In Taoism, life and death, or mortality and immortality, are one and the same. Mortality is immortality and immortality is mortality, just as life is death and death is life.
In the Taiji (Yin-Yang) symbol it can be seen that death (the small dark circle) exists within life (the large white area resembling a fish). It can also be seen that life (the small white circle) exists within death (the large dark area resembling a fish).
We are constantly undergoing life and death, as each inhalation symbolizes life and each exhalation symbolizes death. When we are awake and conscious, we consider this to be life, and we view being asleep and unconscious like death. This seeming duality of life and death, mortality and immortality, must be meditated upon, or as Lao Zi said to do with such distinctions, we must “Embrace the One”—and the “One” is Tao.
There’s an old story about a Taoist disciple who sent for his teacher because he was dying of some illness. When the teacher arrived, the disciple tried to get out of bed and bow to him, but the teacher insisted he stay put. The disciple then told his teacher, “My situation is hopeless. I just wanted to see your face once again before I die so I could pay my respects to you, and to express all my gratitude for the things you taught me.”
The teacher responded, “It is of no use to see my body and face, which will also someday rot and fade away. Maybe you should consider this? If you see the Tao then you see me. If you see me then you will see the Tao.”
The disciple did not fully understand his teacher’s words and asked him to please elaborate, so the teacher further explained, “The Tao, which is True Reality, never changes. The Tao is the unified ground upon which life and death, mortality and immortality, good and bad, movement and stillness … all these coexist and are interwoven in peace and harmony. There is no separation between them. This means that when you see life, death can be found within it as well. Likewise, when we see death we are seeing life. So, you had me come here because you wanted me to see death, but all I see is life.
“I came here not to see life or death but to witness the Tao in action. Truth is that in this moment we are attempting to see life and death simultaneously, but it’s impossible to see both at once. Despite that, you can use this as an opportunity to see the one ground where all opposites coexist, and this is the Tao. Looking into this great matter is ‘Embracing the One.’”
The disciple then smiled and said, “It’s clear to me now … life is still life, death is still death, but they perfectly coexist and are interwoven. They are only manifestations of the Tao, where there is no excess or deficiency. Thus, when death comes it is perfect because it contains life. It is not necessary to compare life with death. Life embraces death, and death embraces life. All that needs doing is to embrace life yet hold on to death … just as Lao Zi told us, ‘Embrace being, yet hold on to non-being.’”
Smiling, the teacher said, “Day by day, moment to moment, all you need do is Embrace the One, so it is comforting that you understand this great matter now and that I am not looking at a disciple who is either dying or living, but I am looking at a manifestation of the Tao. You are perfect because you contain both the Tao of mortality and immortality. So, forget life, forget death, just be at one with the Tao.”
I thought it worthwhile to relate this story because it’s a great example of how we should view mortality and immortality. Too often we deem being mortal as bad and undesirable, and view immortality as good and desirable. They are both manifestations of the Tao, so how could we rightly discriminate between them? How could we not accept both as True Reality?
The story demonstrates that mortality (life and being) are what we falsely cling to and attach ourselves. We are always attempting to avoid death so there can be life. In the grand scheme of things, there can be no life without death and no death without life, so it is pointless to reject one for the other. They are both the Tao, the One. As the teacher in the story summed up to his disciple, “Mortality is being. Immortality is non-being. We falsely assume that non-being is death, and being is life, but in True Reality mortality is to be with a self, and immortality is to be without self. True death is to be selfless, which naturally brings about True Life, for we cannot really be alive unless the self dies.”
A statement credited to Lu Dongbin is the best conclusion I can think of here: “To be immortal is to be without self, for if there is no self what then can die?”
—Stuart Alve Olson