Published on 2024.03.26


The Taoist Concept on Life and Death:
The Taoist Concept on Life and Death: Following nature and being in harmony with the Tao


The basic idea of the Taoist concept on life and death is “life and death are different forms of qi (氣, the vital energy) and should be in accordance with nature”. In the Taoist view, life and death are nothing but one of the natural phenomena. Laozi has very few discussions on the issue of life and death. He believes that if people do not attach great importance to their own lives, they can better preserve themselves, which is rather close to his ideas of “non-action” and “restraining desires”. He also said that “the person who dies but does not perish is long-lived”, which means that “when the body is gone, the Tao still exists” according to the annotation of Wang Bi (王弼,227-249). Laozi views the “Tao” as an eternal existence, while the existence of a human body is temporary. If a person can live in accordance with nature and Tao, then he who has obtained the Tao can transcend limitations and reach the state of being with the Tao. Therefore, Laozi said, “Those who practice the Tao are in harmony with the Tao”, reaching a realm of life high above the secular world.

Zhuangzi (c. 396 BC – 286 BC) discusses the issue of life and death quite extensively. In the chapter The Great and Most Honored Master (大宗師) in his book Zhuangzi (《莊子》), he said, “The great earth carries my body, makes me toil to live, gives me ease to idle away my old age, and offers me a resting place when I die. Therefore, to live is something good and to die is also something good. (夫大块载我以形,劳我以生,佚我以老,息我以死,故善吾生者,乃所以善吾死也。)” Life, old age, and death are all natural, and death is nothing but peaceful rest. Zhuangzi further believes that life and death are nothing but the gathering and dispersion of Qi (氣). Therefore, in the chapter Knowledge Rambling in the North (知北游) of Zhuangzi, it says: “The birth of a man is the convergence of the vital energy, which in turn forms life. The breaking-up of the vital energy causes death. If life and death are bound together, why then should I worry about death? (人之生,气之聚也;聚则为生,散则为死,若死生为徒,吾又何患?)” The chapter Perfect Enjoyment (至乐) in Zhuangzi tells a story that Huizi (惠子, c. 370 BC- 310 BC), the best friend of Zhuangzi, saw Zhuangzi “squatting on the ground singing and beating time on an earthen basin (方箕踞鼓盆而歌)” when his wife died. Huizi blamed Zhuangzi for this behavior. However, Zhuangzi believed that life and death are like the cycle of four seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, so “the coming of life cannot be rejected while the going of life cannot be stopped (生之来,不能却,其去,不能止)” (The Chapter The Full Understanding of Life, 達生).

Guo Xiang (郭象, c. 252-312), a metaphysician of the Western Jin Dynasty (西晉, 265-317), provides an important explanation for Zhuangzi’s view on life and death. He said, “The transformation of life and death is like the succession of four seasons, which means that although life and death have different states, they are all equally peaceful in their respective encounters. Those who are alive consider life as life, while those who are dead consider life as death, then there is no life. Those who are alive consider death as death, while those who are dead consider death as life, then there is no death. (夫死生之变,犹春秋冬夏四时行耳,故生死之状虽异,其于各安所遇一也。今生者方自谓生为生,而死者方自谓生为死,则无生矣。生者方自谓死为死,而死者方自谓死为生,则无死矣。)” This means that life and death are relative concepts. They are actually different states of existence for beings. Therefore, whether it is “life” or “death” depends on different positions. In this way, we should “enjoy peace of life in life and peace of death in death” in order to achieve transcendence of life and death in accordance with nature and become one with the Tao.

So what does the Taoism regard as suffering in the issue of life and death? From their perspective, it is the inability to follow nature. There is a story in the chapter The Normal Course for Rulers and Kings (应帝王) of Zhuangzi. “The king of the South Sea is called Shu (儵), the king of the North Sea is Hu (忽), and the king of the Central Sea is Hundun (混沌). Shu and Hu often met in the place of Hundun and were well treated. Shu and Hu wanted to repay the kindness of Hundun, saying: ‘Everyone has seven orifices to see, hear, eat and breathe. Poor Hundun has none. Let’s try and chisel them for him.’ They then chiseled one orifice in Hundun’s body each day, and on the seventh day Hundun died. (南海之帝为儵,北海之帝为忽,中央之帝为浑沌。儵与忽时相与遇于浑沌之地,浑沌待之甚善。儵与忽谋报浑沌之德,曰: ‘人皆有七窍,以视听食息,此独无有,尝试凿之。’日凿一窍,七日而浑沌死。)” This story illustrates that everything should follow nature and cannot be forced to change, even if it is out of kindness. Zhuangzi worries that the kindness may turn into harm if nature is destroyed. According to Zhuangzi, people “work hard and damage their true nature (苦心劳形,以危其真)” in order to pursue external things, which will lead them away from the “Tao” and fall into suffering. Therefore, the Taoism “attributes suffering to the inability to follow nature (苦心劳形,以危其真)”.

Professor Tang Yijie

Professor Tang Yijie (1927-2014) was a renowned thinker, historian of philosophy, educator, and leading scholar of Chinese studies. He served as the director of the Research Institute of Confucianism at Peking University, the president of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, the president of the Chinese Confucius Academy, and the member of China Central Institute for Culture and History. The nine-volume History of Chinese Confucianism edited by Professor Tang Yijie is by far the most informative, informative, and complete general history of Chinese Confucianism. His major works include Guo Xiang and Wei Jin Metaphysics, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Inner Transcendence, Buddhism and Chinese Culture, Harmony and Difference, and so on.

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