In his short 63 years of life, Tao Yuanming lived through two revolts in which power was usurped and witnessed the demise of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. There was a civil revolution as well. A man named Sun En gathered an army and tried to overthrow the government. Therefore, the 63 years of Tao Yuanming's lifespan was an unstable time filled with usurpations and rebellions.
According to Tao Yuanming's biography, his great-grandfather, Tao Kan, was a famous general in the Western Jin Dynasty. Tao Kan commanded troops and put down many revolts, and was rewarded by being made the county governor of Changsha. However, Tao Yuanming did not inherit the position. His family was very poor when he was born, and it comes through in his writings.
Both his grandfather and father had served as the local governor, but Tao Yuanming was unfortunate as his father passed away when he was only eight years old. We can say that he grew up in a difficult environment, and many major events occurred in the country during his life. I did not give a full enough explanation above. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, in addition to power struggles among high-ranking officials and officers as well as civil revolutions, a war was waged against foreign tribes.
Among the foreign tribes in the north, there was a kingdom named Qian Qin, one of the "Five Hu and Sixteen Kingdoms." Qian Qin sent troops to attack the Jin Dynasty in the south and there was a big battle on a famous site called Fei Shui. Fortunately, the Jin Dynasty had a good prime minister, Xie An, whose nephew, Xie Xuan, personally led the troops to defeat the foreigners. This event happened when Tao Yuanming was nineteen.
Now I am also going to introduce the background of Buddhism in the Eastern Jin Dynasty.
Tao Yuanming's philosophy was related to Buddhist thought. An eminent monk of the Eastern Jin Dynasty lived near Tao Yuanming's hometown. Tao Yuanming was born in Zisan County, Xunyang, Jiangzhou, which is in presentday Jianxi Province. If you look on a map, you will see that the famous Lu Mountain is not too far away. On Lu Mountain, there was a Buddhist temple called Donglin (East Woods) Monastery, where a very eminent Chinese Buddhist monk, the Great Master Hui Yuan, lived.
According to historical records, Master Hui Yuan came to Lu Mountain in the eleventh year of Emperor Xiaowu's Taiyuan reign period in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (386 A.D.). At that time, Tao Yuanming was twenty-one. It is said that two great poets of the time had associated with Master Hui Yuan. One was Tao Yuanming, whom we are discussing, and the other was Xie Lingyun, a Buddhist from a wealthy aristocratic family. His family background was quite different from that of Tao Yuanming.
His ancestors were granted a noble position and he actually inherited that position as Sir Kang Le (Peace and Happiness). Legend has it that he donated a great number of white lotuses to Donglin Monastery at Lu Mountain and had a huge pond created on the monastery grounds to grow them. At that time, many local Buddhists formed an organization called the White Lotus Society in which people could study Buddhism together. It is said that Xie Lingyun really wanted to join the White Lotus Society, so he donated all those white lotuses. However, Master Hui Yuan did not like the man because his mind was too defiled.
Although Tao Yuanming did not make any donation, Master Hui Yuan liked him very much. I just mentioned that when Tao Yuanming was twenty-one years old, Master Hui Yuan came to Donglin Monastery and organized the White Lotus Society to spread the Buddhadharma. Many scholars and poets associated with him. The book entitled
Stories of Worthy Personages in the Lotus Society contains accounts of those well-educated and virtuous people who associated with Master Hui Yuan.
One of the stories says that while Master Hui Yuan lived at Donglin Monastery in Lu Mountain, he never went down the mountain. Along the path going down the hill, there was a bridge over a creek, and since tigers lived in the nearby hills, the creek was named Tiger Creek. One day, Tao Yuanming and another scholar went to visit Dharma Master Hui Yuan. Probably because Master Hui Yuan and Tao Yuanming were deeply absorbed in conversation, after Master Hui Yuan accompanied them to the gate, they kept walking and chatting and crossed the bridge over Tiger Creek without realizing it. When the tigers in the hills saw Master Hui Yuan crossing the bridge that he ordinarily never crossed, they felt it was quite strange and gave a roar. At that point, Master Hui Yuan realized that he had broken his record and crossed the bridge. The three of them immediately burst out laughing. Later on, someone painted this incident and named the painting "Three Laughing Men at Tiger Creek."
To be continued