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Death in Classical Daoist Thought

Bernard Down explains how two ancient Chinese philosophers explored new perspectives on matters of life and death.

Daoism (or Taoism) is both a religion and a philosophy. The religion mixed magic, alchemy and shamanism with the search for immortality, while the philosophy was born with the collection of aphorisms, anecdotes and stories known as the Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu) in about 320BCE and the epigrammatic poem the Daode-jing (Tao Te Ching) – probably collectively authored but given the named authorship of Laozi (Lao Tzu) – around 250BCE. The two books are both literary masterpieces and well worth reading for the quality of their writing.

They have also enabled millions of people to see themselves and their age more clearly and to transcend their sense of personal identity. An illustration of this is the story told about Bo Juyi, a poet-official, who was exiled in 815CE, because of his outspoken criticisms of the government. For him the punishment was terrible, because it stripped him of everything that defined life for a Chinese gentleman of his class. However, he tells us that because of his reading of Zhuangzi he became another and better person. Yet what he found in Daoism was something that did not offer clear-cut answers and rules, and which was opposed to the conformity and convention of society. It is this element of catering for the outsider and of questioning the ways of society, that has appealed to many millions of Chinese over the millennia, and to many Westerners today.

The Zhuangzi maintains that the truth value of any claim is related to its context or perspective and must, therefore, always be carefully qualified in order have any validity at all. What is good for one individual might not be good for another, or good for a single individual at different times. The same goes for beauty, truth, usefulness, and so on. Therefore, rather than dogmatically maintaining constant standards, one should be prepared to flexibly adjust one’s attitudes in relation to the needs of the current situation.

One of its central ideas is that of wu-wei, (‘doing nothing’), a kind of behaviour which involves the acceptance of what is inevitable or unavoidable in our experience; thereby reducing the friction and drag caused by obstinate commitment to a single preferred course of action or outcome. Some of the best examples of wu-wei are to be found in the know-how of craftsmen.

The Daode-jing suggests that within Nature all opposites are inseparable, complementary, and mutually supplant each other, including life and death; therefore, one can only understand something (e.g. beauty) by grasping its opposite. The result is that De (Te), meaning potency or virtue, which cannot be sought directly, emerges naturally.

In this way, the most efficient and effective way of overcoming problems or adversity is by noncontention or yielding, which is not the same as submission or capitulation, but involves exercising control through using the power of one’s opponent to overbalance him, exemplified in some Chinese martial arts.

The Dao

The central concept of Daoism is that of the Dao, which may be regarded as a kind of impersonal Ultimate Reality. In its most basic sense the Dao means “the Way things do what they do.” There is a Way to cook, a Way to fight, a Way to farm, a Way that water behaves, a Way to tie shoes, a Way that certain thoughts and actions produce effects in the world, and so on. There is also a Way of the world.

When one ‘has the Way’ (or ‘know-how’) to tie shoes, one can do so effortlessly and effectively. Once done, one forgets about it and moves on; one neither demands nor expects credit or blame, nor lingers on the moment of the act, basking in its glory. On the other hand, if one lacks the Way, one’s efforts will prove ineffective and wearisome, perhaps even disastrous. In Zhuangzi the developed skills of swimmers or craftsmen become examples of the effortlessness by which the Dao can be followed. Such examples constitute models by which the incommunicable skills of spiritual training can be known: they tell us that to follow the Dao, we should live simply and unselfconsciously, unencumbered by linguistic and conceptual schemes.

Thus Cook Ding who cuts up an ox for Lord Wenhui, moves like a dancer, skillfully and in rhythm. The knife that he uses is still sharp after nineteen years because it never hits or cuts bone, but slips between the joints. He can be seen as one who is perfectly well-adjusted, so that without attempting intellectual analysis or the study of abstract ideas, he is at ease in all kinds of situations, and is not thrown by novelty or unexpected circumstance. It is not an accident that Lord Wen-hui finds in this not just a lesson on butchering but a lesson on life.

For Laozi, the Dao is the nameless beginning of all things, even prior to Heaven and Earth. The Dao is the dynamic principle of change, the unshaped block from which all else is derived, it is the beginning of all beginnings, and therefore it has seen the beginning of all things. We read: “From the Dao there comes one. From one there comes two. From two there comes three. From three there comes all things.” The ‘one’ here spoken of refers to Being. To say that “from the Dao comes one,” is the same as saying that from Non-Being comes Being.

Rest is prior to motion and stillness prior to action; therefore the Dao is basic to everything, in the sense that it is logically prior to existing phenomena. The existence of men logically implies the existence of animals, and the being of all things implies the being of Being. “All things in the world come into being from Being (you); and Being comes into being from Nonbeing (wu).”

