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The Image of Death in Zhuangzi's Taoism Concepts

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“Zhuangzi”, in the Tang dynasty, is one of the most famous and most translated classical texts. It’s a book that we all know since it’s one of the most translated classical texts. It was translated by the famous scholar of Chinese history, Li Zhongzhi. This literary work deals with themes that everyone will eventually face themselves — life and death. For example, when I look at death, I’m thinking about what happens when all the things that I’ve ever loved are gone. The kind of attitude we have with the inevitability of death is a recurring topic in the Zhuangzi text. There is always a theory on how we can describe life and death, however, throughout the reading, we will be looking through how Zhuangzi best describes life and death. To start, we will first discuss Daoism/Taoism and its relations with life and death, how Zhuangzi’s experience with death reflected his perspective, and lastly how we can truly look at life and death as a whole.

Before we dive deeper into the thoughts people have on life or death, lets first discuss Daoism, also known as Taoism. To relate this even further, Zhuangzi (or Zhuang Zhou) is a Chinese Philosopher who credited himself with writing the text called “The Zhuangzi”, which is one of the fundamental texts in Taoism. That being said, Daoism/Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophical tradition that has its philosophy that emphasizes the cultivation of virtue and love. The word ‘Dao’ (literally, ‘way’) is one of the philosophical concepts which means ‘the way’, but in China and many other parts of Asia, the word means ‘way of life’. We all have our perspectives and attitudes towards death; however, “perhaps less familiar attitude toward death pervasive in classical Chinese philosophy, particularly the Daoist tradition, that had an impact on Sinitic cultures broadly down to the present day is the opposite: to affirm death. This affirmation of death is captured in the Zhuanzi’s rather cryptic assertion: He who is able to take ‘nothing’ as his backbone, and ‘death’ as his buttocks, he who understands that life and death, existing and perishing, are one continuous unit – I would be his friend”. From the Zhuangzi’s text, we can see that this attitude towards death is a not so familiar attitude towards the persuasion towards death; in fact, the interpretation of “He who understands that life and death are one continuous unit” is referring to the idea that there will always be a beginning and of course an initial end, thus making death not the end of life but rather a continuous structure we find in nature. In Classical Daoism, death has been cited as “the process of coming out in life and returning in death, The travelers on the path of life are about a third, and those who have a life but who shift over to the path of death are also about a third. How so? Because of their excessive care for life”. Basically, in the classic Daoism, people are divided into three groups: our first group are those who simply live their life as it is, the second group are those who suffer any external environment issues such as disease, war, etc, and are closer to death, and lastly the people that want to live natural lives but had the unfortunate circumstance of trying to stay alive by which they end up in the second group instead. That being said, The Zhuangzi text also relates to Daoism as both texts are explaining the process of the continuation of life and death. The fact that Zhuangzi leads more towards accepting death as opposed to labeling kinds of death explains the very reason why many of us are so attached to death as the topic itself is not the problem — the problem is not having the acceptance of death which allows us to fear death even though (according to the Zhuangzi) is mainly a waste of time and/or blocking your life from things we want to do but will not because of our fear towards death and not appreciating the prize of life.

Zhuangzi’s perspective of death goes a long way when it came to the moment where Zhuangzi’s wife has died. To many of us, when we experience a loss of a loved one, it gets too overwhelming to handle our emotions, even to a point where we live our lives in despair, but the fact of the matter is that we show our emotions towards death one way or another. When Zhuangzi found his wife, he started drumming and singing a song for his wife, which is an unusual approach to death however when Zhuangzi responds for his actions he states “You misjudge me,’ said Zhuangzi. ‘When she died, I was in despair, as any man well might be. But soon, pondering on what had happened, I told myself that in death no strange new fate befalls us. In the beginning, we lack not life only, but form. Not form only, but spirit. We are blended in one great featureless indistinguishable mass. Then a time came when the mass evolved spirit, evolved form, evolved life. And now life in its turn has evolved death”. This kind of perspective towards a loss explains the process of death and what it means to accept death for how it is. The purpose of explaining both the classical Daoism and the Zhuangzi is to provide a deeper understanding and perspective towards life’s most popular yet unexplainable questions and understand that life really is just a continuous unit. Even though Zhuangzi has lost his wife, the fact that he has the acceptance of death allows him to cherish not the death itself, but the process of life and understand the form of an evolved life. Going back to the perspective of death according to Taoism, there is always a process of change on every attribute that life has given us. That being said, if we have a direct understanding of how nature works (its beginnings and ends) we could avoid the feeling of depression or despair much like how Zhuangzi accepted the fact that his wife died, but since it’s merely a process of nature, the emotions towards the event are more profound, not to the death itself, but the fact that we are living in this world called life.

In Taoism, teaching the meaning of “Dao” as ‘the way’ or ‘the way in life’ describes another philosophical aspect on the course of nature as “Zhuangzi taught that what can be known or said of the Dao is not the Dao. It has neither an initial beginning nor final end, nor limitations or demarcations. Life is the ongoing transformation of the Dao, in which there is no better or worse, no good or evil. Things should be allowed to follow their own course, and men should not value one situation over another”. You may call Zhuangzi a philosopher who is unattached from any circumstance — he is not concerned with the emotional attachment to the physical world since he believes that everything will follow its course regardless of you attaching yourself to it.

Zhuangzi is an inconsistent poet towards his opinions towards death, as we saw in the previous passages that he perfect accepts death the way it is and it is a good thing to value for everything we already have in life. Yet, in other passages, he points out an attitude towards another direction that despite our value towards death, Zhuangzi still despises death, but reaching value towards it allows him to avoid any personal grief. Eric Schwitzgebel also comments that “interpreting him as embracing one attitude in some moments (that death is bad, his feeling in moments of immediate personal grief) and another attitude in other moments (that death is not bad but another transformation to be celebrated, his feeling as he distances himself from personal grieving). If so, this puts her view close to my own: I read Zhuangzi as genuinely expressing both of these conflicting opinions about death”. Of course, this fits perfectly with the passage of when Zhuangzi’s wife passed and his reaction for singing and drumming as opposed to grief.

Death is more dignified when it is performed with love and respect. Zhuangzi’s philosophical efforts bring out to capture many of the complexities that we as a society often question ourselves. One of the things that are quite interesting about his passages is that each of them has a correlation in life and death. Zhuangzi had many interesting theories refer do Taoism concepts about the acceptance of death however, for many of us, that sort of mindset of being detached and accepting is a much more difficult task. However, being able to accept the death of how it is simply a continuous unit of life can allow people to save ourselves from the pain and grief that comes in the way from a death of a loved one. As for the nature that was put into this world, Zhuangzi will agree to say that life is a continuous unit and death and merely a transformation to be celebrated.  

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