Whatever our attitude regarding death, it is clearly an event of momentous significance for all of us who live. There may be some who are inclined to glibly dismiss its importance to our every waking moment; they are likely either sages or in denial. For the rest of us, it is a reality that begs our attention. What does it mean that we shall die? How does our impeding death impact our living?

The totality of Zhuangzi’s philosophy can be seen as a response to death. If this makes it seem limited or parochial, so be it. His philosophy is all about the human experience, and the awareness of our death—indeed, the apparent death of all things, including those we love—stands out as the most immediately pressing.

Zhuangzi’s understanding of the human condition and his remedial response turn on our awareness of death. Our existential dangle—our suspension in utter not-knowing—matters only because of death.

“If you regard what you have received as fully formed once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil spent waiting for its end” (Ziporyn; 2:11). If we take ourselves as a fixed-identity, something we can lose, then our actual living is adversely affected.

“In the process, you grind and lacerate yourself against all the things around you.” Fearful of loss, we become fearful of everything that might threaten us, even what seems to diminish our sense of self. Loss of face is taken as an incremental death. We die a death of a thousand cuts.

If this seems excessively gloomy, we can only reply that it also seems honest. It is, in any case, a necessary prelude to whatever remedial response we might imagine.

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