You are on page 1of 7

According to Zhuan-zi, the prospect of dying is something to be accepted rather than feared.

It is Natures way of letting everyone find rest in the end.

======================================== ======================

Zhuan-zi on The Meaning of Death

An excerpt from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism Author: Peter M.K. Chan All rights reserved.

Another topic that Zhuan-zi touched upon is that life will sooner or later come to an end. Of lamentations regarding this misgiving about life that has come to be heard, the following chant of sorts from the Book of Zhuan-zi is quite on the mark. As a white horse speeding through the crevice between Heaven and Earth, the life of man is both sudden and swift. It comes into the world in full vigor, ... but has to live and die by way of transformation. Such is the grief of life, the sorrow of mankind. ( .... Ibid. Chapter 22) Besides, life also declines day by day and withers like autumn and winter. ... A mind that is near death cannot be revived again. ( ......Ibid.) In short, when the body disintegrates, the mind will also go with it. Is that not the greatest of all grieves? (
Ibid. Chapter 2)

But this is not to say that Zhuan-zi was altogether nihilistic. As he was also eager to point out: Even though the body of man is the product of myriad transformations from beginning to end, it has also found many things to be enjoyable. This is why the sage would roams in the realm of

things, and to live rather than die. (

Ibid. Chapter 6)

That being the case, he who knows (the way of) Nature should live according to Nature. He who knows what man knows should nourish what he does not know with what he knows, so as to complete his natural life span, rather than die prematurely half of the way. (

That is to say, mortal and short as life is destined to be, it is still something worth going for. It also means that death is something that has got to be appreciated and understood. For this reason, it is not surprising to find that the Book of Zhuan-zi is not shy to recount the death of some of the Daoist sages. Listen to what these Daoists and some of their friends had said will help us understand what philosophical Daoism (as distinguished from its religious varieties) would take to be the meaning of death. (a) When Lao-zi died, his friend Chin-shih was not happy with the violent lamentations of the mourners, and had to calm them down with the following admonition. When the master came, it was his occasion to be born. When he goes, he simply follows the course of Nature. Those who follow the course of Nature at the right time are not affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients meant by being released from bondage. (
Ibid. Chapter 3)

(b) When Tse-yu was about to die, he was asked whether or not he found the process of dying to be detestable. This is what he said. When we came, it was our occasion to be born. When we go, it is to follow the course of Nature. Those who live in accord with Nature and are at ease with its seasons cannot be affected by sorrow and joy. This is what the ancients meant by being released from bondage. Those who cannot release themselves are tied to material things. (

Ibid. Chapter 6)

(c) When Tse-lai was gasping for breath and was about to die, his wife and children surrounded him and wept. But this was what he said to his family. Whenever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, north, or south, he has to obey. The yin and yang in us are our parents. If they want me to die and I disobeyed, it would be obstinate of me. ... The universe gave me a body so that I may toil for my life. It allows me to grow old so as to find repose, and let me die so that I may rest. Therefore, what is good for my life is also good for my death. (

(d) When Zhuan-zis wife died, he was asked as to why he was not showing grief for someone who had lived with him and raised his children. This was what Zhuan-zi said. When she died, how could I help not being affected? But I calm down when I realize that originally she had no life; not only no life, she had no feature; and not only without feature, she also had no vital energy (chi). (
Ibid. Chapter 18) In between existence and non-existence, there is vital

energy transforming. It is vital energy that becomes bodies, which in turn becomes life, and now life becomes death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons. Now, she lies asleep in the great house (of Nature). For me to go on weeping and wailing would mean that I do not understand life ( or the destiny of man). Therefore, I stopped weeping. (

(e) When Zhuan-zi was about to die, his disciples were preparing many things to bury with him. When Zhuan-zi knew about this, this is what he said: I will take Heaven and Earth to be my coffin, the sun and the moon to be my jade rings, the

stars to be my jewelry, and everything else as being buried with me. Is that not already sufficient? Why do you have to make preparations? The disciples replied: we are worried that crows and eagles will eat up your body. Zhuan-zi said: crows and eagles will consume an unburied body, but ants will eat one that is buried. Why should you be so prejudicial as to take food from the crows and eagles, and feed it to the ants? (
Ibid. Chapter 32)

