Chapter 50 – One in Ten
Between birth and death,
Three in ten are followers of life,
Three in ten are followers of death,
And men just passing from birth to death also number three in ten.
Why is this so?
Because they live their lives on the gross level.
He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinoceros or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death to enter.
Translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989)
Most of the translations of this 50th chapter of the Tao Te Ching are similar to the one above, stating three people out of ten are followers of life, three are followers of death and three just pass from life to death without following either. While it might be instructive to consider what it means to follow either life or death or to pass between the two, the verse seems to force us to look not at the 90% of those with a consciousness that is attached to this world but at the one in ten – the sage who goes his own way without fear of death. Lao Tzu says he may do so because “he has no place for death to enter.” In other words, the sage is not attached to his mortality. He has no fear because his life is lived in the present; fear being a thought of the future.
In Ron Hogan’s translation, he states that Lao Tzu is telling us that with a sage, “his body is not where he [keeps] his death.” That is to say that the sage recognizes that there is an immortal part of our nature beyond the physical body.
It is my understanding that the basis for the translations in which the sage is separated from the 90% of the more common humans are ancient Chinese symbols that essentially mean “three-ten life; three-ten death.” A different interpretation of those symbols is found in Lin Yutang’s 1955 translation which renders this chapter in these words:
Out of life, death enters.
The companions (organs) of life are thirteen;
The companions (organs) of death are (also) thirteen.
What send man to death in this life are also (these) thirteen.
How is it so?
Because of the intense activity of multiplying life.
It has been said that the man who is a good preserver of his life
Meets no tigers or wild buffaloes on land,
Is not vulnerable to weapons in the field of battle.
The horns of the wild buffalo are powerless against him.
How is it so?
Because he is beyond death.
Here, the symbols for “three-ten” are translated as “thirteen,” rather than as “three out of ten.” The ultimate conclusion that the sage is “beyond death” is in line with the other translations, but I find the approach interesting – and I should warn you that the rest of this essay is a digression from the main point of the chapter, which I think has been pretty clearly stated, and which is not that much different from the main point of Chapter 33.
To my knowledge, the first commentator to translate the “three-ten” symbols as “thirteen” was Han Fei Tzu in the third century B.C.E*. Han Fei Tzu is the most famous proponent of the Legalist School of Chinese philosophy. That fact is the point of my digression.
A few years ago, a friend who was an officer for a large title insurance underwriter was planning a symposium for its agents. He asked me if I had any suggestions for topics to be presented, and I said it would be interesting to talk about what ethics means in a field like title insurance in which there is not a formal code of ethics like those for lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. He thought that sounded interesting – and then drafted me to do the presentation.
I sort of feel sorry for the attendees who came to hear about title insurance because I began talking (with a full complement of PowerPoint slides) about deontology versus consequentialism. I won’t go into that in this essay, other than to point out that deontological ethics essentially postulates that each person has a duty to follow the principles of conduct that are expressed in established rules.
Chinese legalism was a good example of deontological ethics. It assumed that people were naturally evil and that their nature must be controlled by requiring adherence to strict rules and laws. If those were obeyed, a reward should follow; but if they were not, strict and severe punishment was necessary. It seems that Legalism was accepted as a basis for government only during the time of and shortly after the Warring States Period in China (c. 475 – 221 B.C.E.). During that time, rulers deemed it necessary to enforce often very strict laws in order to retain their power.
The Legalists, who were primarily interested in obtaining and exercising power, exerted their greatest influence during the Ch’in dictatorship (221-206 B.C.E.), immediately following the Warring States Period. That time has been recognized as that in which life and thought were more strictly regimented than at any time in Chinese history.
According to Wing-Tsit Chan, in his Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963): “The brutality and violence of the Ch’in brought its early downfall in 206 B.C., and the Chinese, fearful of the ruthlessness of the Legalists, have ever since that time rejected them. There has been no Legalist School in China in the last two thousand years, or even any Legalist scholar of prominence”. However, it seems that the influence of the Legalists is still seen because every Chinese government since then has had laws which govern the conduct of the people and impose sanctions when they are violated. The Confucian ideal of ruling the virtuous people without laws was never realized, or even seriously attempted – and China is a deontological society like the rest of the world.
Returning to the idea that this essay is focused on the Tao and the Tao Te Ching, Han Fei Tzu is recognized as one of the earliest and most important scholars to comment on Lao Tzu’s work. Among his major contributions is the idea that what is often referred to as the formless Tao is not necessarily a void or vacuum in which all distinctions between material things are dissolved into a quantum soup. Rather, he saw the Tao as encompassing the rules and principles which create order (li) and make the 10,000 things separate and distinct.
In many respects, some of us still see the Tao like that – the Tao begets the one which begets the two which begets the three which gives rise to the 10,000 things. That could serve as a basis for deontological Taoism, perhaps.
If the sage has no place for death to enter – as we are told in this chapter – is there a place for rules to enter? In other words, is the essence of humanity the freedom of Virtue and Te or is it the act of being within the context of the laws which give rise to Virtue and Te?
We will save any discussion of consequentialism for a later time.
* Han Fei Tzu linked the number thirteen to specific body parts. As a Legalist there were, of course, rules involved.