Friday, December 30, 2011

Is There Death Before Life? III

Scott Bradley


I am revisiting this theme because I sense it has much more to teach.

What is meant by death in this question is not what we normally understand by the word. It does not strictly mean the cessation of life, although because there is life as something in some sense other than death, that meaning does apply in part. If there is death before there is life, however, then death is something much greater than the mere incidence of the cessation of life.

In this case, death is not merely a negation, but itself a positive 'something'. I am tempted to call it 'non-existence' or 'non-being' so as to have something more conventional and palatable to grasp, but these are abstract, metaphysical concepts and I have no desire to attempt a definition of reality. Suffice it to say, therefore, that, as a consequence of life as a reflective experience, death becomes a 'something'. Still, the word death wants to mean only the negation of life, and the temptation to use another (emptiness?) is strong. But I am going to resist that temptation and ask you to try and understand it as 'something' much more than that. A large part of this exercise is, in fact, to break the reflexive belief that death is only the opposite of life.

If life emerges from death and returns to death, death in some sense trumps life. Death is the condition for life. Death is the prevailing norm. This is not intended to imply that life and death are therefore in opposition to each other; quite the contrary, they are in complete harmony — only life is now seen as part of death, rather than death as part of life.

When the Zhuangzi suggests we return to what we were before our parents were born, I think it is asking us to discover the death which is in us. If we emerge from and return to death, might not death still be a big part of who we are? I think it is. In fact, I think it is what we most essentially are. And now, perhaps, we might want to give it other names; let's call it 'emptiness', 'tenuousness', 'becoming'. We could call it 'non-being' if we do not oppose it to 'being' or understand it to be a real attribute of reality.

Many commentators, old and new, have defined the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi as emphasizing Non-being as opposed to Being. I think this is a great mistake and the imposition of a metaphysics where none was implied. Rather, they simply exhort us to return to the essential emptiness which lies at our core — an emptiness which, because it is experience, requires no definition.

Thus, we discover that death is the very reality in us — our essential emptiness — which to experientially realize is to be liberated from the burdens of our tenuous existence, that is, the need 'to be' and its concomitant fear of loss. We are, in a very real sense, already dead. Rejoice and be glad.

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

1 comment:

  1. There's something in this for sure. Death is not the opposite of life. Taoist thinkers should not be using opposites but mutually arising elements.

    Its right both that there is a real truth worth seeing here and that we don't have a language fit for what we may find.

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