Introduction to a New Series: Chinese Stories of Character Strengths
What do these books have in common? Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Bhagavad-Gita, Hebrew Bible, Plato’s Apology and Republic, New Testament, Pollyanna.
The answer is, they all appeared in the reading list of Positive Interventions, a course in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) that I took in 2009. They made the list because, as the instructor Dr. James Pawelski would beautifully show, they all talk about human positive transformation.
But one of my first responses was actually, “They are all not Chinese books!”I had this response because I am a Chinese, and I read a lot of Chinese books. This feeling only became stronger in the following MAPP studies. Since positive psychology originated and mainly grew in Western countries, it naturally looks for intellectual sources and illustrations from Western culture. The wisdom and stories from other cultures are relatively less represented in positive psychology books, courses, and research.
This series is my attempt to introduce positive psychology stories from the culture I am most familiar with. The series will comprise 24 stories, one for each character strength listed in Peterson and Seligman’s book, Character Strengths and Virtues. The authors reviewed literature from major cultures around the whole world to select character strengths that reflect universal human values. But the paragon stories in the book are predominantly Western. I hope this series can be a small supplement to the global picture of human strengths.
Persistence: the Six Japan Voyages of Jianzhen
Let’s start with persistence. Peterson and Seligman define persistence as “voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement.” The paragon story in the book is about John D. Rockefeller landing his first job at the age of 16. When all employers in his list turned him down, he started over from the beginning of his list, and eventually was hired by a company executive who was impressed by his persistence.
A flight from Shanghai to Tokyo takes 3 hours. If you go by boat, that would be 2 days. In the eighth century, the trip was much longer, but you could still finish it after one or two months at sea. However, for Jianzhen, the journey took 11 years, included six voyages, and was accompanied by failures, arrests, deaths, betrayals, and loss of eyesight.
Jianzhen was born in Yangzhou (a city about 150 miles northwest of Shanghai) in AD 688. He entered the prestigious Daming Buddhism Temple at the age of fourteen, and became its abbot as well as a nationally famous monk after thirty years of learning and service. At that time, Buddhism was flourishing in China, but in Japan, it was still at an early stage. In October 742, a Japanese emissary lead by two monks named Rongrui and Puzhao came to the Daming Temple to invite Jianzhen to lecture in Japan.Jianzhen asked for his disciples’ opinions. All kept silent. Jianzhen said, “This is for Buddhism, which is more important than life. If no one wants to go, I will go alone.”
Some of his disciples were moved to join him. But they actually had good reasons to hesitate. The journey to Japan took more than one month at that time – if you were lucky. It was not rare that a boat or even a whole fleet was destroyed by the waves and storms. Furthermore, the Chinese government had strict regulations on sailing overseas to combat piracy. No boat was allowed to sail without permission.
The first voyage
The Japanese monks received permission, so they started to build a boat for the journey. However, a quarrel broke out between one of Jianzhen’s disciples and a Korean member of the Japanese emissary, who was so infuriated that he reported to the government that Jianzhen built the boat to collude with pirates. The government arrested all the monks. Though they were soon found innocent, the Japanese monks were ordered to leave China immediately by themselves.
The second voyage
Rongrui and Puzhao asked Jianzhen what to do. Jianzhen answered: “Don’t worry. Let’s try other means until we succeed.” He used his own money to purchase a boat and hire sailors. Three months later, they set off eastbound on the Yangtze River, only to encounter a big storm that broke the boat even before they hit the sea. They disregarded this bad sign, fixed the boat, and sailed again. The boat was blown away by a strong wind to a wild island. They almost starved to death there, before they were rescued and taken to a local temple at Ningbo five days later.
The third voyage
The local temple of Ningbo – about 250 miles away from Jianzhen’s home Yangzhou – was overjoyed by the surprise appearance of the famous Jianzhen. They asked him to lecture in that area for almost one year. But Jianzhen’s determination to disseminate Buddhism in Japan stayed unchanged. He was intent on going to Japan. After finding all persuasion futile, the local monks reported to the government that the Japanese monks were “abducting” Jianzhen. Rongrui was arrested, but escaped later, and went back to Jianzhen’s group.
The fourth voyage
Jianzhen’s next attempt failed similarly. This time, the informant was from his home Daming Temple. Jianzhen claimed to go south to Fujian, but actually planned to go to Japan from Fujian. This plot was leaked by the Daming monks to the government. Jianzhen and his disciples were escorted back to Yangzhou.
The fifth voyage
Jianzhen finally realized how difficult his mission was. He had to face obstacles not only from the violent sea and the hostile government, but also from his admirers and followers. But all these frustrations didn’t defeat Jianzhen. He just decided to do it more carefully.
It took Jianzhen four years to prepare for the next voyage. This time, they finally sneaked out successfully onto the sea. But this voyage wasn’t any luckier. They were hit by a big storm. They floated on the sea for 17 days. When they finally saw land, it turned out to be Hainan, the southernmost place of China, more than 1500 miles further away from Japan than Yangzhou.
Jianzhen was warmly received by the local monks and people. However, Japan was the only destination in Jianzhen’s mind. He spent the next three years on the long way back to Yangzhou. It took so long because he was invited and retained everywhere. Many things happened in this long journey. Some of his followers died, including Rongrui. The other Japanese monk, Puzhao, finally lost faith in this mission and left. Upon his departure, Jianzhen swore to Puzhao, “My wish is to disseminate Buddhism beyond the sea. I will pursue this wish until I arrive in Japan.”
To make things worse, he became blind due to an eye disease he picked up on the road.The sixth voyage
Two years later, a new opportunity emerged. An official Japanese emissary went to Yangzhou and invited Jianzhen to Japan. Jianzhen was still prohibited to go abroad. Some said that’s because the Chinese emperor didn’t want to risk his life. Others speculated a completely contradictory reason, that the Chinese emperor was a Taoist who had offered to send Taoism teachers to Japan. After the offer was rejected, he prohibited Buddhists to go either.
So Jianzhen had to sneak to Suzhou, a harbor city, to meet with the Japanese emissary. The Japanese hid him in a smaller boat rather than having him sail together with the emissary official on the big boat, to prevent detection by Chinese officials. This decision turned out to work well. A storm hit the fleet. The emissary official’s boat was blown to Vietnam, while the Jianzhen’s smaller boat landed at Japan successfully. Finally.Jianzhen’s arrival was phenomenally important to Japanese Buddhism. He brought many examples of Buddhist literature, set up rules for Japanese monks and temples, originated a new school in Japanese Buddhism, and even promoted medicines in Japan. It was said that he could distinguish between medical herbs by mere smelling.
In China, Jianzhen is a symbol of persistence. When first invited to Japan, he was 54 years old and the abbot in a prestigious temple. Yet he risked everything he had, including his life, for a dangerous mission. When he arrived in Japan, he was 65 years old and blind, having suffered repeated frustrations and failures in the past decade. That’s the nature of persistence. But then he was widely respected by Japanese, from the royal family to ordinary lay people. He was named “the Master Monk” and “the Sea-crossing Monk.” That’s the power of persistence.
Chinese character for happiness courtesy of Jonas Merian
Statue of Jianzhen from Japanese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen. Photograph taken by Ogawa Seiyou
Jianzhen Memorial Hall from the Chinese wikipedia entry for Jianzhen.
Ningbo Ashoka Temple – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.
Map of Jianzhen’s voyages – made by Yukun Zhao.
Jianzhen’s sixth voyage to Japan – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.
Toshodaiji Temple – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.
Omi, M., (779). The East Journeys of the Chinese Master Monk.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia (2011). Jianzhen.