Karmic Reward and Retribution (III)

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Translated by Andrew Yang

People generally assume the killing of animals and eating their meat to be a matter of course, as since ancient times, they have been used to it without wondering whether it is right or wrong. In fact, however, given that the most precious thing in the world is life, the most horrific thing is then taking a life. All animals have spirituality, and they feel as much pain and horror when slaughtered.

A Buddhist proverb goes, “Eat eight taels of it today and you will pay back half a catty later on”, as eight taels equaled half a catty in old Chinese measurement. To kill living beings and eat their flesh not only destroys precious lives, but also accumulates evil karma for a reprisal, which for sure will render retribution in future. Over the centuries many accounts of vicious karma involving killing have been written. Here are two of them to share with you.

Retribution for massive killings: Fang Xiaoru was exterminated together with his clan

Fang Xiaoru (1357-1402), a hero of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), once helped Emperor Taizu, named Zhu Yuanzhang, gain the throne. After the emperor’s death, he assisted Emperor Hui to continue govern the nation. Being a member of the Imperial Academy, he was a man of great learning and was renowned for his loyalty and filial piety. However, according to Ming history, the fate of this heavy-weight faithful courtier was to become very tragic.

In the fourth year of Emperor Hui’s Jianwen reign, Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who was stationed in Peking at the time, attacked the capital city Nanjing, seized the throne and named himself emperor. Fang refused to draft an edict for the prince’s ascendence to the throne as decreed, and was executed for this reason. Not only so, the prince annihilated his entire clan. This bloody persecution is known in history as an “execution by association on the vine”, meaning that the victims were arrested and executed through association like fruit along the one vine.

Fang may have been the only person in Chinese history ever punished by executing all those in the clan including his fourth-degree relatives. Why would someone so loyal and righteous have suffered such atrocity? Karmic reward and retribution, involving one’s lives of the past, present, and future, are complex with intricate layers and hard to gauge with common sense. A good cause planted in this life may not be able to yield a good reward soon, as its good karma may not have sufficient time yet to mature and thus shall wait for an occasion to arrive. In contrast, given all necessary conditions, an evil cause planted in a past life may render its retribution in this life. This is called “Goodness gets a reward and evil gets a retribution. If there is no consequence yet, the hour has simply not come”. Fang’s virtue in loyalty and filial piety, of course, would have far-reaching merits in future, but it is alleged that the punishment he suffered of having his entire clan decimated was due to an ancestor’s wanton but unwarranted killing of living beings.

Before his birth, Fang’s father had chosen a plot of land to build a grave for the reburial of their ancestors. On the eve of the ground breaking, the father, an esquire, had a dream. An old man dressed in red bowed to him and begged, “Benevolent Man, the location you’ve chosen is the home where I have lived for more than 200 years. I beg you to delay your building work for three days, so my children and grandchildren have time to move out, before you start digging. I promise to repay you for your great kindness and mercy.” The old man in red reiterated his request sincerely and respectfully, before departing with another bow.

When he woke up, the esquire decided that the dream he had had was a phantom illusion not to be believed. Besides, he had already selected the auspicious day to break ground. Why should he wait for another three days? Thus, he gave instruction to start work right away. Unexpectedly, however, as they dug to a depth of ten feet underground, the workers found a cave filled with hundreds of red snakes, and they set them on fire and burned them all to death. That night, the gentleman dreamed again of the old man in red, who was now in grief and full of resentment, and said sobbing, “Last night I earnestly begged you for a three-day grace so I could remove my family. Little did I expect such cruelty from you by burning to death all my 873 children and grandchildren! Since you’ve had the heart to wipe out my clan, I will also obliterate yours!”

Later, when the country esquire’s wife gave birth, their son, to be named Xiaoru, had a pointed tongue like a snake’s. He grew up to be a man of outstanding talent, loyalty and filial piety, and occupied a high-ranking post as Member of the Imperial Academy and Attendant Tutor to Emperor Taizu. After the emperor died, the Prince of Yan attempted to take the throne from his nephew, the succeeding Emperor Hui, by sending his troops south into Nanjing to capture the capital city, where all the civil servants and military officers surrendered with the exception of Fang, who declared he would rather die than give in. The prince ordered Fang to draft an edict for him that would proclaim to the nation, “The Prince of Yan has moved into Nanjing with the military to protect the sacred land of the Dynasty”. Yet, regarding the prince to be a rebel insurgent, Fang wrote down these words instead, “The Thief of Yan has usurped the throne”. This greatly enraged the prince, who threatened, “Aren’t you scared I could destroy all your family including its nine kinship components?” Fang countered with indignation, “Not at all scared, not even if you included all the ‘ten’ components of my family!” This further infuriated the prince, “All right then! I will exterminate all your family including its ‘ten’ kinship components as you wish!” In established penalization by kinsfolk extermination, there had only been the nine-component kindred at its maximum. How could there be ten familial and kinship components? But in desperation, the Prince of Yan decided to include all of Fang’s students and teachers counting as his “tenth” kins component in his execution. (See Note 1)

Legend has it that Fang was born as an incarnation of the old man in red. What had happened prior was of course that his father had burned to death all of the old man’s children and grandchildren in the form of 873 red snakes, and Fang’s execution was to include all the conventional nine components of family and relatives plus all of his teachers and students, who tallied exactly 873 in total. With reward and retribution, Karma is undeniably accurate to a hair’s breadth.

