Yuan Liao Fan, Author of "Liao Fan's Four Lessons," Changes His Fate and Destiny Through Meditation
This article is excerpted from my book Move Forward: Powerful Strategies for Creating Better Outcomes in Life
For those who believe in karma, there is a famous eastern tale of spirituality, rooted in Buddhism and Confucianism, that teaches people how to change their fate, fortune and destiny. You can find the entire story in the book Liao Fan’s Four Lessons, written by Yuan Liao Fan.
The story goes that during China’s Ming dynasty (in the 1500s), an ordinary man named Yuan Liao Fan started to study medicine to become a doctor. His mother had persuaded him to study the healing arts instead of studying to pass the imperial civil service examinations because it would be a good way for him to support himself while helping others.
During a chance meeting during a meditation retreat, Liao Fan met an elderly fortune teller named Kong who told Liao Fan that he shouldn’t be studying medicine because he was destined to become a government official. During that time all government positions were attained by passing the special imperial exams, and Kong asked him, “Why aren’t you studying for the government examinations?”
It was surprising to Liao Fan that a perfect stranger could know anything about his life and fate to make such a suggestion. Liao Fan and his mother initially didn’t believe Kong and his forecasting abilities, but decided to test him on all sorts of predictions. Using the strange method of Iron Abacus Numerology developed by the sage Shao Kangjie, which calculates out the index numbers of sentences in a special book that reveals your fated fortune, they found that Kong’s predictions on all sorts of matters, great and small, were always accurate.
As a result, Liao Fan started studying for the imperial exams as Kong had recommended. Kong said he would pass with the rank of 14th place in the county exam, 71st in the regional exam and 9th in the provisional exam; and Liao Fan passed the examinations exactly as predicted.
Kong then calculated predictions for the rest of Liao Fan’s life including all the years he would pass civil service exams and in what location, the years he would attain various government promotions, what they would be, and so on. The Iron Abacus Numerology method had revealed that his final appointment in life would be as a magistrate in Sichuan province serving for three and a half years, after which he would retire, return home and die at age fifty-three on a particular date without any heirs.
Being a well educated man, Liao Fan continued to view those predictions with skepticism, but everything happened exactly as predicted for five consecutive years. There was even an amazing prediction that he would be promoted after receiving a ration of 259 bushels of rice. He was actually recommended for a promotion after receiving only 200 bushels, so he started to doubt the prediction. However, a new boss turned down the recommendation. Some time later a new commissioner promoted him after reviewing his case and he got his new post after receiving exactly the amount of rice that had been calculated. Kong’s amazing predictions had proved to be one hundred percent accurate, and from that point on Liao Fan deeply believed that everything in life was fated. Everything, he felt, happened in due time according to fate, including the length of one’s life span.
Hinduism, Jainism, Yoga, Taoism, Buddhism and many other eastern spiritual schools certainly believe in karma, and that you come into this world with a life span that is fated. As the length of your life is fated, so they say that the number of your breaths is fated as well. However, they also teach that hard work and merit can change this predetermined amount. In other words, you can change your fate and fortune.
According to the karmic principles of causality, the merit you bring with you when you are born is fixed unless you work throughout life to increase it or replenish it. If you squander your merit in foolish activities then you will simply waste life without accomplishing anything new at all. If you cultivate a kind mind of charity and giving, however, then because there is no limit to your mind at the moment of giving then the rewards you receive in response can be equally as great as that expanse. In other words, what you achieve in life will all depend on your mindset and efforts.
Liao Fan, however, started to believe that health and sickness, life and death, marriage and divorce, wealth and poverty and all other aspects of life were perfectly fixed. Believing in fate and predestination, he began to view everything in a detached manner and ceased to seek gain or profit or any special achievements out of the ordinary.
Liao Fan was eventually selected as an imperial student, and was sent to the University of Beijing to study for one year where he began the practice of meditation in earnest. With practice he achieved some progress where he could sit with his mind in silence.
