Between birth and death,
Three in ten are followers of life,
Three in ten are followers of death,
And men just passing from birth to death also number three in ten.
Why is this so?
Because they live their lives on the gross level.
He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death to enter.
Lau's version of the first part has a somewhat different flavour so I give it here in full: When going one way means life and the other means death, three in ten will be comrades of life, three in ten will be comrades of death, and there are those who value life and as a result move into the realm of death, these numbering also three in ten. Why is this so? Because they set too much store by life.
He also reads the last line as, ‘For him there is no realm of death’.
The Ma wang tui text is so different that I will also include that in full. It reads:
We come out into life and go back into death.
The companions of life are thirteen;
The companions of death are thirteen;
And yet people, because they regard life as life, in all of their actions move toward the thirteen that belong to the realm of death.
Now, why is this so?
It is because they regard life as life.
You've no doubt heard of those who are good at holding onto life:
When walking through hills, they don't avoid rhinos and tigers;
When going into battle, they don't put on armour or carry shields.
Yet the rhino has no place to probe with it horn,
The tiger finds nowhere to put its claws
And weapons find no place to bite with their blades.
Now, why is this so?
Because there is no place in them for death.
Henricks justifies his reading (a reading he does not particularly like himself) of ‘thirteen’ rather than ‘three out of ten’ by pointing out that ‘companion’ here does not actually refer to people, but, as in chapter 76 (where it means the suppleness and softness of a living body and the rigidity and hardness of one that is dead), is a reference to one of the following: either the four limbs and nine orifices (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, genital opening and anus) or the four entrances (ears, eyes, nose and mouth) and nine cavities of the body (the five viscera — heart, spleen, lungs liver and kidneys — which store, and the four (or six) ‘bowels’ — the gall bladder, stomach, the large and small intestines, and the so–called 'three burning spaces', all of which are part of the excretory system), or the seven emotions (delight, anger, grief, fear, love, hate and desire) and six desires (of the five senses and the mind). Apparently there are also grammatical considerations within the text and within the usage of the formula ‘shih–yu + a number’ in other texts as referring to the tens. Confucius, for example, claims to have set his heart on learning at the age of fifteen, ‘fifteen’ being shih–yu wu.
Wang Pi says:
This refers how we emerge into the land of the living and enter into the realm of death.
'Three out of ten' is like saying 'three parts of ten'. Those who take the road to life and do whatever they can to live as long as possible amount to three out of ten. Those who take the road to death and do what they can to die as soon as possible also amount to three out of ten. When people place too much emphasis on life, it turns into the land of death for them. One good at preserving his life does not use life for the sake of living, and it is for this reason that he remains free of birth and death.
There are no instruments more harmful than the weapons of war. There are no beasts more harmful than the wild buffalo and tiger. Yet if one can insure that weapons have no way to use point or edge against one, and that no tiger or buffalo can strike one with claw or horn, such a one truly does not let himself be hampered by desire, so how could any realm of death exist for them? Creatures of the deeps deem the lower deeps shallow and burrow into them; eagles and ospreys count mountains low–lying and build their nests on them. One might be tempted to say, since harpoons and arrows cannot reach them nor nets entrap them, that they have located themselves in realms that are free of death, but after all, there are those who, for the sake of some sweet bait, will enter a realm where their life becomes forfeit. Is this not due to placing too much emphasis on life?
It is the same for people, if they refuse to allow craving to separate them from their roots or desire to compromise their authenticity, even if they enter the army, they will suffer no harm, and when travelling abroad will be invulnerable. That one should emulate the infant and hold it in the highest esteem is perfectly true.
Cheng says: ‘In a life–and–death situation, such as battle, the possibilities of living or dying are thirty percent. Moreover, in ordinary conditions where activity (wei) is the province of death, one lives or dies by one's own doing. Here, too, the probabilities are thirty percent. Because of the propagative force of the life principle, there are more who live than die. Those who cultivate the life principle do not meet with death. The great difference is that they practice non–action (wu wei) just as an infant's vigorous effusion of life leaves no opportunity for death to enter.’
He suggests that one compare this chapter with what is taught in chapter 55.
What separates us from death is a single heart–beat, a single breath, and whereas the causes of continued life are very few — breath, food, drink and shelter, basically — the potential causes of death are nigh on infinite in that just about anything that happens can kill us including accidents with breath, food, drink and shelter. As Nagarjuna says, it really is a miracle that we wake up again after sleeping, that we breathe in again, even, after having breathed out!
Seed, be it animal or vegetable, is produced in extraordinary abundance yet very little of it ever comes to fruition, and there are those beings e in the instant of conception, those that die just after, those that die at one point or other within the gestation period or even in the instant of coming to birth. After that one may die at any instant and even the first breath can be the last.
Life is extremely fragile, and yet — as Lao–tze points out — a third of it seems to survive… At least until it stops surviving.
Because it's neatish, I like to think that a third will survive whatever the situation, a third will not, no matter how hard they try, and that another third will go from birth to death as the day determines.
It also seems that those who worry about staying alive generally waste their lives worrying about them (take a look around any ‘health food’ store!), and that those who couldn't care less about their lives generally waste theirs ruining them in excess of various sorts — overwork, substance–abuse, over–indulgence, stress. Those who just get on with things, trying to live as best as possible without being obsessed either way, live or die depending on circumstances.
So here we are told how to cultivate deathlessness, and in what does this consist? — In practicing wu wei and not allowing craving to separate us from our roots or desire to compromise our authenticity. What is this 'craving'? — this 'desire'?
It is the Buddhist idea of 'attachment'.
It's not that desires and needs are 'bad', that possession is 'bad', but that, in becoming attached to these things, one invests them with a solidity they do not have and which then — as impermanence and change take over — brings confusion, upset and suffering... Things break or become otherwise distorted, people change, as do we ourselves, situations, beliefs, opinions and even needs and desires shift and become modified in the light of new and ever–transforming realities. Nothing remains the same.
The Book of Change would have you believe that only change is constant, but even change is just a name... The only ultimate constant is emptiness, which, as we have seen, is always becoming... so what is constant?
What is constant is living in the breath of change. There 'the stillness in stillness is not real stillness; and the stillness within movement is stillness indeed'.
Watch any 'master' anything — a master musician, a master carver, a master cook... 'They' are 'not there; only their doing is unfolding instant by instant... becoming...
Then who cares if one lives or dies? One is alive in this instant and this instant itself is eternity.
Oddly enough, those who do live like this also seem to tend to live for ages. Just like an infant's vigorous effusion of life, there is no place for death to enter.
Buggers! — They get all the perks!