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As many of you know, I love the stories from Zhuāng Zi (Chuang Tzu). He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humor. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.

Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.

Recently, I have been dealing with the challenges of the imminent death of a dear relative whom played a big part of my growing up, and it’s tough. So, I would like to revisit the Daoist view of death which assuages me during this difficult time. No one does it better than Zhuang Zi, accompanied by the highly skillful commentary from Derek Lin:

Death of Zhuang Zi’s Wife

Zhuang Zi’s wife passed away, so his old friend Hui Zi came for a visit of condolence. When he arrived, he saw that Zhuang Zi was sitting on the ground, drumming a pot and singing a song. He did not seem to be grieving, and this seemed very inappropriate to Hui Zi. 

He said to Zhuang Zi: “What are you doing? Your wife has been there for you all those years, raising your children and building your family with you. Now she is gone, but you feel no sadness and shed no tears. You are actually drumming and singing! Isn’t this a bit much?”

“It’s not what it looks like my friend.” Zhuang Zi faced Hui Zi’s emotions. “Of course I was struck with grief when she passed on. How could I not be? But then, I realized that the life I thought she lost was actually not something she had originally. During all that time before her birth, she did not possess life, a physical form, or indeed anything at all. She ended up in exactly the same state, so she did not lose anything.”

Her death was a transformation, just like when she was conceived and born,” Zhuang Zi continued. “In that state between existence and nonexistence, her initial transformation gave rise to energy. That energy gave rise to a physical form, and that physical form took on life to become a human being. Now it’s the other way around, as her continuing transformation returns her to the Dao. This whole process – from nonexistence to life, from life back to nonexistence again – is like the changing of the seasons, all completely in accordance with nature.” 

Hui Zi nodded. Somehow, Zhuang Zi’s behavior no longer seemed as inappropriate as before. He said to Zhuang Zi: “Since the transformation is perfectly in accordance with nature, it is not something to be sad about, just like you and I would not cry over autumn changing to winter.”

“Yes. She is now resting peacefully in the hereafter, without all the constraints and limitation of life. The more I think about that, the more silly it seems to cry my eyes out. I will always miss her, but it is not necessary for me to grieve for her as if her death were a great tragedy.” 

This story applies not just to one’s spouse, but all loved ones – family, friends, the people we care about the most. When someone like that dies, it is only natural for us to grieve. This grieving process is something Zhuang Zi experienced and fully acknowledged. 

Sometimes, the grief can be so powerful that it overwhelms us. When that happens, everything seems hopeless as we find ourselves completely unable to get on with life. We know such a despairing state is not something the deceased would want for us, but we can’t help ourselves. 

There is another side of the overwhelming experience of grief, although it can be difficult to discern while we are caught up in it. The death of a loved one is something that forces us to face mortality, to somehow come to terms with it. We can even learn something from it, just as Zhuang Zi did in the story. 

What Zhuang Zi learned was the same wisdom attributed to Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Whether expressed by an American icon or a Chinese sage, the spiritual truth is one and the same. The life that we think belongs to us is in fact something we borrow temporarily. We must give it back sooner or later, precisely because it is not ours to keep. In essence, this death that we grieve over so much is not that different from our obligation to return books to the library. When the due date comes, we must do our part to keep the system moving along. 

Understanding this returning process frees us from debilitating sadness. Zhuang Zi knew that his wife did not just vanish but had simply returned back to nature, back to the Dao. She made the return trip that is really the same trip that brought us here in reverse. Why should we attach excessive emotions to it?

The way that Zhuang Zi explained it is the easiest way to understand. We can look at our journey from the Dao to the material world and back again as transitions and realize that these transitions are perfectly natural, like the changing of the seasons. We know the seasons must change when the time is right. We also know that this kind of change keeps going indefinitely. The end of one particular summer is not the end of all summers. We may miss the warm days as we head into cold weather, but we do know that summer will return. 

It is just like that with life and death. Some of us have been taught to regard death as the termination point – something to fear, something to avoid thinking about too much. The truth is just the opposite.

Death is natural. It is a process of transition and an agent of change that brings spiritual clarity. We don’t have to let it overwhelm us. We don’t have to fear the Reaper. Instead, we should be inspired by Zhuang Zi to honor the passage of our loved ones, to celebrate the life that they have lived, and to give thanks to the time that they spent with us. 

This is the true perspective of the Dao on death, not to be mislead into thinking the Dao is concerned with physical immortality. That is the shallow opinion of dabblers. The truth as you have heard directly from Zhuang Zi, is deeper and far more interesting. 

  The Zhuang Zi story and commentary is from ‘The Tao of Happiness‘ – 18 stories from Zhuang Zi with commentary. Derek Lin does an excellent job! Highly recommended!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To book an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.