Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Taoist take on death

"Chuang Tzu's wife died.

"When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. 'You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,' said Hui Tzu. 'It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing - this is going too far, isn't it?'

"Chuang Tzu said, 'You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter.

"'Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped."

The above is from Chuang Tzu. I agree with it. The 'tub' sentiments are perhaps a little over-the-top, for emphasis. It recalls the famous (and similarly over-the-top) assertion of Lin Chi: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" (ref), which is meant to oppose both the cult of personality and any appeal to authority over reason.

Chuang Tzu is perhaps best known for the following text.

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."

But striking though this imagery is, its philosophical insight seems to me to be less than the initial reflection on the significance of death. Note that in its sense of the positioning of a finite life in the great space-time sweep of the universe, Chuang Tzu's position is not dissimilar to Einstein's view here.