Through it we realise that there is more to the perceived world than we can measure. Unlike God it is impersonal; it does not love its creatures; it has no will to impose upon any of its creatures; it has no forethought, no memory and no regrets. In contrast to much Western thought, Daoism has no body-mind split and the Dao does not belong to another world and is not supernatural. Yet while the Dao is impersonal it displays elements of caring (though perhaps only in the sense that soil cares for a plant) and having favourites (“while Heaven has no favourites, it is invariably on the side of the good man”), so while it is unlike the personal God of Christians, it has comparison with other deities of supra-powers (e.g. Brahman and Logos).

The Dao possesses infinite power without being powerful; it does not force anything to follow its way; yet everything by virtue of being itself does follow it, just as water ultimately flows downward. Water is soft and pliable, but it can exert great force and eventually wear away even the hardest rock. Elsewhere the Dao is said to be empty like a bowl which may be used but its capacity is never exhausted. It is the secret of all secrets, the unchanging universal principle that dwells in everything.

Man comes to know about the Dao not through sophistication, erudition, or cunning, but by observing nature and by returning to ‘the state of infancy’, and through effortless action and thought and breath control. Here we have a reference to meditational techniques and the idea of the mystical, which provides some sense of human life being underpinned by something ‘wholly other’. In this and other passages, the Dao can be seen as having parallels with the Ultimate Reality of mystical traditions and as such, it may be seen to offer some rationale of the view of death as transformation that is held within the Zhuangzi.

Words can only describe the Dao imperfectly; they can help us towards the Dao, but only if each formulation is balanced by its opposite. In being nameless the Dao belongs to a time before language or, as D.E. Cooper suggests, it should be regarded as the source through which emerge the various perspectives or linguistic schemes, by which we talk about the world. As such the source itself cannot be described, since any terms used would have to be culled from within a given linguistic perspective, though it may be known non-verbally.

Nothing is absolute except the Dao itself. Without ‘short’ there cannot be ‘long’. Only when man recognises beauty as such, does ugliness become reality. Only when man recognises goodness as such, does evil become reality, because being and nothingness began as one.

In pointing to the paradoxes of nature, Laozi is able to bring a new perspective to our understanding of things. It is this which gives Daoism a sense of relativism – in the sense that it is our viewpoints that determines what we perceive. The most startling of his contrasts is the elevation of nothing above something: “Thirty spokes share one hub; just where it is nothing is the usefulness of the cart. You bore doors and windows to make a room; just where it is nothing is the usefulness of the room.” A.C. Graham compares such arguments with those offered in Western deconstructivism.

By observing Nature man learns to accept the way of Nature as inevitable and regular. Any attempt to change Nature is useless. The only way to avoid hurting yourself is to work with Nature. Some of this seems reminiscent of Spinoza, and the view that man’s bondage can only be overcome by accepting the nature of universal law and the need to understand the causes of events.

Given this picture of the Dao, Laozi adopts a quietist stance. Just as the Dao gets things done, like water, without forcing its will on others so also should men. In following the Dao the ruler does not need to use force to rule, to the degree that his subjects may not even notice that there is a ruler who guides them.


There is in Daoism, as with the Greek Heraclitus, a strong awareness of the process of change. Both nature and human beings are continuously undergoing transformations. The processes of Nature move between polarities and humans move to new perspectives. Given this situation, it is useless to expect clear definitions and continuity of structures. If one has an understanding of the nature of things and follows the natural course, one can avoid being affected by sorrow or joy. Emotion can be counteracted with reason and understanding. For example, a man of understanding will not be angry when rain prevents him from going out, but a child often will. As Spinoza says: “In so far as the mind understands all things are necessary, so far has it greater power over the effects, or suffers less from them.” (Ethics, Pt. 5, Prop. VI.)

Zhuangzi himself shows indifference toward death and decries the common practice of mourning because the mourner assumes knowledge of the unknown and pretends his dislike of it. In contrast, by his understanding of the nature of things, the sage is no longer affected by external factors and the changes of the world. On this passage the great commentator Kuo Hsiang comments: “When ignorant, he felt sorry. When he understood, he was no longer affected. This teaches man to disperse emotion with reason.”

When Zhuangzi’s wife died, his friend Hui Shih found Zhuangzi sitting on the ground, singing and banging on pots. On asking him how he could be so unfeeling to his wife, he was told by Zhuangzi: “When she had just died, I could not help being affected. Soon, however, I examined the matter from the very beginning. At the very beginning, she was not living, having no form, nor even substance. But somehow or other there was then 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 stopped!”

It was the very process of change that provided Zhuangzi with a wife who has been unique and exciting. In subsequently reflecting on her ‘loss’, he discovers her continuing participation in the process of change, and his mourning becomes a celebration of her life. Every moment involves both a living and a dying and thereby makes the whole process vibrant and productive. What made his wife a unique and cherished companion is dependent upon the interplay of change and persistence in the human experience. Zhuangzi thought back to the time before his wife was born and had no body – and even farther back, to the time before her spirit existed.

