In general, life has both valuable and worthless aspects. Tao Yuanming pondered and considered various valuable and worthless issues in life: "They have wine, yet do not drink, /Caring only about their worldly reputation. " and "We cherish the body dearly, /Because we possess it for a lifetime. " In the end, he says, "Being lax for a hundred years, What can we achieve in this way? " The Chinese expression ding ding translated as "lax" here has various interpretations.
The "Tan Gong Chapter" in The Book of Rites says, "One who is lax is a petty person." Zheng's Commentary explains being lax as being extremely negligent. The Book of Rites further explains "negligence" as being lazy and doing things recklessly, carelessly, and indolently. This explanation is also acceptable.
Tao Yuanming's poems are not easy to explain. As Chen Houshan of the Song Dynasty said, "Tao Yuanming did not write for the sake of writing poetry; he simply expressed the wonders in his mind." He wrote down his own feelings and thoughts. He wrote down whatever was in his mind. If there were ups and downs in his mind, then he wrote the ups and downs.
Later generations sometimes found his poems hard to understand. These two lines are difficult to understand because he faithfully followed his train of thought and his feelings. He spoke of the valuable as well as the worthless and void aspects of life. Without grasping this point, we will misunderstand his meaning. The "Tan Gong Chapter" of The Book of Rites says that we should make the best use of this life. If we are lax and negligent, our life of a hundred years will be gone in the blink of an eye.
"What can we achieve in this way? " If we have such a lax, reckless and careless attitude toward our life, what can we hope to accomplish? Thus "lax" can be interpreted as "negligent." However, our commentary has a different explanation. There are numerous commentaries on Tao Yuanming's poems. That is because although his poems seem simple enough on the surface, simply recording the activities of his own mind, in fact he was very complicated. His reflections are very rich, full of arguments that are difficult to comprehend. We are using Gu Zhi's commentary, which has a different explanation than Zheng's Commentary. Gu Zhi interprets 'ding ding' as being righteous in a tumultous and chaotic environment—what could one accomplish? There are also other explanations, such as "rapid." In such a rapid and short period of time, what can one achieve?
All in all, this poem is very profound. Tao Yuanming saw both the valuable and worthless aspects of life, and he asked: how should one make the best of it and accomplish something? He is not referring to external accomplishments, such as becoming a millionaire. A fortune of millions is an external possession. He was asking: What have you accomplished inside? That is the meaning of "Being lax for a hundred years, what can we achieve in this way?" This concludes our brief explanation of this poem, so we will stop here today.
We have finished discussing the first three poems of Tao Yuanming's Drinking series, and now we will begin the fourth one. Let me read it first:
A distressed bird, strayed from the flock, still flies alone at dusk.
Fluttering here and there without a roost, her cries grow sadder each night.
Her sharp cries express a pure and lofty ideal; flying back and forth, she feels such yearning.
Encountering a tall and solitary pine, she gathers her wings and comes to land.
No other tree can withstand the harsh wind, yet this one alone stands tough.
Having found a secure perch, she won't desert it for a thousand years.
As I have said, the theme of his first poem is the impermanence of prosperity and decline in human affairs; and that of the second poem is the inconstancy of life's fortunes and misfortunes. In such an unpredictable world, then, what can you be sure of? Tao Yuanming responds in the third poem: The most important purpose of our life is to pursue and understand the Tao of the universe and of life itself. Otherwise, our whole life is wasted.
To be continued