Afterwards he went to Nanjing for one year where he happened to attend a meditation retreat with Zen Master Yungu. Master Yungu saw him meditate for three days and nights without much sleep and asked him why he had become so excellent at sitting without any wandering thoughts or mental attachments. Master Yungu said, “The reason why ordinary people cannot become enlightened is because they hold to meandering thoughts. In our three-day meditation I have not observed you succumb to any such wandering thoughts. Why is that?”
Liao Fan replied, “The entire outcome of my life has been accurately predicted and the timing of everything is predestined. Everything such as promotion or failure and even life and death are fated so there is no need for me to desire any goals. I already know how everything will unfold. Because of fate there is no room for other results than what is already fated so there is no need for me to desire anything. It is useless to even think about it, so it is easy for my mind to become naturally settled.”
Master Yungu then slapped him with the words, “I thought you were someone of special capability because you were able to sit (meditate) well with very few meandering thoughts, but now I see from your answer that you are no more than a common person.”
The Zen master explained that most people are entirely subject to fate. They merely chase after external achievements without turning inwards to cultivate their minds, and so they are bound to their karma. At most they only attain in life what fate has already entitled them to achieve and enjoy. Even an extraordinarily talented person is still bound by their prior destiny when they don’t bother to cultivate their freedom from old habits, patterns of behavior and attachments.
A person’s fate is truly created by his own past thoughts and deeds just as the returns you receive in life are indeed the fruit of your karma. If someone attains one million dollars in this life it is because they have cultivated the good fortune worthy of that amount.
Therefore if you want to achieve more than what you already have in store then you have to act in such a way that your destiny will be re-created. Positive efforts can slowly carve out a new reward that modifies fate and creates a new pattern of destiny. You must simply take charge of the process. You must detach from the karmic thoughts and propensities that carve out a predestined fate and go against his grain of those energies to create a new future. Only meditation can teach you how to disassociate from or ignore the thoughts that would normally control you along a destined causeway.
“You can live life as though everything is predestined and fated,” Zen master Yungu explained, “using up whatever stores you have in your karmic merit bank until it is empty and your life ends, or you can cultivate good thoughts and do good deeds to replenish your merits and move ahead. By so doing you will accumulate positive karma and this merit will result in magnifying your life and the lives of those around you.
“If you want to change your fortune you should not give in to wandering thoughts. Then you will most easily receive a response. Only a mind empty of wandering thoughts that jump from here to there can transcend the predetermination of mathematics. Otherwise an individual will tend to be bound by destiny.
“When your mind reaches a stage of emptiness, or non-attachment, that is where you will be able to create a new fortune and destiny since within the formlessness of non-attachment to what arises there is as yet no set pattern. You are not attaching to your old karmic thought patterns when you practice the formlessness of detachment. When our spiritual cultivation and self-cultivation reaches a certain level of mental excellence in this respect then our destiny will certainly change. The change will depend upon your accumulation of merits and upon seeking a response (help) from (the beings in) Heaven.”
“Furthermore,” Yungu said, “destiny simply cannot control those who have accomplished numerous exemplary deeds. For twenty years you have been bound by Mr. Kong’s predictions and done nothing to change them, so you are just an ordinary person. Since you have not cultivated extremely good deeds then your life has accorded with exactly what had been predicted. If you subject yourself to a disciplined course of action that moves you forward despite your old thought patterns that hold you back in your old predestined fortune, then you can attain whatever you seek by re-creating your destiny rather than being constrained by a fortune.”
Liao Fan listened respectfully to Master Yungu but objected, saying that fame, wealth and prestige might be attainable through seeking, but their seeking and attainment were probably already predestined. Therefore, non-attainment or failure was also probably fated regardless of any efforts we made.
This makes some sense, because according to karmic theory the desire for most things arises from previous lives. Therefore one would exert great effort to attain those desires as the materialization of that karma. (In other words, your efforts and their outcome are both already karmically fated.) If you choose to seek something that you were not supposed to have, in that case the seeking would be useless, but it would still be karma that caused you to make the fruitless effort.
