There was a teacher named Yu Du, courtesy name Liangchen, from Jiangxi Province who lived during the Jiajing era (1522 – 1566 AD), under the rule of Emperor Shizong (1507 – 1567 AD) during the Ming Dynasty. At the age of eighteen, Yu Du passed the county-level imperial examination and became a xiucai ("licentiate," someone who passed the annual county-level exams). Because of his poor background, he established a learning center with several friends. During this period, he participated in the provincial-level imperial examination seven times but failed to become a juren ("recommended man," someone who passed the once every three years provincial-level exams).
Yu Du had five sons and four daughters. Four of the five sons became ill and died. The third son was a healthy and intelligent boy. Unfortunately, he disappeared at the age of eight when he was playing outside. Of the four daughters, only one survived. Mrs. Yu went blind from crying so much. The learning center had to be closed because it was not generating enough income. As Yu Du became more impoverished, he thought, "I have not made great mistakes in my life, why is heaven punishing me?"
Every day, Yu Du wrote letters and prayed to the kitchen god to send his message to heaven. After many years, there was no response. During the eve of Chinese New Year, the 47-year-old Yu Du borrowed some grain and sat down dejectedly in the middle of the empty house with his blind wife and daughter. As they sat together in sorrow, someone knocked on the door. Yu Du opened the door and saw an old man wearing a turban and black clothing. The old man said, "My surname is Zhang, and I came from far away. I heard that your family is going through hardship, so I came to console you." Yu Du replied respectfully, "I've studied my whole life but have not achieved any success. My family repeatedly suffered from mishaps, and I can hardly support them."
Mr. Zhang replied, "I've known about your situation for a long time. You only care about achieving fame and you have ill intentions. Your letters are full of resentment. I'm afraid your punishments are not over." Yu Du was taken by surprise and said, "I made a vow a long time ago to do good deeds, why were my efforts futile?" Mr. Zhang said, "For example, in your letter you mentioned that you wanted to save paper. However, when your students and friends used papers from old books to wrap goods and to wipe the table, you never advised them to seek an alternative. You merely picked up a few sheets of paper from the street, and burned them to show others. What good does that do?
You said you wanted to mind your speech. Instead, you are argumentative, use unkind words, and even ridicule others. All your words and mistakes have been recorded by the gods, and you claim that you live a simple and upright life. Aren't you deceiving yourself and others?
Although you have not done anything licentious, every time you see a beautiful woman, you look at her from head to toe, your heart is moved, and you would not rid yourself of your ill thoughts. Nevertheless, you claim that you never have lustful thoughts. How can you face heaven and earth like this? And this is what you've done to fulfill the vows you've made. I cannot imagine how poorly you've done in other areas of your life.
I have submitted your daily prayers to the gods in heaven, and the gods have sent a messenger to watch what you've done. They discovered that you did not carry out any good deeds in the last few years, and when you were alone, they saw that your heart was full of jealousy, resentment, desire for success, profit, reward, greed, disregard for others, and lack of self-control. All your bad thoughts have been recorded, and the punishment from heaven will become worse and worse. You won't even be able to avoid these hardships, so how can you ask for good fortune and rewards?"
Upon hearing that, Yu Du was very frightened. He cried and asked, "Since you know everything I've done, you must be the kitchen god that I prayed to. Please help me!" Zhang replied, "You've studied the books and know some principles, thus, you should understand the principle of 'good deeds are met with rewards.' However, because you cannot persevere, therefore, everything you did was superficial and you drifted along with the current of the society. So, why don't you do something for real? From now on, you should rid yourself of all ill thoughts and cultivate a kind heart. Do not seek rewards and do not pursue fame and profit. No matter how big or small the task, or how difficult things are, you must do good deeds in earnest. Eventually, you will gain unexpected results. I'm telling you this because your family truly believes in the gods. As long as you do good deeds, then you can change heaven's will." After that, Zhang walked toward the stove and disappeared. Yu Du realized that Zhang was indeed the kitchen god.
Ever since then, Yu Du changed his previous behaviors and continued to rid himself of ill intentions. Everything he did and said was done as if the gods were watching, and he did not deceive himself or lose self-control. Eventually, he was able to act with compassion and to maintain a mind free of ill intention. He tried his best to perform good deeds and to help others regardless of the tasks, whether he was busy or not, or whether others knew about it or not. Whenever he met people, he tirelessly advised them to do good deeds, to sincerely believe in gods, and the principle of "good deeds are met with rewards, and bad deeds are met with retribution."
Three years later, several people recommended Yu Du to teach at the capital. While teaching at the capital, Yu Du received high regards from the prime minister, Zhang Jiangling, and was recommended to enter taixue ("Great Study," the highest rank of educational establishment in ancient China). The following year, Yu Du passed the highest-level examination and became a jinshi ("presented scholar," someone who passed the once every three years examination held at the capital and proctored by the emperor). One day by pure chance, he found his long-lost son. Later on, Mrs. Yu suddenly regained her sight. People admired Yu Du's noble character and sent their children to study with him. Everyone thought that this was Yu Du's reward for doing good deeds.
The heavenly law is absolutely fair. Although one's destiny is determined by heaven, the result depends on one's own efforts. The prerequisite is for one to become enlightened and to earnestly believe in heaven. One should cherish blessings from heaven and continue to perform good deeds to extend the good fortune into the future.