For Zhuan-zi and his fellow Daoists, as readers can see, death is but Natures way of transforming our bodies to become other things. It is also Natures way of ensuring that everyone is able to find rest in the end. Therefore, for those who understand the workings of nature, the inevitability of death is to be accepted with ease and without sorrow rather than feared. As Zhuan-zi further explained: As it is the dictate of Nature ( or Heaven) that there should be night as well as day, it is also the destiny of man to live and die. Such is the nature of things, beyond the interference of man. (
Ibid. Chapter 6)

Now, for those who could not take no for an answer, and are still groping for a way out, the Book of Zhuan-zi has also reserved for them the following story. On his way to the state of Chu, Zhuan-zi saw an empty skull on the road and wondered to himself as to how it had really died. For this reason, the skull appeared in his dreams at midnight, saying: In the world of the dead, there are neither ruler above nor subjects below. With no change of seasons, one is at ease with Heaven and Earth. Even the enjoyment of a king in the human world cannot surpass this! But Zhuan-zi was not prepared to take the skull at his word, and said: if Nature dictates that your former physical form is to be

restored complete with skin and bones so that you could return to your parents, wife, children, neighbors, and friends, would you not desire that it could indeed be so? To this, the skull seriously replied: how could I abandon the happiness of a king to resume the hardships of the human world? (
Ibid. Chapter 18 )

What the story is calling attention are questions such as these. How is one to know that what we take to be life is not an illusion? And how is one to know that our hate of death is not like an orphan who does not know what it is to return home?
( Ibid. Chapter 2) Alternatively, how is one to know that the dead will

not regret for having previously craved for life? As those who dream of eating and drinking will weep the next morning, those who dream of weeping may hunt in the field at dawn. (
Ibid. )

In this regard, Lao-zi was also reported in the Book of Zhuan-zi to have said the following: As animals that feed on grass do not mind to change swamps, water creatures also do not mind to change their ponds. They can survive minor changes when basic living conditions remain the same. Joy, anger, grief, and sorrow will not affect them in the heart. It should also be observed that the world is the place where all things co-exist. They share the same world and see themselves to be one and the same. This is also the place where their limbs and bodies will turn to dust. As such, the succession of life and death as well as beginning and end are but transitions between day and night. Under this light, why should anyone be bothered (with living and dying), let alone such trifles as gain and loss, fortune and misfortune? (

Ibid. Chapter 21)

As readers should by now be able to appreciate, as far as philosophical Daoism is concerned, the destruction of life is not death and the production of life is not life.... Nothing is beyond destruction, and nothing is beyond formation. ( ..... Ibid. Chapter 6) As it is said: the sage follows Nature when he is alive, and transforms with everything when he is dead. He part takes the virtue of yin when he is tranquil, and shares the movement of yang when he is active. .... He floats with life, and rest with death. (
..... Ibid. Chapter 15) As Guancheng-zi (presumably a

legendary predecessor of Daoist thought) was also reported to have told the Yellow Emperor (the legendary predecessor of the Chinese people): Since everything has come from earth, it is to earth that everything must also return... All men must ultimately die, and how can I alone survive? (
....... Ibid. Chapter 11)

Comment: In this connection, let me also mention that as ancient Chinese legend has it, it was Nu-Wor, a god or goddess of sorts that created human beings. She dipped a rope into a muddy pond, dragged it out, and let the watery mud drip onto the ground. Thereupon, each of the mud-drops became a living human being. Implicit to the story is the idea that the stuff of the earth is already endowed with powers of a very mysterious and miraculous kind. But it is difficult to say if Guanchengzis idea of earth to earth was inspired by this ancient legend. ================================================== Peter M.K. Chan is the author of The Mystery of Mind published 2003, and Soul, God, and Morality published 2004. Recently, he has also competed another work titled The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism (available in ebooks but not yet in print). For details regarding the above, please visit