Transcending the Boundaries of Life and Death

“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 the 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”

-Lao-tzu-
(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 adds an explanatory note about the “thirteen” in lines 3, 4, and 6, saying, “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.”

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.”

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.”

RED PINE notes that the Mawangtui texts, which he has followed here, word lines five and six in such a way as to make Wang Pi’s interpretation unlikely, if not impossible. As for choosing between Han Fei and Tu Er-wei, he thinks Professor Tu’s interpretation comes closer to what Lao-tzu had in mind.

WANG PI 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 dwells 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, 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 the 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.”

This is one of those few times where I completely disagree with Red Pine on his interpretation. Perhaps, for no other reason than Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, was the first one to which I was exposed. But, in addition to that, I just think theirs fits more with what Lao-tzu says throughout the Taoteching. So, leaving aside the interpretations of Red Pine, Han Fei, and Tu Er-wei, I want to get to the actual meat of the verse.

Ch’eng Chu speaks of the ten thousand changes we all experience, life and death being paramount among these myriad changes. Saying, “People who cultivate the Tao are concerned with nothing except transcending these boundaries.”

That has certainly been my purpose in the years I have been reading through the Taoteching, and sharing my own commentary with my followers.

And, just so you know, my purpose has nothing to do with wishing to extend my physical life. I think that is a common misconception of Taoism. That somehow we are hoping to never die (physically).

Transcendence, though, means so much more. It is speaking of something beyond the physical realm. Indeed, the physical realm is largely a delusion. And often, Lao-tzu references it only in metaphorical terms. Physically, I am going to die. I was born, therefore, I am going to die. That is settled. What I am concerned with is something in me that was never born, and thus can never die. That is what I want to cultivate in me.

Being as Red Pine was mostly dismissive of Wang Pi’s interpretation, along with Wang An-shih’s, I want to go back once again to what they had to say: Three in ten people seek life because they hate death. Three in ten seek death because they hate life. And, three in ten live as if they were dead. We all know these people. They are us. Notice I am not excluding myself, here. We have all been there, done that. But, if you did the math, as I did, you know, that still leaves one in ten people. I want to be, and I think you do too, the one in ten that neither hate death, nor love life.

Wang Pi goes on to talk of eels and eagles, metaphorically, to explain how to live long. For eels, the boundaries of life and death are in the depths. For eagles, the boundaries are in the heights.

What we are seeking is to transcend those boundaries, to go deeper, or to go higher. To go beyond life and death. Su Ch’e has something to say about this very thing. He says the problem lies with not knowing yin like we do yang. If we were to know both yin and yang we would dwell where there is neither life nor death.

And Te-Ch’ing is particularly helpful: By cultivating what controls life, our nature, we return to what is real and forget bodily form, then our self becomes empty, then nothing can harm us. No self = no life. And no life = no death.

Finally, Chiao Hung concludes: Understanding this is the key to transcending change. My physical body is still going to die. Just like yours. But what I am cultivating on the inside of me, will live on.

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