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 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”

-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 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.”

Every time I read through Red Pine’s translation and commentary for today’s verse I try to reconcile his “thirteen” (three and ten) with the three in ten (see Wang Pi’s commentary) with which I am more familiar. And, every time I find myself disagreeing with Red Pine (and Han Fei and Tu Er-wei) about it meaning thirteen. And I don’t think it is just my familiarity with the interpretation which renders it three in ten that makes me favor that interpretation over Red Pine’s. For me, thirteen is a bit too esoteric for my liking. I tend to steer clear of interpretations which favor an esoteric understanding of what Lao-tzu is teaching. No, I think Lao-tzu is easy to understand, and easy to put into practice. We just don’t want to. And attaching esoteric understandings to his teachings give us an easy out for not being able to understand and put into practice what Lao-tzu has to teach.

So, once again, I am going to go at this as if Wang Pi is right in his interpretation. Lao-tzu is referring to the three basic attitudes people have toward life. These are: “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.” That just sounds more “right” to me.

And, of course, that leaves just one in ten, the sage, who neither hates death nor loves life, and who thus lives long. I want to be this one in ten. And I suspect I have a few fellow “one in tens” who are reading along with me today.

But, then, there are the others, the nine in ten, the vast majority. We can’t leave them out of the discussion. So, let’s spend a little time talking about each “three in ten” to give them their due, before we look more into the “one in ten.”

I like how Robert Brookes, in his translation, puts it. “Three in ten people focus too much on extending life. Three in ten people focus too much on fearing death. Three in ten people focus on living life to the fullest and thus find an early death. Why is this so? Because such people live to excess.”

Living life to excess doesn’t just apply to the last set of three. I think it applies to each set of three. Those who focus too much on extending life, and those who focus too much on fearing death, as well as those who focus on living life to the fullest.

What is your attitude toward life? Do you love it, or hate it? Perhaps you think, “What is wrong with wanting to live life to the fullest? After all, we only have one life to live, and that a short one. But that is just Lao-tzu’s point. We shorten our lives through our efforts to live.

The result is we live life as if we were already dead. Failing to go with nature’s flow. We resist nature every step of the way, whether in an effort to extend life, or to end it. That simply isn’t how nature unfolds around us.

What is missing is a sense of balance. The balance that nature is always about.

Meanwhile, we still have that one in ten left to talk about. They are the ones with the right attitude toward life. They neither hate death, nor love life. And because they have found the middle way, neither hot, nor cold, avoiding the extremes, they successfully preserve their life, thus having a long and enjoyable one.

Understand that Lao-tzu isn’t simply referring to your physical life, here. That is only a metaphor for what Lao-tzu is teaching. What Lao-tzu is teaching is how to transcend the boundaries of life and death. And that is to transcend the material realm.

I particularly appreciate what Su Ch’e has to say in his commentary, today. “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.” It is a whole other plane of existence. And that is where I wish to dwell.

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