Friday, January 13, 2012

Call It Death

Scott Bradley

"If we examine the Great Beginning of antiquity we find that man was born of nonbeing to assume form in being. Having form, he is governed by things. But he who can return to that from which he was born and become as though formless is called a "true man". The true man is he who has never become separated from the Great Oneness." (Huai-nan Tzu, 14:1a)

This is, I think, a clear summary of the Taoist spiritual vision. The central idea is that being and nonbeing unite in the human experience and thus to be truly human is to live in both. It is, of course, embedded in a speculative cosmology but we need not adopt it, or even substitute our own, to appreciate how it might be reflective of our actual experience and suggest a way to transcendence.

The concepts of being and non-being are themselves only concepts and not reality itself. Yet concepts are in some sense required and these two serve the purpose of suggesting what is our experience. We might substitute them with existence and non-existence. We do not truly know what these terms suggest, but we do have some inkling of it. We live and we die. We exist and we cease to exist. Or so it seems.

Of late, I have been equating non-existence with death. How long I'll be running with this particular bone in my teeth, I don't know, but I feel sure it will remain part of my philosophy unto non-existence. The author quoted above speaks of nonbeing as the origin of all being. (Guo Xiang, the editor of the Zhuangzi as we have it, thought this nonsense and declared that all things simply give rise to themselves. I mention this only to remind that we are speaking in metaphors.) Just as all being arises from non-being, so are we too born from non-existence into existence, only to return to the same. Call it death.

But that is not the end of it; our existence is not a reality independent of and removed from non-existence; these two are one in us. Death, non-existence, is already in us. Death is not something we simply await; it is something we already are. This is why the Huai-nan Tzu entreats us to "return to that from which (we) were born". To exist most authentically, to be a "true man", is to realize in experience this synthesis of existence and non-existence which we are (and are not).

To exist without reference to non-existence is the virtue of a tree. To exist with reference to non-existence is the virtue of the human being. The reference is unavoidable; how we deal with it another matter. Clinging to one side or the other can only lead to suffering.

The paradoxical statement in the last line quoted above is of great importance. We must endeavor to become "true men", but we must also remember that we have never been anything else. Never are we anything but the Great Oneness.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. You must also in your thinking have considered how "life" is dying. Birth to death is a slow death process. We can't quite imagine the opposite 'living process' where death moves to life, but we can witness the living dying processes in nature, and that is really who we are.

  2. "The central idea is that being and nonbeing unite in the human experience..."

    This doesn't quite ring true for me, otherwise why would we "return to that from which (we) were born."

    When I first engaged in some neidan study and practice, my initial response was "We're learning how to be dead," equating non-existence or non-being with death). I don't see it quite that way now. "Uniting" being and nonbeing is not the same (conceptually) as "returning" to the original state (of primeval qi). Neidan practitioners (ultimately the zhenren) do not call it death, but rather the conception of the immortal fetus. People who do not engage in neidan--mortal ordinary people-- die. This is very esoteric stuff, and to people disinclined to such thinking, fatuous (or religious).

    But these are all words and metaphors based in the concepts of wuji, taiji, yin and yang, wuxing, and qi.

    But we are straying a little out of the "philosophical taoism" bounds here.


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