Chapter 33 – Eternal Self
He who knows others is wise;
He who knows himself is enlightened.
He who conquers others has physical strength.
He who conquers himself is strong.
He who is contented is rich.
He who acts with vigour has will.
He who does not lose his place (with Tao) will endure.
He who dies but does not really perish enjoys long life.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
“Know thyself.” The phrase is inscribed in the court of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Pythagoras told us, “No man is free who cannot command himself.” From Ramana Maharshi we have learned that “Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render to the world.” In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises, “To thine own self be true.”
Everyone seems to know this principle. Even Rickie Nelson sings, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (“Garden Party”). It seems pretty simple and straightforward, nothing really new…..until we come to the last line. What can Lao Tzu mean in saying that long life is enjoyed by one who dies but does not really perish? And then, is that really the correct translation of the last line?
This has been an area of confusion for many students of the Tao Te Ching, as can be seen by comparing how it has been rendered by various translators:
Frederic H. Balfour (1884): “Those who up to death are not lost [to Tao], enjoy posthumous activity.” This was followed by a note stating, “It means that their works and doctrines live after them . . .”
Lin Yutang (1955): “He who dies yet [his power] remains has long life.”
D. C. Lau (1963): “He who lives out his days has had a long life.”
Stephen Mitchell (1988): “If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.”
Ron Hogan (2004): “If you stay alive your whole life, you’ve really lived.”
Vladimir Antonov (2007): “The one who attains Mergence with Tao and does not lose it also attains the Highest Beingness. After the death of the body, such a person continues to live in Tao as truly Immortal.”
On one level or another all of those attempts to convey Lao Tzu’s meaning are satisfactory. The Tao Te Ching has endured over the centuries in part because its words can be employed in various contexts and situations without losing their wisdom. While the translations above all take somewhat philosophical approaches to what remains after dying, there were later Taoists who took the words quite literally and sought ways to achieve physical immortality here on the earthly plane, often through magical practices.
My thoughts as to at least one meaning begin by looking at the last line of Chapter 32, which says that “Tao in the world may be compared to rivers and streams running into the sea.” Seeing those words followed by the first few lines of this Chapter 33 reminded me of a famous poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, which begins:
The same stream of life that runs through my
veins night and day runs through the world
and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots joy through
the dust of the Earth in numberless blades of
grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of
leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-
cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.
In these words, Tagore has recognized that – as Lao Tzu has said repeatedly in the Tao Te Ching – all creation is connected and interlaced. One who truly knows himself actually knows all beings. One who conquers himself has really conquered the world; and he can do it from anyplace at all without the rest of us even knowing.
The stream of each life runs its course and ultimately flows into the eternal, infinite sea that has been called the Tao, though it is actually nameless. Such a life may reach its physical end without perishing any more than drops of water from a small stream will perish upon reaching the ocean. Existence continues as part of something greater and everlasting. That is certainly a long life.