How Can We Better Face Death?

Last week, we had a glimpse of Martin Heidegger’s perspective towards death. This week, we are going to look at something light and breezy. Let’s talk about the deers in Nara Park and how mysterious they are. Why is it that they are so aggressive when they chance upon tourists holding a piece of biscuit, but they remain absolutely nonchalant about the push cart when it has so much more of their favourite snacks?

What a weird phenomenon eh?

Anyway, We are still going to discuss about the topic of death. Don’t kill me. HA! Get it? When we walk up to the ice cream store and have a vague idea of what we want, we narrow down our choices by having a taste of various flavours. Similarly, when we study certain concepts and have a vague idea of what it is talking about, we refine our concepts by looking at others. This week, let us consider Zhuangzi’s perspective on how we can look at death.

Our focus will be on his encounter with a roadside skull. The story goes something like this. Zhuangzi was travelling and he stumbled upon an empty skull, all whitened and brittle but still retaining its shape. He poked and then asked it, “Did you become this because your greed for life made you do something out of order, sir? Or did you become this in the service of some failing state and meet with the punishment of an axe? Or did you become this because of some evil behaviour that brought disgrace to your family? Or did you become this because of troubles brought by cold and hunger? Or did you become this because your eventuality?” When Zhuangzi was done with his questions, he hugged the skull towards him and used it as a pillow.

He soon fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, the skull appeared to him in a dream and said, “When I look at your words, all I see are the bonds that so typically bind the living. When you are dead, all such things are gone. Do you want to hear about the joys of being dead?” In response, Zhuangzi agreed. The skull continued, “When you’re dead, you have no ruler above you, no subjects below you, none of the tasks of the four seasons. Floating untethered, heaven and earth are to you a single spring and a single autumn.” Zhuangzi was in disbelief and replied, “If I could make the controller of fate restore your body to life, would you want that?”

The skull glared at him intensely and said, “Why in the world would I sacrifice the happiness of a king on his throne to return to the toils of being a human being?”

When the skull is reprimanding Zhuangzi on the transience of life in his dream, the message hints at the possibility that we should focus less on treasuring our being and concentrate on cultivating our sensibility of non-being. By asserting that heaven and earth can be perceived as spring and autumn, the skull tells us to consider the significance of cyclical harmony with life as a way of death and death as a way of life. This notion goes hand in hand with Heidegger’s concept of being-towards-death. Heidegger believes that only when we come to terms with death, we can be free of it. There is much to learn from death as it is with life. Death can be seen as a partner to life, and it manifests in and through all that is alive.

An authentic life should not be impeded in the face of one’s own mortality.

From this, we can then perceive death as the primal nothingness that resides within us. So when we face death, it is not a path towards nihilism. It is a path of illumination through the light of our mortality. Death does not give birth to the denial of being, rather, death is the highest ultimate attestation of being. Even if the living and the death appears to be cut off from one another, the role of death should not be confused with the consequence of death. As the story of the roadside skull has illustrated, it does not matter whether its demise occurs in young or old age, through natural or malevolent means, there is no way to escape the inevitability of death.

The roadside skull acts as a form of reminder to Zhuangzi that one should not resist or alter one’s inborn nature.

This concept is further reinforced in the skull’s rejection to Zhuangzi’s offer of restoring its body. The underlying tone being set here is that when one refuses to die when the time arrives, it indicates the fear of losing all one has acquired and accomplished in the time of living. Due to the ordering principle of natural flux in the world, success is followed by failure, good health gives way to sickness and death succeeds life. This tales also complements Heidegger’s concept of death being inherent to the unfolding of life.

When we are free for our own death, we are liberated from the lostness of our possibilities.

From Zhuangzi and Heidegger, we can understand death to be merely a part of a natural universal process that ought to be treated with the same equanimity as life. The cycle of life and death are not in opposition, but two parts of the same process. Even though there are nuances of their viewpoints being different, both of them are for the idea that death should not be something to be feared upon, rather, death should be embraced in its entirety. My stand is that we laugh in the face of death, how about you?

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Terence C.

There is a fine line between fishing and doing nothing. We would like to think that we’re fishing, but the truth is we don’t have the line.