This is what Liao Fan argued: if you are not supposed to have something, then regardless of how hard you seek you will not get it.
Referencing the teachings of the Zen school and Confucianism, Master Yungu explained that everything starts from the mind and everything is experienced within consciousness. If we were to seek first from within the mind and build an outcome there, then starting from the inner we will have an actual chance to build a fortune in the outer world that is not already predestined. The mind is by nature empty, and if we build from its foundations of formlessness then we can bring something new into the real world.
All seeking must start from the mind, which is an instrument subject to changes. If we could stay continually concentrated with our thoughts along a proper course or reach a state where thoughts were entirely absent, we would create an opportunity where fate would no longer bind us and we could actively create a new fortune.
Yes, you can seek and attain something not destined in your life, but such a goal requires that you become an active, disciplined doer. You need to pursue the goal with grit and perseverance and ignore wandering thoughts that sidetrack you from your goals. You must avoid being someone whose motivation sways and who ends up following directionless meandering thoughts. The jumpy monkey’s mind we harbor that leaps from place to place lacks the concentration necessary to produce high outcomes in life. Instead of allowing your own mind to harbor scattered thoughts like a monkey’s, you must become a channeled thinker and doer.
This is an approach that is utterly practical and scientific.
After having convinced Liao Fan that he needed to change his ways, Master Yungu then introduced him to a the method of keeping a ledger of merits and demerits - a daily ledger for recording his good deeds and faults - so that he might track his efforts at changing his fortune. This was designed to help Liao Fan work on polishing his mind and promote inner qualities such as virtue, honesty, integrity, mercy and kindness. He had to start becoming less selfish and perform more charitable deeds since this would, by the laws of karma, create a new stock of merit which he could spend, like money, on achieving the results he wanted.
In the system Yungu recommended, Liao Fan was to record both his good and bad deeds (including thoughts) for each day in order to learn how to govern his behavior and his mind. One good deed cancelled out one bad deed and the net result for each day would be either positive or negative. These were recorded and the accumulation of the results showed him if he was making progress at changing himself or not.
Liao Fan was also taught to recite a mantra requesting help from heaven in his efforts. He was taught that it would help him watch his mind, correct his behavior, do good deeds and create opportunities for changing his fortune as desired.
Upon receiving this lesson, Liao Fan regretted his incorrect notions. He looked carefully at his life, taking stock of his errant habits and behaviors, and acknowledged that they had prevented him from getting ahead and were responsible for a large portion of his bad fortune. Overall, he recognized how his character faults of being harsh, impatient, intolerant, self-indulgent, quick-tempered and undisciplined had contributed to his inability to progress as much as he wanted in life. Liao Fan also had to admit that he drank too much and at night stayed up too late, which harmed his vital energy.
Additionally, Liao Fan recognized that he lacked loving-kindness and would not sacrifice anything for others; and that this was a serious character fault. He also recognized that he was doing little or nothing to benefit society and help those who were suffering. He was too fond of gossip and liked criticizing others. He often spoke angrily without restraint which ended in quarrels and destroyed various chances. He was impatient and narrow-minded in not being able to accept others. He would show off his intelligence and abilities by putting others down, thus creating bad feelings and destroying relationships. He was not working towards accumulating any of the virtues that would build up a stock of good merit and help him go against fortune to get promoted beyond his calculated fate.
Liao Fan sincerely regretted his faults and ways of doing things. This sincere regret and his vow to personally change then became the key to changing his destiny. As you probably know, you must become aware of your mistakes before you can correct them and Liao Fan finally saw his errors for what they were. Like clearing a garden of weeds so that the crops can grow unencumbered, you should work at eliminating personal faults that stand in the way of a better future just as you must work at eliminating obstacles (or transcending challenges) that block any road of achievement you are on.
Master Yungu had stated, “After you recognize your shortcomings, you need to do all you can to change and correct your misdeeds that have prevented you from attaining any fortune you are after. To correct faults is to improve in your self-cultivation.”
