— 不朽偈 (1)
As humans are not grass and trees,
when knowing their mistakes, they are able to change.
With spiritual nature never rotting,
even Zǎiyǔ became worthy.
— Verses On Immortality (1)
According to the Analects (论语), when Confucius (孔子) knew that his student Zǎiyǔ (宰予) was sleeping in daytime, when he should be attending his class instead, he famously uttered that ‘rotten wood cannot be carved’ (朽木不可雕). This is often taken to mean that he believed that some people are hopeless beyond redemption. However, when Zǎiyǔ realised his mistake of being indulgent, he strove hard, eventually becoming one of his top disciples, known for his eloquence and diligence. Even if Confucius did think some cannot improve, Zǎiyǔ’s example could have changed his mind.
Of course, if Zǎiyǔ was not reflective and repentant enough, he would indeed become more ‘like’ rotten wood, not solid enough for shaping into that which is exquisite. Yet, human beings are not like mere vegetation. Being sentient beings, the use of wood as an analogy for lazy humans is thus not the most ideal. While wood can become rotten to the core, according to the Buddha’s teachings, the true spiritual essence of sentient beings is their Buddha-nature. It is potential for purity that can never decay or disappear. (‘不朽’ can mean both ‘never rot’ and ‘immortal; everlasting’).
(As play with words associated with wood, ‘成材’ can mean both ‘become one worthy of respect’ and ‘become useful for timber’.) Confucius also taught that ‘Humans’ natures are close to one another, but in practice are far from one another.’ (性相近也，习相远也。) (‘习’ can also refer to ‘learning’ and ‘habits’.) What might be implied is that humans’ natures are similar to one another, though not necessarily the same, while it is due to how they are nurtured, (including by interpersonal, experiential and environmental influences), that they can be very different from one another. Thus, towards one another, may we have greater acceptance, patience and empathy.
In the Buddha’s teachings however, all sentient beings have the same Buddha-nature. This is the one source of universal and eternal hope for spiritual betterment, perfection and True Happiness. It is only due to the temporal presence of various negative habits that we are different from one another. The direct way for us to close the gap between our true nature and how we have been nurtured is by mindfulness of Buddha, to transform our negative habitual tendencies, to be positive ones, to be more and more at one with our pure potential to become Buddhas.
— 不朽偈 (2)
Their Buddha-nature is the same as one another’s,
but their habitual tendencies are far from one another’s.
With mindfulness of Buddha is Buddha-nature closer,
while evil habits depart further.
— Verses On Immortality (2)