Today, we are going to look at the eleventh ‘Drinking’ poem. I will read it once.
Master Yan was well-known for his benevolence;
Elder Rong was admired for his high principles.
The former died young because of constant deprivation;
The latter, though long-lived, was perpetually hungry.
They may have left behind lustrous reputations,
But neither had ever experienced comfort or pleasure.
Once we are dead, what more would we know?
When alive, we should be happy and contented with our lot.
We mustn’t pamper this precious body,
For when the end draws near, all treasures disintegrate.
Why abhor a naked burial?
People should understand the logic of such a practice.
Although this series of poems by Tao Yuanming is entitled ‘Drinking’, in actual fact, each poem talks about his philosophical outlook as well as his musings on human behavior and livelihood. Previously, we discussed his attitude towards life in general, his daily activities after his return to his farm, and his reflections on his earlier career as an official. Then what was he deliberating upon now?
In this world, we human beings are most concerned about two things: one is material comfort and the other is a good reputation. Everyone is enmeshed in the giant net of fame and wealth. During the Warring States period, the philosopher Han Feizi once said that most people sought fame and wealth. He analyzed this matter further and said that there were some people who ‘appeared to be only concerned about having a virtuous reputation but who were in fact secretly trying to amass a big fortune.’ [Han Feizi – The Difficulties of Persuasion]. These people feel awkward about seeking monetary gains openly, so they have to find more legitimate reasons such as: “I am doing this for everybody’s sake, for the country and for society at large.” This is the meaning of ‘appearing to be only concerned about having a virtuous reputation’. Actually, they are trying to hoodwink everybody and are secretly scheming for their self-benefit. Of course, there are others who appear to be only concerned about gaining benefits but who are actually aiming for a good reputation. All in all, these people may resort to all sorts of different tactics in their pursuit of fame and wealth but deep inside, they are all trying to satisfy their own selfish desires. The reason Tao Yuanming was such an outstanding and great poet was because he was different from most people. He pondered a great many problems in an introspective way and thereby formulated his own opinions and ideas. In this particular poem, his introspection focused on the two matters of fame and wealth.
In the first two lines, “Master Yan was well-known for his benevolence; Elder Rong was admired for his high principles,” Tao cited two historical figures – Yan Hui and Rong Qiqi. Notice that he addressed these two people differently. In ancient times, elderly people were addressed as ‘gong’ [elder] while young people were addressed as ‘sheng’ [master]. Yan Hui was a disciple of Confucius and he died at a very young age, so he was addressed as Master Yan. It was said that Confucius had three thousand disciples. Among them, there were seventy-two who were better students and they were known as the Seventy-two Worthies. Of these, Yan Hui was the most outstanding. His style name was Zi Yuan and he was also called Yan Yuan. He was the pride of Confucius. That’s why in the
Analects, whenever Confucius talked about Yan Hui, he would say, “As for Hui...” A teacher would address his disciples directly by their names. There are other sections in the
Analects where Yan Hui was addressed as Yan Yuan. These were his classmates’ records. As it was necessary to be a bit more courteous among themselves, they addressed each other by their style names or nicknames.
The Analects has many passages where Confucius praises Yan Hui. For example, once when Confucius was conversing with someone about who was his best disciple, he said, “As for Yan Hui, he could go for three months without transgressing the principles of humaneness.” [Analects – Yong Ye] This was indeed exceptional.
When the Venerable Master taught all of you to recite the Buddha’s name, for how long did you really recite single-mindedly? Ordinarily, what are your thoughts constantly focusing on? Confucius was not talking about reciting the Buddha’s name but rather, he was stressing that one’s mind must not be apart from humaneness at any moment. The meaning of ‘ren’ (humaneness) is very difficult to explain. In the
Analects, there were quite a number of disciples who asked Confucius about the definition of ‘ren’. Every time, he would give a different answer. This was because each disciple had a different character, different shortcomings and different needs. Confucius would always reply according to their individual potentials. However, if we wanted to give a simple and general explanation of the word ‘ren’, then I think Confucius would define it as that which is exemplified by a person with a perfect character.
