Busy-ness is a universal faith. The first article of busyness proclaims that the more busy you are, the more justified your existence. The second, only busyness will bring you enough money and status to calm the raging ego, to bring peace and happiness. Believers don’t want to hear that JP Morgan did little but sit in a backroom playing solitaire, smoking 25 cigars a day, and scheming. Busyness would have been bad for business.
Besides, JP’s magpie eyes betrayed a soul far from peace. Same for the believers in busyness. Their mantra, “I’m so busy,” precludes a harmonious personality, and therefore any lasting joy. Although the faith is strong in China, one glorious heretic shines as a beacon on the far shore. He spurned an official career, power, and achievement, but not work or responsibility. He left behind only a slim volume of poems and a few essays, yet still holds the jade cup as the greatest exponent of Chinese culture and education. His precept – too in love with life to be busy.
Yet this fourth century son of poor scholars did not love selfishly. He carried the burdens busy people bear, yet his spirit rose above them, unbowed. He took on his first post as a minor official in order to support his aged parents. The Confucian rat race at last started disturbing his ineffable flow, and he resigned, returning to the family farm, merrily busting sod with his own delicate, seal-stamping hands. But an early life bent over classics had not formed his back for plowing, and his body gave out. Nonplussed, he took up as a minstrel singer, a move that so mortified his relatives they arranged a magistrate gig for him before he could get his pipa properly tuned.
This next stint in the circles of the chronically busy lasted thirteen years. He acquitted himself admirably, judging from the several offers to resume his post after he next left, even after he ordered all the government land under his care planted with glutinous rice to make wine with. One day, though, expecting a visit from a high official, his secretary told him to girdle his ceremonial gown properly. “I can’t bend and bow just for five bushels of rice,” Tao reflected, and resigned, this time for good.
Not arrogance, but a philosopher’s distain for the wax fruits of public life drove him away, back to farming. He was forty-one. This verse from Returning to Live in the Country, written after his resignation, says it best
Young, I was always free of common feeling.
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden.
My place is hardly more than a few fields.
My house has eight or nine small rooms.
Elm-trees and Willows shade the back.
Plum-trees and Peach-trees reach the door.
Misted, misted the distant village.
Drifting, the soft swirls of smoke.
Somewhere a dog barks deep in the winding lanes.
A cockerel crows from the top of the mulberry tree.
No heat and dust behind my closed doors.
My bare rooms are filled with space and silence.
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.
The warmth and humanity in those words, as well as the vulnerability, show a genius for harmonious living unsurpassed, according to the consensus of Tang poets centuries later. Poverty dogged him in his country retreat. Fire destroyed his home; he grew thin and sickly at the plow, yet in his tattered robe delighted in a bellyful of wine and an afternoon of writing. Lack of funds for hooch, even for regular meals, could not persuade him to consider the regular calls back to civil service.
Others sought Tao Yuanming’s company too, despite his humble station. Near his farm on Lushan Mountain, a great society of Zen Buddhists lived in seclusion. Their illustrious abbot wanted him to join the inner circle, the Lotus Society. Tao accepted their invitation to a party on the condition that he be allowed to drink, a taboo broken in his honor. However, when the scroll of membership appeared under his red nose, awaiting signature, he simply lurched up and staggered away.
A magistrate named Wang also greatly admired Tao Yuanming, and sent invitations round, always refused. Tao much preferred strolling his garden and fields to having guests and hearing the litany of busyness. A persevering soul, Wang took to lurking about the property. Armed with a jug of wine, Wang finally persuaded him on a “chance encounter” to pass an afternoon of merriment.
Dissolute wino? Not to the Zen abbot, who continued to court Tao’s presence with invitations to drink. The abbot and his friend, a great Daoist master, once strolled thus with Tao, so carefree that when the abbot strayed beyond the point on the mountain he had vowed never to cross, and realized it, the three merely laughed. Many a popular Chinese painting depicts the scene, a peaceful synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism in the Confucian-bred but sublimely Chinese Tao Yuanming.
So he lived and died, beyond success and failure, a humble peasant-poet, a thoroughly wise, merry, and un-busy old man. Loving life without attachment to its vagaries produced an inner lack of conflict that in turn produced some of the greatest poetry in China.
In the summer grass and trees have grown.
Over my roof the branches meet.
Birds settle in the leaves.
I enjoy my humble place.
Ploughing’s done, the ground is sown,
Time to sit and read my book.
The narrow deeply-rutted lane
Means my friends forget to call.
Content, I pour the new Spring wine,
Go out and gather food I’ve grown.
A light rain from the East,
Blows in on a pleasant breeze.
I read the story of King Mu,
See pictures of the Hills and Seas.
One glance finds all of heaven and earth.
What pleasures can compare with these?