There are several early Daoist stories about grieving that are apt to strike us today as surprising, perhaps harsh, certainly bizarre at first sight. It seems that the experience of bereavement, coupled with the complex set of expectations about how people should respond to it by custom and ritual in Chinese culture at the time–where the rituals in question were predominantly “Confucian” in origin–were a key place of instruction in Daoist discourse. Bereavement was a teaching moment.
One of the starkest, harshest-seeming anecdotes of this sort is found in the Liezi (ca. 300 CE):
There was a man of Wei, Dongmen Wu, who did not grieve when his son died. His wife said to him: “No one in the world loved your son as much as you did. Why do you not grieve now he is dead?”
“I used to have no son,” he answered, “and when I had no son I did not grieve. Now that he is dead, it is the same as it was before when I had no son. Why should I grieve over him?” [A.C. Graham’s translation, modified]
Another such story concerns Zhuangzi himself. There’s no way of knowing whether the following actually occurred (or, indeed, whether Zhuangzi even existed as a real human being), but the lesson stands regardless. It’s found in one of the later chapters of the Zhuangzi (2nd-1st century BCE?):
Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi went to offer his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Huizi. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing–this is going too far, isn’t it?”
Zhuangzi said, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons. Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.” [Burton Watson’s translation, modified]
In both instances the bereaved person reframes his loss by, in effect, taking out the “his.” Life is an ongoing series of constant changes (bian 變–that’s the key word in the Zhuangzi story). Humans tend to like certain elements in this ever-swirling mix, dislike others. These stories take the Daoist remedy of equanimity and acceptance in the face of all changes and illustrate it in the extreme case of bereavement. The father in the Liezi tale may seem to us barely human; the Zhuangzi tale humanizes its protagonist by having him admit that he did initially grieve his wife’s death in the way most people would. (Graham translates that line, 是其始死也，我獨何能無概然, as “When she first died, do you suppose that I was not able to feel the loss?”) Accepting change, and letting go of the things we cannot control, are what the Zhuangzi author means by “understanding fate” (通乎命).
Some anecdotes demonstrate how the same remedy of acceptance works in the case of facing one’s own impending death. My favorite–and one of my favorite passages in all of world literature–shows up, once again, in the Zhuangzi, this time in the inner chapters (ca. 320 BCE?–although Esther Sunkyung Klein has published an article that should make us rethink this early dating). There were four friends, the story goes, who agreed that “life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body” 生死存亡之一體–that is, agreed on the principle of equanimity or acceptance in the face of all change, even the ultimate changes known as “life” and “death.” One of the friends, Master Lai, fell ill, gasping and wheezing. His wife and children surrounded him and began to cry, but another of the friends, Master Li, shooed them away, saying, “Get back! Don’t disturb the process of change!” 避！無怛化！. He then leaned against the doorway and said to his friend,
“How marvelous is the fashioning of things! What’s it going to make out of you next? Where will it send you? Will it fashion you into a rat’s liver? Will it make you into a bug’s arm?”
Master Lai replied, “A child, obeying his parents, goes wherever he’s told, east or west, north or south. And the Yin and Yang–how much more are they to a person than father or mother! Now that they’ve brought me to the verge of death, if I should refuse to obey them, how perverse I would be! The Great Clod burdens me with form [or a body], labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death. When a skilled smith is casting metal, if the metal were to leap up and say, ‘I insist on being made into a Moye!’ [a famous sword of old, like Excalibur] he would surely regard it as very inauspicious metal indeed. Now, having had the audacity to take on human form once, if I should say, ‘I don’t want to be anything but a human being! Nothing but a human being!’, the fashioner of things would surely regard me as a most inauspicious sort of person. So now I think of heaven and earth as a great furnace, and the fashioner of things as a skilled smith. Where could he send me that would not be all right? I will go off to sleep peacefully, and then with a start I will wake up.”
Even in as brief a passage as this, we see several metaphors rolled out for the world, the universe, the ongoing process of change and whatever mysterious agents or mechanisms direct it, none of which the author claims to have any clear idea about: Yin and Yang; the Great Clod大塊; heaven and earth; and, my personal favorite, something termed 造物者 or 造化, “the fashioner/fashioning of things (wu 物)” or of “transformations” (hua化). (I don’t think the author cares exactly who or what this entity is; it’s a metaphor, not a theological postulate. Note that this “fashioning/fashioner” may not even be a personalized agent and is surely, as the metalsmith analogy makes clear, not the creator of the materials he/she/it works with in constantly reshaping and reforming bits of stuff to form new things and creatures.)
The penultimate sentence is a cry of faith à la mode Daoïste: if one accepts all changes with equanimity, accepts the things one can’t do anything about anyway, and goes with the flow, then one moves to a viewpoint where it’s possible to ask “Where could he/she/it send me that would not be all right?” 惡乎往而不可哉 and mean it. And the last sentence imagines this to-us-mysterious process of change (maybe there’s some conceivable point of view from which we could see it more clearly, but from here it just seems like an inscrutable CHANGE, like being conveyed on a conveyer belt into a dark tunnel or perhaps an MRI machine) as being like gradually falling asleep and then waking up with a start as someone/something … else. 成然寐，蘧然覺.
Maybe a bug’s arm.