Neither Hating Death, Nor Loving Life

“Appearing means life
disappearing means death
thirteen are the followers of life
thirteen are the followers of death
but people living to live
move toward the land of death’s thirteen
and why is this so
because they live to live
it’s said that those who guard life well
aren’t injured by soldiers in battle
or harmed by rhinos or tigers in the wild
for rhinos find nowhere to stick their horns
tigers find nowhere to sink their claws
and soldiers find nowhere to thrust their spears
and why is this so
because for them there’s no land of death”

(Taoteching, verse 50, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG CHU says, “Of the ten thousand changes we all experience, none are more important than life and death. People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

RED PINE notes, “In lines three, four and six, the phrase shih-yu-san has long puzzled commentators. HAN FEI says it means ‘three and ten,’ or thirteen, and refers to the four limbs and nine orifices of the body, which can be guarded to preserve life or indulged to end it.” (I took the time to count them all; and yes, there are nine orifices of the body – libertariantaoist)

TU ER-WEI says the numerical significance of thirteen here refers to the moon, which becomes full thirteen days after it first appears and which disappears thirteen days after it begins to wane. (I have already expressed my own skepticism regarding Tu Er-wei’s interpretation of Lao-tzu’s teachings’ origins in worship of the moon – libertariantaoist)

WANG PI says it means ‘three in ten” and refers to the three basic attitudes people have toward life. Wang An-shih summarizes these as: “Among ten people, three seek life because they hate death, three seek death because they hate life, and three live as if they were dead.” Leaving the sage, who neither hates death nor loves life, but who thus lives long.

And RED PINE adds, “The Mawangtui texts, which I have followed here, word lines five and six in such a way as to make Wang Pi’s interpretation, unilikely, if not impossible. As for choosing between Han Fei and Tu Er-wei, I think Professor Tu’s interpretaion comes closer to what Lao-tzu had in mind.”

This is one of those rare times I disagree with Red Pine. I noted in my introduction to Red Pine’s translation that he was strongly influenced by Professor Tu Er-Wei, who believed the origin of Taoism was in the worship of the moon. I could be way off base, but I see all the lunar references in the Taoteching as intended as metaphors. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less – libertariantaoist.

And getting back to WANG PI, he also says, “Eels consider the depths too shallow, and eagles consider the mountains too low. Living beyond the reach of arrows and nets, they both dwell in the land of no death. But by means of baits, they are lured into the land of no life.”

SU CH’E says, “We know how to act but not how to rest. We know how to talk but not how to keep quiet. We know how to remember but not how to forget. Everything we do leads to the land of death. The sage dwell where there is neither life nor death.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who guard their life don’t cultivate life but what controls life. What has life is form. What controls life is nature. When we cultivate our nature, we return to what is real and forget bodily form. Once we forget form, our self becomes empty. Once our self is empty, nothing can harm us. Once there is no self, there is no life. How then could there be any death?”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who are wise have no life. Not because they slight it, but because they don’t possess it. If someone has no life, how can they be killed? Those who understand this can transcend change and make of life and death a game.”

So, is it “three and ten” or “three in ten?” Red Pine’s translation is the first and only translation I have read, insisting it is “three and ten,” in other words, “thirteen.” And, I still find myself agreeing with Wang Pi and Wang An-shih in their interpretation. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter; as long as we get Lao-tzu’s meaning that we can’t prolong our life by hating death or loving life. If we neither hate death nor love life, we will live long.

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