However, he said in his poem, "Who says that I have only been to nearby places? I have traveled from Zhangyi to Youzhou." Was he lying? Was he exaggerating? Was he being dishonest? No. Among Chinese poets, the one known for being the most sincere and for never boasting or lying is Tao Yuanming. He was the most sincere poet, and past generations admired his sincerity.
There was a famous poet, Yuan Yishan, also known as Yuan Haowen, in the Jin Dynasty. He wrote a series of thirty poems entitled "Verses of Commentary on Poems," one of which talks about Tao Yuanming's poems. He said that: "One word, so natural, remains fresh for thousands of years. All adornments are stripped off to show the purity." "One word," any word that Tao Yuanming casually said and wrote, was "so natural."
I just said that among Chinese poets, in terms of their attitude in composing poetry, Tao Yuanming was the most sincere and worthy one, and he absolutely did not manipulate, embellish, exaggerate, or cheat in his words.
Therefore his poems are very natural. He spontaneously expressed whatever was flowing through his mind. He was not like some poets who tried so hard to win praise by using fancy words. Tao Yuanming did not write such poems. Last time, Venerable Master Hsuan Hua said that I had brought Tao Yuanming to life. It was not that I delivered a good speech, but that Tao Yuanming's spirit and emotions are themselves alive and therefore able to touch people.
Thus his poems are "one word, so natural"; they always remain fresh. When we read his poems hundreds and thousands of years later, we can still sense the freshness and vitality. As it is said, "One word, so natural, remains fresh for thousands of years. All adornments are ripped off to show the purity."
When most people write poetry, they spend a lot of time embellishing their work, trying to show off their talent by using fancy words and metaphorical allusions. These are superficial adornments. Tao Yuanming got rid of all superficial adornments and presented his true self to the world. With him, "All adornments are stripped off to show the purity." That was what the great poet Yuan Yishan of the Jin Dynasty said in praise of him.
Didn't we talk earlier about the famous poet, Xin Qiji, of the Southern Song Dynasty? He also wrote something in praise of Tao Yuanming. What did he say? He said: "A thousand years have passed, and hundreds of poems remain, not a word of which is not pure." After a thousand years, when we read the hundreds of poems written by Tao Yuanming, we can truly sense that "not a word is not pure." Every single word is absolutely pure and unadulterated.
Being such an honest man, how could he possibly lie? Then, why did he say that he had been Zhangyi and Youzhou? You should know that Tao Yuanming was a very interesting man. He was a very wise philosopher who reflected on many issues of life. He was also a poet.
In China, there were some people who studied the Way. Whether they studied the esoteric ideas of Taoism or the doctrines of Buddhism, they liked to talk about philosophy in their poems. These philosophical poems were not really like poems at all, for they preached principles without any grounding.
Zhong Rong was a famous literary commentator in the Liang Dynasty during the Epoch of Division between North and South. He wrote a commentary called
Grades of Poetry, in which he classified Chinese poems into superior, middle, and inferior grades. In the Preface to
Grades of Poetry, he said that in the reign period of Yongjia, near the end of the Western Jin Dynasty, poets liked to discuss the Taoist philosophies of the Yellow Emperor (also known as Xuan Yuan) and Lao Zi.
Zhong Rong said that in the period of Yongjia, "The poetry emphasized the Yellow Emperor and Lao Zi." They always put some Taoist philosophy in their poems. However, he criticized their poems, saying, "with concepts loftier than the words, they are bland and tasteless." He said they discussed a great deal of theory, but that those philosophical theories far surpassed the inspirational power of their poems. The more we read their poems, the more we feel they are "bland and tasteless." They are very insipid, just empty talk which has no power to inspire people. A very important quality of poetry is that it must have the power to touch and inspire people.
What made Tao Yuanming special was that he was not only a philosopher, but also a true poet. He gave form to those philosophical ideas. He not only talked about ideas, he used vivid images to portray those profound principles of life.
To be continued