Dear Elders and Friends,

This is an essay my mother wrote to me in 1993. I share it with you so that we can continue to learn from her wisdom.


What is Life?
by Cheng Tzi Jem
© 1993

Dear son Jason,

This time since returning to U.S., you asked me to write an essay regarding the Meaning of Life to pass on to future generations.

Life can't pass 100 years. We say life is long but it's not long. We say it's short, but it's not that short either. If you think life is long, you can use countless words, but words can't suffice to explain it all.

In short, you can explain "What is Life" in these eight simple words: birth, aged, sickness, death, apart, together, sadness, happiness.

The Buddhist concept of life is expressed by this saying: Humans have seven emotions and six desires.

The seven emotions are: happiness, anger, sadness, joy, love, disgust, hope.

The six desires: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and spirit.
If you set aside these human emotions and desires, your life can be much more relaxed and free willed. You can be considered for enlightenment.

What is life? How can we be happy? How can we pursue happiness in our lives? Taoist philosophy answers this by helping us balance material existence versus our spiritual consciousness. Zhuang Zi tells this story: "I had a dream that I was a happy butterfly. I was conscious and I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know who I was. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly myself. But I did not know whether it was me dreaming that I was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was me." If a person can untangle him or herself not only from their material existence but also from human relationships and desires, then he or she will be more at peace and be more in touch with their spirit.

Taoism deals with escaping material existence to reduce life's frustrations. In contrast, Confucius is concerned mainly with our human world and how to deal with the reality of everyday life. He teaches us with his own experience of personal growth: "When I was fifteen, I was dedicated to learning. At thirty, I wanted independence. At forty, I was self assured. At fifty, I understood the decrees from heaven. At sixty I could clearly hear the truth. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desires, without worrying about restrictions." One cannot escape these realities of life. He also teaches his students, "Before you can govern your world, you must first diligently study in order to build knowledge, be sincere in your thoughts, have a true heart and be good to your family. This is why Confucius' philosophy will never obsolete. He is the supreme teacher of teachers.

When I had my golden wedding anniversary with your father, we took a trip to England to celebrate. This trip commemorates our life together. But oh how quickly 50 years have disappeared! However, we still kept our memory and loving spirit as when we were young. Marriage is also an art. You have to nurture and manage it carefully. Respect each other. You must have mutual respect and trust, tolerance, compromise and love.

Your father and I lived through difficult times as drifters during the war. We left our home, our country and relatives. Our lives were dependent on each other. How could we nit pick about little things or even become enemies? "Peaceful family, 10,000 fortunes" that is my philosophy in raising a family. I hope my progeny, yourself and your family will put great emphasis on having a peaceful family life.

When a child is grown and leaves the nest, it is a saddest moment for the parents. Even though it is for the good of the child's future, who can not not bear the pain of separation? You and your next generation are fortunate. However, after being apart for so long, I can see you have grown to be a healthy and strong adult. Intelligent and playful, industrious. This is the greatest fulfillment for a parent.

A few days ago, you made a point to drive by our old neighborhood where we lived 30 years ago. Many past events seem like a hazy dream. The small trees in front of the house have also grown up strong and provide shade.

I also remember one evening with a dark sky and slippery road when it started to rain. I was on my way home from shopping, carrying a heavy bag, with no place to hide from the rain. Just as I was walking hastily along the road, a small umbrella came toward me and a little voice said, "Ma, I'm here!" and I looked down and it was you! You were only ten years old and you came on your own initiative. My heart felt limitless happiness. Today we toured our old neighborhood. When I looked around at the roads we have traveled, I was feeling quite nostalgic. From this we can see life's joys and sorrows have two sides. It is different with different people and different times. There is no absolute rule or law governing how one lives one's life.

My son, I hope you are a upstanding, righteous man. No guilt, no malice. No regrets, no fear. I remember in my old home back in China, there was a plaque that said, "Treat people and things with a good heart and generosity".

Study diligently, you will become knowledgeable, self reliant and strong. This will guide you to prosperous future generations.

Even though I have lived for so many years, I still do have a good definition of life. I only hope you have a happy marriage, live a wonderful life, cherish your good fortune and your fate. Whether a life is happy or worrisome, loving or hateful, affectionate or vengeful, good or bad, right or wrong, everything is up to you.

Confucius said, "A wise man is not confused, a good hearted person does not worry, a brave person is not afraid." Whether you are facing a person or the world, if you think intelligently and decisively, you will not be confused. If you can treat people with honesty and love, then you will not worry. If you can constantly enrich yourself, then you will not be afraid. If you have intelligence, a good heart and bravery, you will have achieved a glorious upstanding existence. Your parents will have limitless pride.

Someday, mom's body will leave you; but my heart and spirit will always be with you, always next to you, encourage you, love and protect you. I wish you good luck, happiness, good health and a wonderful life.

Mama, Oct. 15, 1993