Liao Fans's Four Lessons

Original work by Liao Fan of the Ming Dynasty

The Second Lesson: Ways to Reform

Narrator: How can we be free from faults when we were not born as sages or saints? Confucius once said…

Confucius: One with faults should not fear to correct them.

Narrator: After Liao-Fan spoke of the ways to create destiny, he proceeded to tell his son about the three ways to reform. First, one must feel shame; second, one must know fear; and third, one must have determination and courage. If we were mindful of correcting even the tiniest mistake, then large wrongdoings would naturally be avoided.

The Spring-Autumn Period mentioned throughout this book refers to a period in China’s history over two thousand years ago when the country was undergoing great change and turmoil.

Liao-Fan: During the Spring-Autumn Period, China was divided into several small nations. Many prestigious advisors and counselors of these nations were able to accurately predict whether a person’s future would be good or bad, disastrous or fortunate based on their observation of that person’s speech and behavior. Many of these are recorded in history books.

Usually, there are signs that signal impending danger or coming good fortune. These signs are a reflection of one’s heart. Though it is the heart from which thoughts arise, the body can fully portray a person’s character.

Narrator: For instance, if a person is kind-hearted, then his or her every gesture will indicate steadiness and solidity. If a person was mean, then his or her body would naturally portray a petty and small character.

Liao-Fan: Often a person is more fortunate when tending toward kindness and invites trouble when tending toward meanness. Worldly people often do not see what is actually going on. It is as if their vision was blurred. Since they cannot see reality, they claim that good fortune and disasters are unpredictable.

When a person is absolutely honest and truthful, one’s heart is in agreement with the heart of heaven. Therefore, when one can use this sincere attitude in interacting with people and everyday matters, good fortune will naturally follow. This means that in observing someone, we only need to pay attention to that person’s behavior. If this behavior portrays kindness, then you will know for sure in advance that good fortune is not far behind.

Narrator: On the contrary, when we see unkind behavior from a person, we will know that troubles await him or her. If one really wants to have good fortune and stay away from adversity, it is necessary to first reform one’s faults before practicing kind deeds.

Liao-Fan: There are three ways to reform one’s faults. First, one ‘feels shame’. Think of all the ancient sages and saints whose names and teachings have lasted through hundreds of generations. They were people just like us, but why is my name tarnished and my reputation ruined in just one lifetime? I find that it is because I over-indulge myself in material pleasures and have been seriously influenced my bad surroundings. I then secretly do many things I am not supposed to do, and think others will not know about it. Sometimes I disregard the nation’s laws and am not ashamed of it.

Without realizing it, I stoop lower each day until I am no different from an animal. There is nothing else in the world, which calls for more shame and remorse than behavior such as this. Mencius once said…

Mencius: Shame is the greatest and most important word in a person’s lifetime. Why? Because one who knows shame, will put forth his or her best efforts into reforming faults and will eventually attain sagehood or become a saint. One who cannot comprehend the word ‘shame’ will be unrestrained and immoral. This person will then be just like an animal.

Liao-Fan: These are really key words to reforming our faults. The second way to reform is to ‘know fear’. What are we to fear? Earth, spirits, heavens and gods all hover over our heads in observation.

Narrator: They are different from humans in that they can see everything without obstruction. Therefore, it is not easy to deceive them.

Liao-Fan: Even when my wrongdoings are done in a place where nobody is around to witness them, the earth, spirits, heavens and gods are just like a mirror, clearly reflecting all my faults. If my offense is serious, then all kinds of disasters will befall me; if the fault is minor, it will still deduct from my current good fortune. How can I not feel fear? Every moment, even when I am in an empty room, the spirits and gods watch over me very carefully and record everything. We can try covering up our wrongdoings from others…

Narrator: …but the spirits and gods can see through to our hearts and therefore they know our every action.

Liao Fan: Ultimately, we cannot deceive ourselves. We would feel embarrassed and dishonored if others happened to see our misdeeds. Therefore, how can we not be constantly cautious of our every action and be fearful of the consequences they might evoke? But there is more to it! As long as a person still has one breath left, then he or she has the chance to regret even the most serious mistakes and offenses.

Narrator: Once, a person who behaved badly during his entire lifetime felt remorse just when he was about to die. He realized his past mistakes and regretted all the bad things he had done. His heart came to a very kind thought and immediately afterwards, he passed away peacefully.

Liao-Fan: This is to say, if a person can have an overwhelming and courageous kind thought at the most important moment, then it can cleanse away hundreds of years of accumulated misdeeds. This is just like only one lamp being necessary to bring light into a valley that has been dark for a thousand years. It does not matter how long one has been committing misdeeds or if the offenses were newly made. He or she is a surpassing person as long as they are able to change!

