2:25 am PST

On the internet, I read the story of a gaming addict who was really into strategy. He worked a full-time job by day, and played online games at night to relieve stress. In the world of the game he played, the player starts out with nothing, and seizes virtual goods and wealth as spoils of war, while accumulating experience points and leveling up. Over time, the player’s character makes gains in power and status, eventually rising to the status of overlord or emperor.

But the way the game is structured, leveling up and upgrading is an extremely tedious process, and requires the player to constantly engage enemy players in battle. Most players don’t have the free-time needed to achieve a high level, and a player can lose his progress if he is defeated in combat by a rival. Many players trade real money for experience points, virtual items, or character progress.

Not surprisingly, the game became a “pay-to-win” war of wallets. Players with less disposable cash were doomed to face a bitter defeat sooner or later. Nevertheless, many still struggled and tried to keep afloat, since they were loathe to waste the money they’d already put in.

This went on for years before the author realized that the whole thing had been a waste. Away from the computer, he found that everything in the virtual world that he had spent real money on – the leveling up, the items, the ranks – were worthless.

The ups and downs of his gaming career remind me of the traditional eastern belief that wealth, rank, and success in the secular world are bestowed in exchange for good karma, or what the Chinese call de (virtue).

Similar to what happens in the online world, behind the veil of our “real” world, all gains are bought and paid for using one’s virtue.

A painting of Qing Emperor Yong Zheng practicing Dao, the way to lighten human desires to pursue spiritual freedom.

Many think that winning the lottery and becoming a billionaire would be the best thing that could happen to them. Many consider it the greatest achievement in life to be a high-ranking official with great power. However, material prosperity is only temporary. It’s all gone at death. In exchange for those brief pleasures we lose virtue, which is invisible and intangible but vital nevertheless.

When the gamer realized that everything in the virtual world could only stay there, and couldn’t be taken by him to use in the real world, he regretted spending his hard-earned money for something that was make believe. Seen from a higher level, our life in this real world involves the same type of exchange. Aren’t we exchanging virtue, for material prosperity? Upon death, we are parted with our secular possessions of status, wealth, and rank. Won’t we also regret giving up our virtue for “real” possessions?

By Zhang Jimin
Translated by Amy Hsu