Zhuangzi, whose name in earlier transliterations is rendered as “Chuang-tzu,” was the best known exponent of Daoism after its founder, Laozi. Where the book attributed to Laozi, the Dao De Jing, is enigmatic and elliptical, Zhuangzi has given us a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate the wisdom of Daoism. Here are two of them, translated by Patricia Ebrey.
What happened when Zhuangzi’s wife died:
When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing. “You lived with her, she raised your children, and you grew old together,” Hui Shi said. “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?”
“No,” Zhuangzi said. “When she first died, how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life. Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused, amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared; when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was, lying down to sleep in a huge room, and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”
And here is what he says about his own death:
When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins, the sun and the moon for jade disks, the stars for pearls, and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”
”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you, master,” a disciple said.
“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites?”
Source: Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31. https://web.archive.org/web/20060219221611/http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chuangtz.html
Lest we imagine that only ancient China could produce such equanimity in the face of our common destiny, here is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2:
If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all . . . . Let be.
And then of course there’s the great Walt Whitman:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
—Leaves of Grass, Section 6