Restitution by live animal release: Zhao the esquire took a beating for eating giant turtle

In this next story, there was a canal in Dantu Village, Zhenjiang county, Jiangsu in eastern China named Zhen’an Port. In it lived an ageing Cantor’s giant softshell turtle that had bred many descendants. It is an aquatic animal shaped like an ordinary turtle but is much larger with a smoother, softer shell. Zhao, a local wealthy man, relished its meat. So, when a fisherman caught one and gifted it to him, the esquire gave back a big reward. From then on, to maximize profits the village fishermen all tried to catch more, bigger Cantor’s turtles to sell to Zhao, who grew so fond of them that he would not eat the meat unless it was utterly fresh. For this reason, the well-off man was very happy to deal with them.

Then one night, Zhao dreamed to be in the Temple of Dongyue, China’s Eastern Sacred Mountain, kneeling in front of God Dongyue while being confronted by someone in the court. He saw the man had a pointed head and fat body, calling himself Old Cantor’s Turtle of the Canal. The man accused him of eating the meat of over 400 of his descendants to satisfy his appetite. And when the god chided him, the esquire owned up the truth of eating the first turtle given as a present. Thereupon, God Dongyue reprimanded, “The Old Cantor’s Turtle has lived in the cave at the canal bottom for longer than a century, has always known his place and behaved himself, and no one has ever bothered them. The fishermen capturing them certainly is a barbarous act, but you, coming from a family of scholars, you’ve read books by saints and sages and should well know enough the principle of karma. Your family is wealthy, yet instead of letting go live animals and doing other good to accumulate virtue, you indulge yourself in delicacies and wanton greed by slaughtering creatures alive. Now that you’ve killed over 400 offspring of the Old Cantor’s Turtle of the Canal, how could you be forgiven in accordance with any of the laws of the underworld?”

By then, Zhao was feeling remorseful, realizing that he really should not have had the turtles killed every day for his gluttony, cutting open their stomach, taking out the intestines, and cooking, boiling, frying and smoking them. Thus, he bowed his head and confessed his sin, begging the god to make his punishment light. He also promised to change his behaviour from then on, and vowed that if he were to return to the human world, he would quit killing animals and release them back to the wild, and that he would refrain from eating meat of cows, dogs or any other creature so he could make amends for all the sins he had committed. After repeated imploring and pleading, he finally received a minor punishment from God Dongyue of beating with a baton, to alleviate rage from the ageing Cantor’s Turtle.

After the punishment was administered, the god chastised him again, “Mortals with even one good thought get blessings from gods and spirits. If you make a vow and do good, stop killing and let go live animals, you will receive a good reward. But if you continue to indulge in your voraciousness, you are never to be forgiven”. With those words, he ordered Zhao return to the human world escorted by a ghost servant. When he woke up, the country esquire found bruises and clotted blood all over his thighs, and they were both swollen and in pain. For over ten days he had to be helped by someone just to move around.

But then, from the day he woke up from the dream, Zhao did not hide the shame he felt of being tried in the underworld. Instead, he made it public, urging people to quit killing and release live animals back to nature. In the meantime, all his family abstained from eating animal meat including that of turtles, Cantor’s turtles, tortoises, horses, cows, donkeys, and dogs. And they did not hesitate to spend money on purchasing live animals to set them free. Zhao later lived to a ripe old age.

The story is detailed in An Illustrated Expostulation Against Killing Live Animals So As to Set them Free written by Master Lian Chi (1535-1615) during the Ming dynasty.

 

Notes:

Note 1: The extermination of the nine-component kindred: A collective punishment in feudal China as the penalization for an extraordinary capital offence, e.g., that of treason, at its extreme. There seems to have been different ways of calculating the nine familial and kinship units to be included. One of them was to include the subject’s own nuclear family plus all their second-, third- and fourth-degree relatives. As well, this rare practice was recorded in a few other pre-modern Asian countries. However, beyond this extent, it appears no execution has ever been recorded in history anywhere, except for what happened to Fang Xiaoru’s kinsfolk as well as all his academic associates.

 

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