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Tao Yuanming: His Philosophy

Tao Yuanming: His Philosophy



Tao Yuanming was significantly influenced by the ancient Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi. When Zhuangzi was asked to come and work for the King of Chu, he refused. He told the emissary this story of the ox and the pig:

The ox had often been used as a sacrificial offering in ancient China. Prior to the sacrifice, it would receive royal treatment. It would be put into a pen to enjoy good food, hot baths and even soothing music. However, its destiny was to be butchered.

By contrast the pig lived in the muddy sty, ate simple food, even the food thrown away by others, a much poorer environment. But it lived to a long life. For Zhuangzi (and Tao Yuanming) entering government was like becoming the sacrificial ox. The pig on the other hand, might have lived in much more simple and austere conditions. So for Zhuangzi and Tao Yuanming the choice to live the life of a pig was an easy one to make.
Furthermore, one lives life in the same way as grass goes through the seasons, implying that, like grass, life itself is a natural process, flourishing in the spring and then withering in the fall. It is a commonplace trip from life to death, and a viewpoint to protect us from too many cares and worries.  This concept probably originated in the early years of Daoism, and later associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi in particular.

The fear of both life and death hinder people from attaining true spiritual freedom.  For Zhuangzi, life and death are neither to be welcomed nor to be rejected. To live life naturally is to live it to the full, but not to overvalue life and thereby strive in vain for excessive preservation.  For Zhuangzi, all living beings are evolved from qi, the vital force of the universe. One comes to be alive when this vital force collects and becomes compact, and one dies when this vital force disperses and dissipates. The Daoist position on death is that one can achieve spiritual freedom only when one sees through it as really being a natural and inevitable phenomenon.

A story about Zhuangzi himself supports the above concepts. After his wife died, Zhuangzi was found by a friend just sitting around singing. When the friend asked him why he was doing this,Zhuangzi replied:

“When she had just died I could not help being affected. Soon however, I examined the matter from the very beginning. At the very start she was not living, having no form, nor even substance. But somehow or other there was her substance, then her form, and then her life. Now by a further change she has died. The whole process is like the sequence of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter. While she is thus lying in the great mansion of the universe, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of the natural laws. Therefore I stop.”

Tao Yuanming’s Eclectic Philosophy:

By Western standards,  Tao Yuanming’s philosophy and worldviews are unconventional, fragmented and eclectic. He accepted portions of philosophies in both ancient Eastern and Western traditions, as well as rejected portions within each.

1. Confucianism:
He accepted: virtue, education, family
He rejected: many of the rites, elaborate burials, the anxiety of losing face, too much emphasis on Qing Ming, ancestor worship, and dead people, farm work is a disgrace

2. Buddhism:
He accepted: eight-fold path, he studied and read sutras, Doctrine of Emptiness, compassion
He rejected: reincarnation, salvation, Karma, after-life, rewards for merit and punishment for sins, abstaining from eating meat and drinking wine, desires are to be overcome, the monastic life and need to beg, the need to chant and burn incense; the life-denying aspects of Buddhism

3. Laozi-Zhuangzi-Daoism:
He accepted: egalitarianism, wisdom of Nature, ziranwuwei
He rejected: the good are rewarded and the bad punished, do not speak out and criticize the government and society

4. Cynics:
He accepted: traditional definition which emphasized virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desires; countercultural and natural behaviors, a simple life, self-sufficiency, live with cold and hunger, pursue virtue and arete, personal integrity, good things from the accidental and fate, live according to Nature, analogies from Nature, ideals have to be imagined
He rejected: the modern view of cynicism, which emphasizes the disbelief in the sincerity of goodness or human motives and actions; retreat from society to live as a homeless person; evangelistic zeal

5. Politics: (Eastern Jin Dynasty)
He accepted: the basic system, the monarchy, rule of man
He rejected: corruption, execution of good people, infighting, immorality, on-the-take, self-serving people

6. The Book of Ecclesiastes:

He accepted:  All of human actions are inherently transitory, vain and mere breath, with no eternal meaning.
One should enjoy the simple pleasures of life: eat, drink, enjoy one’s work.
Wisdom has its limitations, it is not a priority, and it too is vanity.
The journey is important, not the goal or aim of life.
The journey includes moving towards understanding, and to accept the frustrations and uncertainties of life.
Nothing is totally reliable.
Partake of the present.
World is full of injustice and risk, politically and economically.
All is vanity: there is nothing new under the sun.
The world cannot be fixed: the crooked can not be made straight.
To everything there is a season.

7. The philosophy of Epicurus:

He accepted: Atheism
The Universe was not created for or about the human race.
Humans are not unique, they made of the same stuff as the rest of creation.
The soul dies with the body.
There is no afterlife.
All organized religions can be delusional and cruel.

A summary of the key Chinese words and their meanings that are relevant to accessing the ancient Chinese, and Tao Yuanming’s understanding of the Universe.

1. Ziran自 然
Zi means self, oneself, itself, one’s own, naturally, and since antiquity
Ran means correct, accurate, so, like that
Together they mean the Nature, the natural world, the natural course of events, naturally, at ease and unaffected, spontaneous, things naturally being the things they are (suchness, isness)

2. Biguan闭 关
Bi means to shut, close, obstruct
Guan means to shut, close, turn off, shut in, close down, to bolt the door, to involve; a barrier, outside the city wall
Together they mean to close the door to the outside world, be in seclusion, rural solitude, close the city gate, and to stay secluded meditating and studying scriptures

3. Xian
Xian means unoccupied, idleness, leisure, spare time, random, irrelevant

4. Decao德 操
De means morality, virtue, moral character, mind-heart; (the same de as in Laozi’s Dao De Jing)
Cao mean to grasp, hold, wield, act, do operate, exercise
Together they mean to adhere to moral integrity and moral conduct
Closely related to the core of Kongzi (Confucius) and Confucianism

5. Wuwei无 为
Wu means not having, without, do not, may not
Wei means to do, act, perform, become, turn, make
Together they mean do nothing, non-interference, quietude and inaction, and to let things take their own course
Closely related to ziran, and a concept used often by Laozi and in the worldview of Daoism

6. Lunhui轮 回
Lun means wheel, axle, to take turns
Hui means to circle, wind around, return, go back, turn around, revolve, reply
Together they mean samsara, transmigration, to turn and rotate
Samsara is the Sanskrit word which means continuous flow, a repeating of cycles. In Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies it is tied to the concept of reincarnation. But with Tao Yuanming, it has the Daoist meaning of the Dao’s continuous reversion from one opposite to another: yin-yang. dark-light, with-without, as described in Chapter 40 of the Dao De Jing. Tao Yuanming also uses this term to describe the natural rotation of the seasons, and of the life and death flows of all things natural.

7. Yijing意 境
Yi means a wish, intent, meaning, idea, suggestion, hint; to anticipate
Jing means a border, boundary, place, area, condition, situation
Together they mean the mood, or condition, needed for creativity, or artistic conception

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