Tao Yuanming reasoned that there was nothing wrong with Yang Wangsun’s naked burial, which was recorded in the
Book of Han History. Was it really necessary to follow conventions and spend a lot of money on funerary paraphernalia for a dead person? But then take note: Did Tao Yuanming really advocate the practice of naked burials? No, he did not, for the last line says: “People should understand the logic of such a practice.” This is a wonderful aspect of Tao Yuanming. The term ‘yi biao’ [‘expression of meaning’, here translated ‘logic’] is derived from Zhuangzi: “The value of words lies in their meaning, which can be inferred from the lines. The inferences, as such, are beyond the scope of words.” [Zhuangzi – The Natural Course of Events] There is another passage that says, “A fish-trap is used to catch fish, but once the fish is caught, the fish-trap is forgotten. A rabbit-snare is used to catch a rabbit, but once the rabbit is caught, the rabbit-snare is forgotten. Similarly, words are used to express thoughts, but once the thoughts are expressed, the words are forgotten.” [Zhuangzi – External Things] This is to say that once you understand my meaning, you may completely forget the words that I used because they are no longer important. The term ‘naked burial’ is only a figure of speech. You should not take it at face value. Zigong once asked Confucius, “If the Master did not speak, what should we disciples do?” This means if the teacher does not talk, what are we going to follow? Confucius replied, “Has Heaven spoken anything? Yet the four seasons run their course and the myriad things flourish and decline. Has Heaven said anything at all?” [Analects – Yang Huo] Therefore, do not be attached, especially to fame and wealth. What you need to cultivate is your inner wisdom, peace and happiness, which means to be ‘happy and content with your lot’. Contentment does not refer to the satisfaction derived from fame and material gains, but to being unaffected by fame and wealth, so that your mind can achieve true liberation. If you could realize your ideals and aspirations, then that would be good indeed.
Lectures on Tao Yuanming’s Poems (Lecture Fifteen)
In the eleventh ‘Drinking’ poem, Tao Yuanming talked about two ancient characters: Master Yan and Elder Rong. In today’s lecture on the twelfth ‘Drinking’ poem, two other ancients, Chang Gong and Zhong Li, are mentioned. Now, I am going to read this poem over once.
Chang Gong once served as an official;
In his prime, he found himself at odds with the times.
He secluded himself at home, never venturing out again,
And kept aloof from the world’s affairs to the end of his days.
Zhong Li returned to the Great Marsh,
Where he was revered for his lofty character.
Once you have left, don’t turn back,
For what is there to doubt further?
Make a clean break – why say anything more?
This mundane world is full of deceit.
Disregarding all the frivolous talk,
I prefer to follow my heart’s dictates.
During the Han Dynasty, there was an eminent person by the name of Zhang Shizhi who held a very high official position. His eldest son was called Zhang Zhi, styled Chang Gong. It was recorded that
“Chang Gong reached the rank of Great Officer before resigning. As he was unable to adapt to the times, he did not become an official again for the rest of his life.” [Records of the Grand Historian – The Biography of Zhang Shizhi] The offspring of an official’s family mostly become officials as well. However, when Zhang Zhi reached the position of Great Officer, he resigned and called it quits because he could not get along with others in the official circuit. Hence, it is said,
“Chang Gong once served as an official; in his prime, he found himself at odds with the times.” The term ‘zhuang jie’ means one who is in his prime, and ‘shi shi’ means that one cannot get along with the times. Chang Gong was still young but he was unable to adapt to the times and hence, he never became an official again. I have often stressed that a poem must be imbued with the poet’s true feelings. Tao often quoted the ancients in his poems but almost every ancient character was a reflection of himself. He always revealed his own experiences by means of comparison with those of the ancients.
To be continued