Reflection on Life: “From Ancient Times to the Present, Sages Are All Alone”

By Guan Ming

PureInsight | October 21, 2008

[] Lao Zi (an ancient figure regarded as the founder of Daoism) left without a trace after writing the Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way). He already knew the truth about the life of a human being. In the human world, few people had anything in common with him to talk about. Thus, it became meaningless for him to stay in human society. In reality, the higher the wisdom and knowledge one has, the lonelier one feels. How enormous is the capacity of an enlightened being’s heart! Even if he were alone in a desert, he wouldn’t feel lonely; whatever happens in human society is meaningless to him. However, for a cultivator in the human world, loneliness is something that one must pass through, and it is a sign that one’s thoughts have reached a higher level. Aristotle once said that those who have great achievements in philosophy, art or politics have lonely and unconventional temperaments.

“From ancient times to the present sages are all alone; only those who drink leave behind a good reputation.” This quote is from Li Bai’s poem, “Jiang Jin Jiu” (“Going to Drink Wine”). This poem started with tremendous momentum: “Have you seen that the Yellow River comes from the sky, and flows into the sea with no way back? Have you seen that your hair while black in the morning turns to white in the evening?” Another famous line also from this poem is: “When you are pleased, enjoy yourself to the fullest; don’t leave your wineglass empty; since I was already born into the human world, I must have some value; a thousand pieces of gold that have been spent will come back.” Li Bai is really a poet immortal. His poems can still surprise people. Whenever I read those two lines, I feel like I am entering into Li Bai’s mindset: elegant and majestic. Who else could write such spiritual poems? Most of the saints in ancient times were proud and aloof due to their high-level thoughts. Though usually poor, they were unaffected by poverty. Once they grew old, they would teach children in order to pass the time. Only Li Bai stepped beyond that. He was famous for composing excellent poems while drinking. He traveled to many well-known mountains and rivers. He lived a leisurely life. The poem “Jiang Jin Jiu” exquisitely expressed the freedom and truth of life.

In China’s five thousand years of civilization, the passion and the bouquets are everywhere. Poems deliver the messages; wine passes on expression; they all depict a picture of life. In the feeling of getting drunk, there is Tao Yuanming leisurely looking at the mountain afar; there is Liu Lin’s carefree bamboo forest; there is Wang Han’s Pipa at the frontier juncture; there is Cao Cao’s ambition. Of course, speaking of wine and poetry, Li Bai is number one, since he loved them both zealously. On the one hand, he is unrestrained and frank like a swordsman, yet on the other hand, he always remains elegant. Though he was often in a drunken state, his eyes saw the truth of the world. He kept drinking good wine, while composing poems full of pride and enthusiasm.

In his leisurely world, Li Bai was carefree, happy and unrestrained. “How can I be against my own will to flatter those bigwigs?” That’s why, “From ancient times to the present, sages are all alone; only those who drink leave behind a good reputation.” Freedom, leisure, frankness, bearing no resentment, all those factors make Li Bai’s poems like an aromatic old wine, passing down from generation to generation without decay.

Fame, gain, lust and emotion are very easy for ordinary people to fall into. But true cultivators won’t become lost in these endless struggles. In this human world, they maintain their integrity and refuse to lower themselves. Sometimes it is hard to avoid loneliness. In the past, Boddhidarma sat before a wall for nine years before he finally reached consummation. Such enlightened beings won’t be influenced by fancies in the human world; neither will they go after vulgar interests or shallow happiness. Those who have this kind of loneliness embody the ultimate sense of “well-being.” They are the ones determined to pursue the true aim of life.

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