Liao Fan determined that he would change his fortune. He would make the effort. He would try to move ahead. He would change his destiny through a positive push and would follow Master Yungu’s teachings to do so.
Master Yungu had taught him that a person had to change himself in order to change his fortune, and also needed to perform good deeds and practice virtuous behaviors to do so. In front of a Buddha statue, Liao Fan then vowed to reform his ways (cultivate to change himself) and pledged 3,000 good deeds if Heaven would help him pass a higher imperial exam than what was fated.
Amazingly, fortune teller Kong’s predictions, that had so far been accurate down to the tiniest detail, then started to lose their accuracy. Thus, in the next preliminary imperial exam Liao Fan took 1st place where he was supposed to take 3rd place, and in the Autumn he passed an exam which Kong predicted would not be possible. This is what you can also expect for yourself if, like Caesar, you determine what you must do to change your fate and with an unwavering mind set out to achieve it; and if, like Liao Fan you undertake in a discipline fashion to change yourself and your behavior in the process.
After ten years of constant effort, Liao Fan’s 3,000 good deeds were finally accumulated as he had vowed and he respectfully dedicated them at a temple, demonstrating both his respect and thanks to Heaven for its assistance. Similarly, some people examine their daily tally of merits and demerits in the evening just before bed and ritualistically dedicate their efforts (at change and accomplishment) to Heaven at that time.
Inspired by these successes, Liao Fan continued his cultivation. Because he wished for a son, which was not included in his fortune, Liao Fan vowed to perform another 3,000 good deeds which together with his wife he accumulated in four year’s time. Against fate they finally received a child they had hoped for – their son Yuan Tian Chi.
Liao Fan then vowed to perform 10,000 more good deeds if Heaven could help him pass a yet higher imperial examination degree, and after three years he succeeded and promoted to become mayor of the city of Baodi. These passing marks and his subsequent appointment were also in excess of his predicted fate.
In his new position Liao Fan did not have as many opportunities as previously to perform good deeds and worried that he could not complete his vow. However, one night he dreamed that lowering the taxes for the county was equivalent to 10,000 good deeds, but he did not trust this type of thinking. Doubting that this could produce such great merit, he asked a visiting Zen master who told him, “A single kind deed done with a pure heart can be worth that much or more. Since 10,000 people are going to benefit if you lower the taxes, of course this would earn you great merit.”
Liao Fan originally had the fortune that he would die at age fifty-three without a male heir, but he begat a son, lived two decades or more beyond his allotted time span, and achieved a position far higher than what fate had originally intended. He wrote his entire story in Liao Fan’s Four Lessons, which I often recommend to others, detailing how he changed his fortune and destiny.
Liao Fan explained that fortune and destiny definitely exist, as does karma, but this is not widely believed because it is hard for people to trace an outcome or event to its original sources.
Furthermore, fate, fortune and karma are changeable but the power to change them comes from you because they ultimately originate from yourself. You are the one who created them so you also have the power to change them.
As long as you are willing to reform the habits that distract you from the outcome you seek, apply yourself with determination (along a wise and skillful road of achievement), practice kind words, deeds and thoughts to accumulate virtue and merits, then there is nothing that you cannot achieve. Your own efforts to create good fortune will bear personal fruit that no one can take away from you. You can then use those merits for positive accomplishments.
The ancient sages who revealed the rules of astrology and fortune telling taught that while there is such a thing as fate, we can also certainly change it - otherwise there would be no point to knowing it. If everything was predestined, what would be the point of astrology and systems like Iron Abacus Numerology or the I-Ching that teach us how to guide the changes of life to bring about what we seek?