Narrator: Though we make mistakes, it is good to correct them. But do not think it is all right to do bad things now just because we can always regret and reform later. This is definitely not allowed. If one commits a wrongdoing purposely, then the offense is even greater than before.

Liao-Fan: Besides, we are living in a tumultuous and constantly changing world. Our body, made of flesh and blood, is extremely perishable. If our next breath does not come, then this body will no longer be part of us. By then, even if we did want to reform, we would no longer have the chance to do so.

Narrator: Also, when one dies, one cannot take along any worldly possessions. Only karma stays with one’s spirit.

Liao-Fan: Therefore, when one commits a wrongdoing, one’s retribution in the physical world is a bad reputation and name, which will last for hundreds and thousands of years. Even filial children and loving grandchildren cannot cleanse one’s name. Then in one’s afterlife, one might end up in hell suffering immeasurable pain. Even the sages, saints, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas cannot help or save one from the consequences. So how can one not be fearful?

The third way to reform is that one must have ‘determination and courage’. Narrator: A person who hesitates to reform his or her faults is one who really does not want to change, but is content with what he or she can get away with.

Liao Fan: Our willpower may not be strong enough, making us afraid to change our wrongdoings. For a reform to take place, we must use all our efforts and resolve to change immediately. We should not doubt or wait to reform our faults, nor postpone our resolve to change until tomorrow or the day after.

A minor fault is like a thorn sticking into our flesh and should be quickly removed. A big fault is like a finger bitten by a poisonous snake. We must cut off that finger without hesitation to prevent the poison from spreading and taking our life.

If we can follow the three ways of shame, fear and determination to reform, then our personality will surely be transformed. Just as the sun’s rays melt a thin layer of ice in springtime, our faults will also disappear when dealt with through these three ways.

There are also three methods of practice to help us reform. First is changing through action, second is changing through reasoning and third is changing from the heart.

Narrator: Since the methods vary, so do the results of change. First, let us talk about ‘changing through action’.

Liao-Fan: For example, if I killed living beings in the past, I now vow not to kill again starting today. If I was angry and yelled at others in the past, I vow not to get angry starting today. This is how a person changes through action and refrains from repeating a wrongdoing by vowing not to do it again. However, it is a hundred times harder if we force ourselves not to do something than if we just stopped doing it naturally. If we do not uproot our faults, but merely suppress them, the faults will eventually resurface even if we have temporarily stopped committing them. Therefore, the method of changing through action cannot help us get rid of our faults permanently.

Second, let me explain ‘changing through reasoning’. We can try to reform by refraining from wrongdoings by understanding the reason and principle behind why we should not do it. In the instance of killing, we can reform through contemplating that…

Narrator: …loving all living things is a virtue of heaven. All living beings love life and are afraid to die. How can I be at peace with myself by taking another’s life to nurture my own? At times, animals were even cooked alive, such as fish or crabs. They may not have been completely slaughtered before going into the cooking pot. Such pain and suffering reach down into the bones, how can we be so cruel to these animals?

When we eat, we use all kinds of expensive and tasty things to nourish our bodies, enough to fill the whole dinner table! But once the meal is done, even the best delicacies will become body waste and be excreted. The result of our killing accomplishes nothing. Consuming vegetarian foods can nourish us just as well. Why let our stomach become a graveyard and reduce our good fortune through the violation of killing?

Liao-Fan: Think again of all the living beings with flesh and blood. Like us, they have a consciousness. We can cultivate virtue and allow these living beings to feel safe around us. How can we continue to harm them and make them hate us? If we think about it, we will naturally feel sorrow for these animals and be unable to swallow their flesh.

Another example of changing through reasoning is the person who often gets angry. They need to stop and think that everyone has his or her individual strengths and weaknesses. According to my reasoning, if I touched on someone else’s weakness, I should feel sorry for that weakness and forgive any shortcomings. If someone offends me for no reason at all, then it is that person’s problem and has nothing to do with me. There is no reason for me to get angry. I can also think that…

Narrator: …there is not a right-minded person who thinks he or she is always right, for anyone who thinks so must be a fool. There is not a learned person who blames another for being knowledgeable, because a truly learned person would be humble, only criticizing himself or herself and treating others with tolerance. Therefore, one who complains about others is not a genuine learned person.

Liao-Fan: Therefore, when things do not go the way we wish, it is because we have not cultivated our virtues and morals, and have not accumulated enough merits to move others! We should always reflect upon ourselves first and see whether we have mistreated others.

Narrator: If we practice in this way and diligently cultivate this virtue, then adversity and slander can actually become a training ground to refine our character and to fulfill our goals.

Liao-Fan: Therefore, we should be very glad to accept someone else’s criticism and teachings. What is there to be angry and complain about?

Additionally, to remain unmoved by slander is like letting a torch burn itself out in space. If we hear others slandering us and try to defend ourselves, it would be like the spring silkworm spinning its own cocoon. There was an old saying…

Narrator: “Those who tie themselves in a cocoon are looking for suffering.”

