If men are not afraid to die,
It is of no avail to threaten them with death.
If men live i constant fear of dying,
And if breaking the law means that a man will be killed,
Who will dare to break the law?
There is always an official executioner.
If you try to take his place,
It's like trying to be a master carpenter and cutting wood.
If you try to cut wood like a master carpenter, you will only hurt your hand.
 D. C. Lau's take on this has a somewhat different flavour, more or less borne out by the Ma wang tui reading. He says (taking it from the top):
When the people are not afraid of death, wherefore frighten them with death? Were the people always afraid of death, and were I able to arrest and put to death those who innovate, then who would dare?
Wang Pi is strangely silent on this chapter. All he says is:
Deviant and socially disruptive is what is meant by 'perverse'.
Miscreants provoke hatred and anger in the compliant, and the cruel are always detested by the people. Thus 'there is the constant executioner'.
Professor Cheng says: If the people fear death and some who behave in unorthodox manner are caught and executed, who among the rest will dare oppose the social order? The remainder of the text bemoans the existence of the executioner. Not only is it inappropriate for anyone to substitute for the executioner, but it is also improper to be one.
I feel that both these commentaries actually miss the central point and tend to agree with Henricks who points out that what Lao–tze is saying here is that people do, quite naturally, fear death, and that even were their lives seem worthless to them this fear is there. The 'constant executioner' is not some huge eunuch with a scimitar but death itself. Death is always there — more constant, even, than your taxes — and there is therefore no need for the sage to precipitate death. It comes quite naturally and the people are already in awe of it. Rather encourage life and make sure it's worth the living.
Richard John Lynn assumes with Wang Pi that it is the people who are the executioner and that all the sage has to do is let the people take care of justice, but this can hardly be what Lao–tze is on about — If he's on about anything at all, it's about gentleness.
Mob justice, as we know only too well, unfortunately, is anything but gentle or even just.
Cheng comes a little closer in his last line... I 'reread' it as 'not only do you not need to precipitate death, but you have completely lost the track if you should even think to do so'.
In meditation you find that thoughts cannot be stopped — repressed — but that, if you leave them to themselves and don't pay them too much attention, they simply dissolve again of quite naturally because that's what thoughts do... They appear out of nowhere, have a seeming sort of half–life for a while, albeit they are nothing as such, and then disappear again... You don't have to invite them; you don't have to send them on their way; and, while they are present, you don't really have to listen to anything they say... Particularly not when practicing stilling or insight meditation...
As to killing, I would like to quote an extraordinary teaching by Jadräl Rinpoche, Sangye Dorje, from a recent and utterly exquisite book by Sandra Scales and published by Padma Publishing, called Sacred Voices of the Nyingma Masters. Once — many years ago now — it was suggested to me that I ask Jadräl Rinpoche to be my teacher. As luck would have it, though, that was not possible, and, although I have had the good fortune to study with and receive empowerment and blessings from many of the other great Nyingma masters over the past 40–odd years, I have never had the good fortune of meeting with him. One of his practices is the ransoming and release of animals destined for slaughter. At the request of Sandra Scales, he wrote the following text, rather beautifully rendered here by one of her translators:
To the spiritual master, Buddha of Infinite Life, Amitayus,
And to his bodhisattva disciples, I bow.
I will now briefly explain the benefits
Of ransoming and releasing animals.
To ransom and release animals
Constitutes a flawless practice
To be done with pure motivation and applied
By all of Shakyamuni's followers.
The benefits of this practice have been described extensively
In many sutras, tantras and treatises.
Oceanlike gatherings of learned and accomplished masters of India and Tibet
Have considered this an important way to aid beings.
For those of the Hinayana,
This practice represents the abandoning of harming others;
For those who have entered the mind of awakening of the Mahayana,
It represents the training itself;
And for practitioners of the Secret Mantra,
It represents the principal tantric commitment of the Jewel buddha family.
The reason for this is that in the world,
Nothing is more precious than life itself
And no negative act more serious than taking life.
Therefore, among composite forms of the roots of virtue,
None has greater benefit
Than the ransom and release of animals.
If you wish for happiness and good fortune,
Be diligent on this supreme path.
The authenticity of this practice is proven
By the authority of scripture and by logic.
It is a path without obstacle or error.
Thinking of your own body as an example,
Through this practice, give up harming others.
Don't take life.
Instead, release birds, fish, wild animals,
Farm animals doomed to be slaughtered
And also small creatures such as ants and bees.
Be diligent in giving them refuge from fear.
The benefits of this are inconceivable:
It is the supreme practice for longevity,
And there is no higher practice for nurturing good health
Or for dedicating virtue to the dead.
It is my main practice to help beings.
It clears away misfortune that arises due to outer and inner obstacles
And creates harmonious circumstances effortlessly and spontaneously.
When it is guided by positive motivation
And concluded with pure dedication and aspirations,
Its effect is that you will reach perfect enlightenment
And accomplish the two goals — benefit for yourself and for others.
Have no doubt of this!
Those who are endowed with merit and a virtuous attitude
Should prevent the practice of hunting in mountains and valleys.
In particular, during autumn and spring,
When flocks of cranes and other birds
Are compelled by their karma to fly south or north,
They must move their wings with great effort
And soar through space.
Yet sometimes they must come to earth
With anxiety, fear and an uneasy mind.
Don't strike such beings with stones or weapons.
Don't kill or harm them.
Protect them and help them to continue their migration in comfort.
'To help with loving–kindness
Destitute beings without protection
Has merit equal to that
Of meditating on the essence of compassion and emptiness.'
Thus said the glorious master Atisha.
Lamas, teachers, monks, nuns and lay people, both women and men,
Should each in your own domain
Energetically perform as much ransom and release of animals as you are able
And encourage others to do the same.
By doing so,
You will pacify sickness and disaster
Among humans and farm animals in your region.
Harvest will be plentiful, crops will increase, life will be long
And perfect happiness will dawn.
The time of death will be free of pain and confusion.
In the next life you will obtain an excellent body in a pleasant realm,
And eventually you will easily attain the supreme state of perfect awakening.
Have no doubt of this!
I, the one known as Jadräl Sangye Dorje,
Am always devoted to the activity of ransoming and releasing life.
By the virtue of these words,
May all beings enter the way of the bodhisattvas.
Mama Koling Samanta
(As far as I can make out — my Sanskrit studies never really properly got off the ground, unfortunately — this last phrase means something along the lines of: 'May I realise we're all one')
Buy the book — the royalties go into a fund created by Jadräl Rinpoche to just this end.