Tao Yuanming's poems are not always very long. Tao's second poem, which begins, "It is said that accumulated good brings a reward / Yet there were Yi and Shu in the western mountains, " contains only eight lines. The third poem has only seven lines. Both are very short. However, despite its brevity, the second poem contains the active interplay of Tao's ideas as well as many changes in structure.
Now, let's look at this (third) poem: What was Tao thinking? His first poem said that prosperity and decline were impermanent; the second one maintained that divine justice was also unfixed; if both prosperity and decline, and divine justice, are completely unreliable, then what should people concentrate on and pursue?
He said: The Tao has been lost for a thousand years. / Everyone indulges his own desires. I mentioned before that Tao Yuanming makes frequent use of the word 'Tao' in his poems. The word 'Tao' also appears often in Confucius' Analects. It seems the word 'Tao' is quite commonly used. Not only do Confucians use the word 'Tao', but Buddhists do too; and Taoists use this word for sure. Of course, if you want to make fine distinctions, you may find that the meaning of 'Tao' varies from one philosophy or religion to another.
Yet there is one common point that none of them denies, which is that, in the universe, there is a most important thing that enables people, upon attaining it, to be strong in their integrity, steadfast in their principles, and free from worry and fear. That is the Tao. Well, now Tao Yuanming says: The Tao has been lost for a thousand years. There ought to be a 'Tao' in the universe. That is why all the thoughtful religious people and philosophers in the Occident and the Orient, India and China, have pondered and pursued the highest state of wisdom of which humanity is capable.
However, people of later generations went astray and no longer knew of the existence of the Tao. They had lost a most important and valuable thing. The Tao has been lost for a thousand years. People have not been able to find the Tao for nearly a thousand years.
I have mentioned that there was about nine hundred years between the time Confucius met Rong Qiqi and the time of Tao Yuaming. This could be what the poem is referring to as a thousand years. Generally, the numbers are rounded upwards in poems. The Tao has been lost for a thousand years: the loftiest principles of human existence have been forgotten for a thousand years. People no longer seek the Tao nowadays. What, then, are they pursuing?
Tao's answer was: Everyone indulges his desires. Since the Tao has disappeared from the world, people are not aware that they should pursue it. What do they seek instead? They cherish material pleasures, fame, profit, high status, wealth, and prosperity. No one cares about whether or not the Tao exists and whether they can realize it; they only see the material comforts and sensual pleasures immediately before them.
To understand Tao Yuanming's next two lines requires us to take a special perspective. The line ' They have wine, yet do not drink, / Caring only about their worldly reputation' is easily misunderstood. He said that those people who only indulge their desires have wine, yet do not drink. What do they seek then? They care only about their worldly reputation. That's all they want. They are constantly concerned with worldly fame and gain.
I recall that before I began explaining Tao Yuanming's poems "On Drinking," I told you about how I saw some drunkards on my way here. There are many winos, especially in this area. They get drunk and pass out on the street, totally oblivious to anything. Why then does Tao Yuanming disapprove of people who seek worldly fame and wealth instead of drinking? Does he believe that it is better to drink than to seek fame and wealth? Would it be good for us to all get drunk like those guys lying in the streets?
Before discussing the series of poems "On Drinking," I mentioned that Prince Zhaoming, Xiao Tong, of the Liang Dynasty, had commented that although Tao Yuanming wrote a lot about drinking, his real message did not concern drinking at all. This is a crucial point. Without it, we cannot explain these two lines. Literally interpreted, these two lines seem to say that it is better to get drunk than to pursue fame and wealth. In fact, that is not Tao Yuanming's meaning at all.
To be continued