Liao-Fan: Therefore, no benefit but rather harm is derived from getting angry. There are other faults and offenses we can change along the same lines. If we can understand the reasoning behind the need for reform, we will not make the same mistakes twice.

Lastly, what is meant by ‘changing from the heart’? Though a person’s faults can amount to thousands of different types, they all stem from thoughts of the mind/heart. If my mind/heart is still of thoughts, then actions will not arise and faults can be avoided. If my heart is rooted in vices such as desire, fame, profit or anger, I do not have to find ways to get rid of each fault. All we need is a sincere, kind heart and the willingness to practice kind deeds. As long as my mind/heart is virtuous and kind, then naturally it will not generate any improper thoughts.

All mistakes stem from the heart; therefore, we change from the heart. It is like getting rid of a poisonous tree. If we want to put an end to it, we uproot it altogether so it cannot grow again. Why exert ourselves to no avail by pulling out its leaves one by one and cutting it twig by twig? The best way to reform our faults is through cultivating our hearts. If we are willing to cultivate our hearts, then it is possible to purify our faults right away.

Narrator: This is because wrongdoings originate from the heart.

Liao-Fan: Purifying the heart can erase all improper and bad thoughts before they are carried out in action. If my heart is pure, I can recognize and stop an improper thought as soon as it arises. The immoral idea will disappear the moment I am conscious of it.

If I am unable to succeed at reforming a fault through changing the heart, then I will try at the level of understanding, knowing the reasons why I need to make the change. If I cannot succeed with this, then I will try to reform by changing through action and force the thought to dissipate.

The best way is by cultivating the heart and understanding the reason behind the need to change. The alternative way is forcing ourselves not to commit the wrongdoing again. Sometimes all three methods have to be used to succeed at reforming a fault.

Narrator: It is foolish to dismiss the best way, which is to reform from the heart and attach to the inferior way of reforming through action.

Liao-Fan: But even when one vows to change, assistance is needed to truly reform. We will need constant reminders from true friends who are witnesses to our actions in everyday life. As for our good and bad thoughts, we can ask the spirits and gods to be our witness.

I practice this by writing down all my faults and reporting them to the earth, spirits, heavens and gods. We also need to regret sincerely and wholeheartedly from morning to night without laxity. If we can sincerely regret from one to two weeks, then one to three months, continuing this way, then we will definitely attain results and benefits.

Narrator: What are the benefits of contrition? We may feel very much at ease and our hearts may feel light and generous. A person of low intelligence may suddenly become wise. Another might maintain a clear and relaxed mind even in a disturbing and confusing environment. We would also feel a great knowledge of everything.

We would be able to drive out all hatred upon seeing an enemy and maintain a happy attitude. We may dream of spitting out black things; a sign of expelling improper thoughts and negative energy, leaving the heart much cleaner and purer. We may also dream of the ancient sages or saints who have come to promote and help us or we may dream of flying in space without a care in the world. We may also dream of all kinds of colorful flags and ornately decorated canopies. These unusual phenomena are all indications of a successful reform and dissolving of past offenses.

Liao-Fan: However, one must not consider seeing these phenomena as a sign of perfection. Instead, one must resolve to further improve the self and put forth greater effort to reform.

During the Spring-Autumn period of China’s history, there was a high senior government official in Wei, named Bwo-Yu Chu. When he was twenty, he was already mindful of his past faults. He studied his mistakes and tried to correct them thoroughly. At the age of twenty-one, he felt he still had not completely corrected all his faults. When he was twenty-two, he felt as if twenty-one was spent dreamily, without practical improvement.

Thus, year after year, he continued to correct his faults. When he reached fifty, Bwo-Yu still felt that the past forty-nine years were full of wrongdoings.

Narrator: This was how particular our ancestors were regarding the correction of faults!

Liao-Fan: We are all just ordinary people and our mistakes are as numerous as the spines on a porcupine. Oftentimes when we look back, we do not even see our own faults. This is because we are careless and do not know how to reflect on our own actions. It is as if a cataract is growing in our eye. We become so blind that we cannot even see that we are making mistakes everyday! There are also indications when people have accumulated too many offenses and wrongdoings.

Narrator: One’s heart may feel confused and oppressed, lacking energy and spirit. One becomes extremely forgetful, full of worries and feels embarrassed and depressed upon meeting a virtuous person. One becomes displeased at hearing proper reasoning and when showing kindness to others, is in turn treated with hostility. One will constantly have nightmares where everything is upside-down and will talk incoherently and behave abnormally. These are the symptoms of those who have accumulated too many offenses and transgressions!

Liao-Fan: If we have any of the above symptoms, we can immediately gather our willpower and reform all faults. It is necessary to form a new life and not delay!