Death is like the progression of the four seasons, a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of the Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one’s own death is arbitrarily to evaluate what is inevitable. It is useless, arbitrary, and foolish to set ourselves against what is natural. We can choose to adopt different perspectives on experience. Why not choose ones which enable us to see death not as something to be feared and lamented, but as just one more phase in a much larger transformational movement?

In all this, transformation does not necessarily suggest an afterlife or any form of personal immortality. Dead matter fertilises the ground and provides the raw material for other living beings to grow and reproduce. Death in general can be said to lead to new life, just as life in general ends in death. Life, in general, goes on, though we may not.

The butterfly story [see sidebar] provides the symbol of transformation, where distinctions become blurred. The butterfly follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower; its actions are spontaneous and free; so that it does not wear itself out fighting the forces of nature.

If life and death are but phases within the cycle of change, then there is no difference between the living and the dead. Mortality only becomes a problem and a source of sorrow,because man cannot free himself from his categorisation of life and existence. In the physical sense, man must die and there is no escape. But, if man can understand Nature’s way and embrace the Dao, then he lives as long as the Dao. Zhuangzi defies death by saying that if (after death) his left arm became a rooster, he would simply use it to mark the time of night. Man may die indeed, but his essence as part of the universal essence lives on forever. This is the metaphysical view of immortality in the Zhuangzi.

There is also a mystic explanation of immortality offered by Zhuangzi. A man who has succeeded in ridding himself of his intellectual knowledge by ‘fasting his mind’, by ‘contemplating on emptiness’ and by discarding artificial distinctions, will come close to union with the Dao; and thereby will have attained the Mysterious Power in Nature. He will have ‘preserved’ himself by following the natural bends of things; as Ding the perfect butcher was able to use his knife by his effortless skills.

Man should live as part of Nature together with all other things in Nature, and desist from his futile pursuit of seeing, reading, and analysing the universe in abstraction. The moment man ceases to confuse himself with the useless puzzles which his fellow men have created, his mind will be liberated. Then and only then will he be ready to comprehend the Dao.

By emptying his mind of intellectual prejudices, man will be able to see the similarity of all things. Hence, he and the myriad things will be one, and he will feel that the universe is within him. Whatever he does or does not do will cause no concern or anxiety. He will thus be free to move in the universe. At this stage his happiness is true and supreme, because there is nothing about him that is not in accord with Nature.

Having been intellectually liberated, man no longer sees any cause for alarm, or worry, or sorrow. Following a course completely in accord with Nature, he depends on nothing and seeks nothing. He is totally free. Zhuangzi’s ideal freedom is threefold: an intellectual liberation from man’s prejudices and manmade restrictions, an emotional liberation through a thorough understanding of the way of all lives, and finally a total liberation when man feels no restriction because he accepts every natural course of events.

The Zhuangzi moves in the same direction as the Daode-jing, emphasising the continuity between and the interdependence of life and death. But Zhuangzi goes beyond the mere acceptance of death in arguing that the very reasons we have for being attached to life are the same reasons we must appreciate death. The problem is not death, but our fear of death, a fear that is unwarranted: “How do I know that to delight in life isn’t being muddleheaded? And how do I know that to despise death is not the feeling of someone lost in his youth being unable to find his way back?” Within this world, death is equated with the process of transformation itself.

Once we have accepted the intuitively powerful assumption that we transform rather than disappear, this makes life deliciously anticipatory and inconclusive. Around each corner is the possibility of ever new and exciting experiences. The Zhuangzi locates the possibility of assuming a human form within the larger process of transformation. In one story about a talking hundred year old skull, there is a discussion of transformation in nature drawing on analogies similar to our talk of tadpoles becoming frogs. These examples provide a bottomless resource out of which all things in proper sequence emerge. The priority of process and change over permanence guarantees the irreversibility of order and makes absolute predictability precarious.

The process of dying is located among the other operations of nature familiar in everyday lives. The sun rises in the eastern quarter only to set in the distant western reaches, and all of the myriad things take their bearings from it. Having once received my present form, I persist and wait for it to be used up. I never know where my life will end. Life and death are correlative categories which depend upon each other for explanation. The sun rises and the sun sets, yet always on a new day. And the previous day fades away.

There is in all this the recognition that death is a relatively unremarkable aspect of the human experience. Life could not be what it is if it were not for the anticipation of death. Without death in its broadest sense, life would be static, transparent, predictable and tedious. Death does not inhibit or subvert life, but stimulates and drives it, making it more intense and poignant

© Bernard Down 2000

Bernard Down taught Educational Studies at Brunel University. Since retiring he has studied Chinese philosophy with Anja Steinbauer at the City University. She encouraged him to write this article.

The butterfly story

“Last night Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, spirits soaring he was a butterfly (is it that in showing what he was he suited his own fancy?), and did not know about Zhuangzi. When all of a sudden he awoke, he was Zhuangzi with all his wits about him. He does not know whether he is Zhuangzi who dreams he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreams he is Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and the butterfly there was necessarily a dividing; just this is what is meant by the transformation of things.”

(translated by A.C. Graham)

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