In the previous lecture, we talked about the fourth poem of the Drinking series. At the end of this poem, Tao Yuanming said, "Having found a secure perch, she won't desert it for a thousand years." Someone asked, "What does the image of the solitary pine represent specifically? Is it alluding to the farms where Tao Yuanming returned to dwell?" I don't think so. Tao Yuanming did finally return to the farm to till the fields, this is correct. However, that was only an approach that he took in real life. The image of the solitary pine does not merely allude to this practical approach that he took, but also to the elevated state of his mind and spirit. It was because he had already attained such a high level that he said, "From now onwards, no matter what happens in the outside world, I will not change my decision."
Now let's take a look at his sixth poem:
There are a thousand myriad ways to act.
Who knows what is wrong and what is right?
If right and wrong are mutually compared,
Praise and censure will be echoed by all.
Such things happened at the end of the three dynasties,
But sensible men will not follow along heedlessly.
Treating the foolish people with contempt,
They prefer to emulate Huang and Qi.
The first three poems of the series 'On Drinking' focused on his feelings of perplexity and hesitation, as well as his dilemma about life. The fourth poem "A distressed bird, strayed from the flock" says that he has already found a place of refuge. The fifth poem, "I built my hut among the populace" was mentioned before at the beginning. It describes a state whereby one has already attained the Way. After he had settled down, he wrote about some problems and how he dealt with them. That is to say, once he had found his place of refuge, he would never change his resolve. Now let us take a look at how he described this. He said, "There are a thousand myriad ways to act. Who knows what is wrong and what is right?" This is what the Confucian school often refers to when it speaks of "what to do" and "what not to do." These are important choices in life. There are things we ought to do, and other things we ought to stop doing. In a person's life, what is it that he should do and should not do? Everyone has to make his own choices and that's why it is said, "There are a thousand myriad ways to act." [The Chinese word translated as "ways" literally means "thread" or "thought."] In a big ball of thread, you can start unraveling from any one end to get one long thread. Similarly by following each thought, one finds a road of life. In this world, each person has different ideals. Some prefer to do this while others prefer to do that. Some are unwilling to do it this way while others are unwilling to do it that way. All these different types of threads generate different types of paths.
"A Biographical Sketch of Boyi" in Sima Qian's Book of History has a passage that talks about this topic. I have mentioned about Boyi and Shuqi before. They were unwilling to do anything that was even slightly improper and finally died of hunger on Shouyang Mountain. However, why were they unwilling to accept an official's post and work for the Zhou government? Why would they rather starve to death on Shouyang Mountain? This is because the path chosen by each individual is different. Hence, Sima Qian said, "A greedy person dies for the sake of wealth, while a martyr sacrifices himself for fame. An ambitious individual dies for the sake of power, while common people cling on to life's comforts." It is described in "A Biographical Sketch of Boyi" of the
Book of History that people who are greedy for wealth do not mind sacrificing themselves for the sake of riches. As it is said, People die for the sake of wealth while birds perish in their search for food. On the other hand, there are some people who regard their reputation as being very important. For example, there are many righteous women and loyal officials in history who would rather die in order to preserve their untainted reputation. There are also some people who are fond of expanding their authority and would gladly die in the fight for power and position. Then what about ordinary people? All that they seek are the comforts of a materialistic life.
Actually, it is not only the case that the path chosen by each individual is different. There are many people who think that the path they are walking on is the correct one, while those chosen by other people are wrong. In such situations, the rights and wrongs are really difficult to arbitrate. As a northern saying goes, "What the old gentleman says is right, and what the old lady says is also right." In Zhuangzi's "The Identity of Contraries", this matter of right and wrong is also discussed. Zhuangzi said, "Hence, there are the affirmatives and negatives of the Confucians and of the Mohists, each asserting what the other denies and denying what the other asserts." And, "As the subjective is also objective, and the objective is also subjective, and as the contraries under each are mutually intertwined, how can it be confirmed whether subjectivity and objectivity really exist at all?" During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods in China, the various schools of thought engaged in contention and mutual criticism, and among them were the Confucians and the Mohists. The Mohists advocated 'unbiased love', which means to love all people equally. On the other hand, the Confucians advocated 'familial affection' and 'to look after the interests of your own family and then extend your concern to others'. This is exactly what Mencius was referring to when he said, "Respect the elders in your own family and extend your respect to those in other families; show loving kindness to the young in your own family and extend your kindness to those in other families." [Mencius - King Hui of Liang]. However, we shall not be concerned about this here. Now, what Zhuangzi said was that the Confucians and the Mohists had their own definitions of right and wrong. What one considers as right, the other thinks is wrong; and conversely, what one considers as wrong, the other believes is right.
Is there anything in the world that can be judged as definitely right or wrong? Hence, Tao Yuanming said, "There are a thousand myriad ways to act. Who knows what is wrong and what is right?" But what happens "if right and wrong are mutually compared"? Then, "praise and censure will be echoed by all." The character "gou" means "if" and "xiang xing" means "mutual comparison". If wrong and right could actually be revealed by comparison, and if there was a scientific methodology that could differentiate what was right and what was wrong, then what would happen? He said that then "praise and censure will be echoed by all." When there is thunder, all the myriad things reverberate and they strike up a resonant chord with the thunderclaps. This is the meaning of echo. In this sense, echo refers to everyone agreeing unanimously that this is right and that is wrong. However, if everyone thinks in this manner, wouldn't there be standard guidelines for the definition of right and wrong? Please take note. Prior to this, Tao Yuanming was only making general comments. Was he expounding upon some philosophical principles like Zhuangzi? No, he was not. What Tao Yuanming was talking about were his actual personal experiences and feelings as a poet. In my opinion, this is precisely where the value of Tao's poems lies. Therefore, when he said, "right and wrong are not definite", not only must we understand what he was talking about, but also his reason for saving as such. Actually, he had already revealed his reason in the next two lines: "Such things happened at the end of the three dynasties, but sensible men will not follow along heedlessly" You should know that in these twenty Drinking poems, Tao Yuanming expressed his feelings quite implicitly.
To be continued