Master, I have no money. How can I buy rouge?” 

The Taoist pointed to a pile of stones and, in a flash, it transformed into fine rouge. The scholar, confused, thought: “Master has the ability to transform stones into gold. Why is he asking me to return to society and sell rouge to earn money?” 

But the scholar knew it was important to follow his master’s instructions. So, although reluctant, he left the mountain with the rouge and made his way to the market. 

Quietly Listening to Wind in the Pines
“Quietly Listening to Wind in the Pines,” 13th century before 1246, by Ma Lin. Hanging scroll. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. (Public Domain)

Overcoming Fear

The scholar was very shy, so he found it awkward to call out loudly on the streets. He set up a stand in a low-traffic location and spoke quietly, with his head down. Because he was as quiet as a mosquito, passersby could hardly hear him. 

His master, observing from far away, saw that he was afraid of people and needed help to overcome this fear.

The Taoist transformed into a butcher with an overbearing manner. With knife in hand, the butcher went up to the scholar and demanded to know what he was doing. Not lifting his head, the scholar replied, “I’m selling rouge.” 

“What did you say? I can’t hear you!” the butcher shouted, placing the knife on the scholar’s neck. The scholar calmed himself down. Looking at the knife, he replied with a trembling voice, “I am selling rouge.” 

“You have to shout if you want to sell something. The street is so busy and your voice is so low. Who can hear you?” The butcher yelled. 

The scholar, confused, wondered why this ruffian suddenly appeared. Regardless, he knew he had to sell rouge to fulfill his master’s mission. His fear suddenly vanished, and he was able to call out loudly in order to attract customers. 

That evening, it took the scholar a while to calm down and reach tranquility during meditation. He didn’t ask his master about what had happened, but instead tried to enlighten to it himself. 

The scholar realized that, as a spiritual cultivator, his heart should be wholly dedicated to cultivating his character. Only then could he remain unaffected by society. And as a cultivator, he had nothing to be afraid of. 

A Heart Unmoved

A month passed, but the scholar still had not sold a single box of rouge. He wondered why selling rouge was harder than cultivation. But since his master asked him to sell rouge, he was determined to do it happily. The scholar realized that he needed to put his heart into both cultivation and selling rouge. 

He knew that to sell rouge, he had to find the right customers: women. But he wondered how he would be able to cultivate if he came into contact with women. Some of them put rouge on their faces and asked him if they looked beautiful. 

The scholar eventually enlightened to a new understanding: “Human beings are human beings, whether men or women. I am a cultivator, not an ordinary being, so how could these human affairs move me?” 

With this thought, the scholar became calm. From then on, though he came into contact with all kinds of people, his heart was unmoved. 

After he reached a certain level in cultivation, heavenly fairies descended to test him. They transformed into beautiful women and made alluring gestures toward him. The scholar’s heart was focused on cultivation every second, and he was not moved. The fairies then left. 

‘You Helped Me Build the Palace’

One fairy came back disguised as an old lady. She bought rouge and put it on her face. In no time, she transformed into a beautiful young girl. People on the street witnessed the miracle and came one after another to buy the rouge. 

That very day, the Empress Dowager went to burn incense at the temple. She saw people flocking to buy rouge and sent her servants to investigate. After learning that the rouge was magical, she ordered that all of it be bought with 10 pounds of gold. 

The scholar thought that his master’s wish would certainly be fulfilled now. He took the gold and happily went back to his temple. 

On his way back, he encountered some soldiers on horseback who were harassing a group of young girls. The scholar felt that saving those lives was the most important thing he could do, so he shouted out: “I have 10 pounds of gold. I will give it to you if you let all the girls go.” 

Dazzled by all the gold, the soldiers immediately freed the girls. 

At that moment, all the gold disappeared, and the scholar was left with nothing. Crestfallen, he headed back to the temple, wondering how his master’s wish could be realized now. 

At the temple, after the scholar recounted what had happened, the Taoist pointed to the sky. The scholar looked and saw a beautiful palace in the heavens. 

“You helped me build the palace,” the Taoist said. “You kept your heart unmoved while selling rouge, which allowed the palace to be built.” 

The scholar suddenly enlightened. “Doing business is also a way of cultivation,” he exclaimed.

He also realized that his master was looking after him the entire time, transforming into different people to test him and help him improve!

Translated by Dora Li into English, this story is reprinted with permission from the book “Treasured Tales of China,” Vol. 1, available on Amazon.

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