The Master said, “What a worthy man was Yan Hui! Living in a narrow alley, subsisting on a basket of grain and gourd full of water — other people could not have borne such hardship, yet it never spoiled Hui’s joy. What a worthy man was Hui!” (Analects 6.11, tr. Slingerland)
Yan Hui was Confucius’ favorite student, the most naturally virtuous and intelligent person he had ever met. When Yan Hui died young, the Master was inconsolable. This Analect tells us everything we need to know about his character. It is the character not of someone mindlessly happy (do such people exist?), but of someone who is serene and clear in the knowledge that he is doing everything he is meant to be doing. The 11th century Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhou Dunyi comments, “Master Yan simply focused on what was important and forgot what was trivial. When you focus upon what is important, your heart is at peace; when your heart is at peace, you will fnd satisfaction in all things.”
A macrobiotic nutritionist, extolling the goodness of ordinary brown rice and lamenting the desire to complicate it with spices and additional tastes, once said to me that a healthy person finds simple things like brown rice and fresh bread tasty. Not needing extra stimulation, healthy taste buds are fully satisfied by a bowl of rice and water. It is not that Yan Hui’s elevated virtue enabled him to tolerate his poor man’s diet; to other people it would have been hardship, but to him this diet was abundant. The insight of this Analect is that even though Yan Hui might have been a man of poor physical health, it was his moral and spiritual health that freed him up to find contentment in the simple.