You can actively transform your fate into a new fortune that defies destiny rather than be bound by it. Liao Fan’s story shows us how:
First, practice meditation to increase your powers of self-awareness. Through careful introspection, determine what faults, errors or habits are obstacles to achieving the fortune you seek and start working to cut them off. The Immortal Li Qingyun said, “Don’t be afraid of having thoughts. Just be afraid of not being aware of your thoughts that arise. Having wicked (non-virtuous) or wrong thoughts is a sickness. Stopping them is the cure. Once errant thoughts are stopped, they will be cured and other wicked thoughts won’t arise.”
By eliminating faults and errant thought habits that stand in the way of achieving a particular fortune, we thereby pave the way for its achievement because the obstacles preventing it are eliminated. Even if you don’t achieve the new fate you want, eliminating faults through mindfulness and self-awareness is like cutting and polishing a diamond where the practice itself has the reward of self-perfection.
Increased awareness also enables you to see opportunities to make progress along your personal path and do more good in the world. Doing good deeds may seem tangential from, or separate from the actions you need to get ahead, and yet they often create positive circumstances that might mysteriously help you in accomplishing your goals. In inexplicable ways they can create the merit necessary for you to strike out on a new road of achievement.
Second, once you decide to embark upon a new road of change and achievement you will need to establish a system to help you maintain that initial drive and motivating spark of ignition. Liao Fan’s ledger book of merits and demerits for recording your daily efforts will be very effective in helping you to maintain your motivation to keep progressing. This type of daily journal will serve as the means to keep you on course and always moving forward. It is like a compass that maintains your direction and like a motor that powers your movement.
Third, ask for help from Heaven in your efforts. In the west people commonly recite daily prayers asking for Heaven’s watchful eyes and blessings. In Liao Fan’s case he daily recited the powerful Zhunti mantra of Buddhism (Namah saptanam samyak sambuddha kotinam tadyatha om cale cule cundi svaha), which is known for helping people change their fortunes. From India and China come many types of mantras that request help from higher powers (spiritual beings) to assist us in changing our fortunes, such as Mahakala or Kubera for wealth matters, Manjushri and Saraswati for wisdom matters, Shiva and Buddha for enlightenment, or Bhaisajyaguru (the “Medicine Buddha”) for sickness.
The choice whether to seek good fortune or bring about adversity, to create a new life or simply accept what fate brings you, the choice whether to create a particular outcome or drift along with whatever comes is all up to you.
The Yoga Vasistha of ancient India says that what we call fate or divine will is nothing other than the result of our efforts of the past, but our present actions have infinitely more power and potential than the past in changing this. Our present actions have the power to change any karma that is already fated. Setting out to change a “fixed” result will doubtless encounter friction, however, so one must throw away wandering thoughts on such a path, cultivation grit and concentration, and devotedly keep to a course of action that will capture the desired outcome.
Indian culture says that if you see that the present self-effort towards a goal is sometimes thwarted by what people call fate, keep on striving because it just means that your current efforts are weak. A man’s actions indeed move along the lines that his own karma traces for him, but he is also free to fashion new karma as well that can be experienced in this life. It is there for the choosing. As Caesar showed, determinism exists only to the extent that we do not make an effort. A weak willed man simply gives up and does nothing to change his circumstances, ignorantly attributing everything that happens to God (rather than his personal karma) when it is really up to him and his efforts to carve out a new fortune.
Those people who are satisfied with their fate, who believe change is impossible, or who are satisfied with the fruits of their past efforts will never have the motivation for self-efforts. It is necessary to make a constant effort to move forward to an uncharted future, and you will doubtless encounter difficulties and obstacles. But you cannot stop if you really want a new fortune. You must persevere to move ahead. If you are not ready to stand the course, if you don’t use a method that keeps you fused to forward progress, then you are unlikely to move forwards despite your best wishes, hopes and intentions.
In short, destiny, fate, and fortune do exist but can be changed through proper cultivation. You are the force that brings good fortune or adversity yourself, and it is possible to change your fortune by taking material steps and spiritually significant action.
First, make the resolution to change and reform your behavior. Second, chart a course of actions to undertake and a way to monitor your efforts so that the feedback helps you stay on track. Third, begin the efforts.
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