3 X 8 = 23
Yan Hui (顏回) was a student of Confucius, and he was often praised by Confucius for his ability to never make the same mistake twice. He was later deemed one of the four sages in Confucianism.
One day, when Yan Hui was walking through a village, he saw a large crowd of people outside a cloth store. Wondering what all the commotion was about, he went to check out the situation. He heard the buyer say loudly, “3 times 8 is 23! Why do you charge me 24 dollars?!”
Yan Hui then walked up to the buyer, gave a polite bow, and said, “Dear friend, 3 times 8 is 24. How can it be 23? You must have made a mistake. There’s no need to argue over it anymore.”
The buyer became even angrier, pointed at Yan Hui’s face, and said, “Who invited you here? What credibility do you have to tell me anything? The only person who can judge if I’m right or wrong is Confucius!”
Yan Hui replied, “OK. If Confucius judges you to be wrong, what will you do?”
The man replied, “If Confucius says I’m wrong, then I’ll cut my head off and give it to you. What about you? What if Confucius says you’re wrong?”
Yan Hui replied, “If Confucius says I’m wrong, then I’ll give you my hat.”
The two men then went to Confucius and explained to him the situation. Confucius smiled, looked at Yan Hui, and said, “3 times 8 is 23! You lose. Give your hat to this man.”
Yan Hui deeply respected Confucius, so he gave his hat to the man without any argument. The man happily took the hat and walked away satisfied.
Although on the surface, Yan Hui complied with Confucius, but in his heart, he still couldn’t understand how 3 times 8 could be 23. He thought Confucius was growing old and senile, so he decided he didn’t want to learn from him anymore.
The next day, Yan Hui pretended that his family had some emergency affairs that he must attend to, and he asked for permission to return home. Confucius understood, so he nodded and gave Yan Hui permission. Before Yan Hui left, Confucius said, “Remember: Do not take shelter from thunder under a large tree. Do not kill when the situation is unclear.”
Yan Hui replied, “I will remember your words, Master.” He then started his journey home. On his way, the sky suddenly turned dark, and soon, a thunderstorm started. He looked around for shelter, and he found a cavity in a large tree. He ran inside to take shelter from the heavy rain. But then he remembered his master’s words, “Do not take shelter from thunder under a large tree.”
He thought to himself, “Well, I do respect Confucius. Let’s listen to him one more time.” Yan Hui left the tree and started journeying again in the rain. Shortly after he left the tree, a bolt of lightning stroke that tree and destroyed it into smithereens.
Yan Hui was shocked and thought, “The Master’s first words proved to be true! What about the later words? Am I really going to kill anyone?”
Yan Hui continued his journey home, and by the time he finally arrived, it was already late midnight. He didn’t want to wake anyone up by lighting a lamp and announcing his arrival, so he went to the bedroom and used his sword to quietly pry open the door. When he was about to go into bed, he first felt for his wife. Then he felt another person. Upon closer inspection, he saw that there was a head at the top of the bed and another head at the bottom.
Yan Hui was furious, thinking that his wife had cheated on him. He raised his sword and was about to cut off the head of the second person. Then he remembered Confucius’s words, “Do not kill when the situation is unclear.” He then lit a lamp and saw that on one end of the bed was his wife, and on the other end was his wife’s sister.
The next day, Yan Hui immediately went back to Confucius. Upon seeing his teacher, he knelt and said, “Teacher, your words yesterday saved my life! Not only my life, but also the lives of my wife and wife’s sister! How did you know what was going to happen in the future?”
Confucius raised Yan Hui up and told him, “Yesterday, the weather was extremely hot and dry, which meant a thunderstorm was bound to arrive soon. That’s why I told you to not take shelter from thunder under a large tree. Moreover, you left with anger while carrying a sword. That’s why I told you to not kill when the situation is unclear.”
Yan Hui bowed and said, “Your wisdom is extraordinary!”
Confucius then added, “I know you made up an excuse to return home, thinking I was probably growing old and senile, so you didn’t want to learn from me anymore. I want you to think deeper about what happened. If I said 3 times 8 is 23, all you lose is your hat. But if I said 3 times 8 is 24, then the other person would lose his life. What do you think is more important, a hat or a life?”
Yan Hui suddenly understood, knelt down, and said, “The Master values righteousness heavily, and in my ignorance, I thought you were growing senile. I am extremely ashamed!”
From then on, Yan Hui always remained faithfully by Confucius’s side.
— — —
Although what Confucius did may seem like nothing special, it was indeed extremely rare and risky at the time. He lived during the Spring Autumn period in China’s history, where many small countries were all at war with each other. During that time, the lives of commoners were viewed as disposable.
The fact that Confucius would risk his distinguished reputation and the trust of his student to save the life of a lowly commoner teaches us the meaning of benevolence and humanity.
In our own daily lives, how often do we try to win at the expense of other people’s suffering? We have to realize that always being “right” not only hurts others, it often hurts ourselves too. If you argue with your customer and you win, then you’ve lost business. If you argue with your boss and you win, then you’ve lost a promotion. If you argue with your spouse and you win, then you’ve lost love and trust.
The point isn’t that you shouldn’t be logical. The point is that in human relationships, trust and love are more important than being right. How can people believe you have their best intentions if you’re always trying to prove yourself right? How can people feel that you love them if you’re always trying to win?
The ancient sages saw yielding as a virtue. Being able to yield is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of moral cultivation. Someone who can yield is humble; they won’t try to prove themselves right for their own ego. Someone who can yield is also kind; they focus on giving happiness to others over pleasure for oneself.
Modern society teaches us to seek victory. The ancient sages taught us to be benevolent and yielding.
Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on April 22, 2021.