Confucius taught his disciples according to their potentials. For example, one day Zilu and Ran You asked him the same question, “Shall I immediately put into practice what I have just heard?” To Ran You, Confucius replied, “Put into practice immediately what you have just heard.” This means that as soon as you have learned a good principle, you should apply it straightaway. However, Confucius’ reply to Zilu was: “Since your father and elder brother are still alive, how can you immediately put into practice what you have just heard?” That is to say that as long as your father and elder brother are still alive, you cannot do things as you wish. Another disciple, Zigong, heard the two different answers and sought clarification: “My two classmates asked the same question, but how is it that Master replied them differently?” Confucius explained, “Ran Qiu’s shortcoming is that he is timid and overcautious, so I urged him to be more courageous. Zilu’s shortcoming is that he is rather bold, so I advised him to go and consult his father and elder brother.” [Analects – Xian Jin] From this, you can see that Confucius’ way of teaching was to point out his students’ shortcomings in order to mold them into perfect individuals.
You would probably say, “I do not steal, do not rob and have not scolded anybody. Am I not a good person?” However, Confucius was not merely talking about a person’s conduct. The Confucians stressed, “A person should have nothing to be ashamed of before heaven and earth.” This is to say that one’s mind should not harbor unwholesome thoughts. Hence, when it is said that Yan Hui could ‘go for three months without transgressing the principles of humaneness,’ it means that he could maintain his mind in a pure state for such a long time without giving rise to even a single unwholesome thought. This is truly difficult to achieve! Confucius continued by saying, “The others can only do so for a short period each day or month.” This means that if the other disciples could maintain wholesome thoughts for a certain period everyday or every month, that would be considered good indeed. Of course, the Confucians adhered to a rigid code of conduct whereby one’s mind should be able to abide in humaneness. On the other hand, the Diamond Sutra says, “One should produce that thought which abides nowhere.” Even the obstructive concept of ‘abiding’ should be discarded. This is the Buddhist principle of liberation. The Confucians have not yet arrived at this stage.
As for Elder Rong, we may regard him as our old friend. In the second ‘Drinking’ poem, he is referred to in the lines, “At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt, and lived in hunger and cold as he had done in his younger years.” According to the chronicles in
Liezi, Rong Qiqi was already ninety years of age and yet he was still roaming around from place to place instead of enjoying the comforts of home. He was so poor that he could not even afford a belt and had to resort to using a rope. In spite of this, he was still very happy and cheerful without even the slightest affliction. Upon seeing him, Confucius asked, “You are already old and poor. What is it that makes you so happy?” Rong Qiqi replied, “Poverty is a scholar’s lot; old age and death are the inevitable conclusion to human existence. What’s the point of worrying about these matters?” This is called understanding the Way. The character ‘dao’ [Way] is very difficult to explain. Many religions and philosophies talk about the Way. Although each has its own interpretation, none deviate from the principles underlying the natural processes of the universe. Tao Yuanming’s ‘The Return’ ends like this: “I am willing to submit to Nature’s course to the end of my days. Happily abiding by Heaven’s will, what need is there to doubt further?” This is a principle based on the workings of the universe. Is there anyone in the world who can avoid death? Absolutely everything undergoes the cycle of flourishing and decay; in the midst of prosperity lie the causes of decline and failure. This was mentioned in the first ‘Drinking’ poem where Tao Yuanming said, “Wise men understand these conditions, harboring no doubt whatsoever.” Elder Rong understood this principle, and as a result, even though he was old and poor, he was always in a happy state. This is very difficult to achieve indeed.
Both Master Yan and Elder Rong were good persons who understood the Way, but what happened to them in the end? “The former died young because of constant deprivation; the latter, though long-lived, was perpetually hungry.” The character ‘kong’ [deprivation] means ‘devoid’ and here it refers to poverty and constant hunger. This was also mentioned in the
Analects. In the Yong Ye chapter, Confucius said, “Virtuous indeed was Yan Hui! With a bamboo bowl of food and a gourd of water, he lived in a shabby back lane. Most people cannot endure such miserable conditions but Yan Hui always maintained his cheerfulness.” Actually, if you have the time, you should read the
Analects. It is a very meaningful book. It contains accounts of the lives and dialogues of Confucius and his disciples, which are very interesting and which offer food for thought. Some can be read as parables. This particular section in the
Analects relates how Confucius one day praised Yan Hui by saying that he lived in a dilapidated alley and used a bamboo bowl for his food and a gourd to hold his water. Another person in his place would surely be very depressed and afflicted and would find life unbearable. However, Yan Hui was always happy at heart. He was truly a virtuous person!