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.

Han Fei Tzu

Han Fei Tzu

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.

6 thoughts on “CHAPTER 50 – ONE IN TEN

  1. Louis,

    Much for thought here and I have been doing just that ever since you posted this. I reviewed some things from Sophocles and Aristotle, Hegel (a good start on what I call “higher law” and “lower law”), and Wiki-ed my way through a brief review of Aquinas, Kant, Locke, Montesquieu, Pascal, et al. I also looked up the delightful trial Pantagruel presided over between Lord Kissbreech, the plaintiff, and Lord Suckfist, the defendant, where he basically threw out all of the arguments of the attorneys because they were no more acquainted with truth than a toad is with feathers. You are to be excepted from this generalization because you have already proven with this post and many others that you are well-acquainted with truth. The trial can be found at:

    I have been working on a response for nearly a week and will eventually post it, probably not here but on my website since it is long, rambling, incoherent to all but the most stubborn of readers and quite likely, and true to form, over-thought.

    I have had to divide my time between it and a matter of faith which has come up regarding “things known but not seen” which has come up recently.

    I am religiously practicing a devotion to a process which has become necessary because a complex, bio-mechanical, bio-degradable, organic organism – probably a field mouse – has found its way into a duct of our heating system and chosen to die there. I know this even though I can not see it because it has started to stink.

    Calls to various purveyors of solutions to the predicament, said persons being heavily scheduled and able to give no more than advice for now, with promises of appearance in the future, have made it necessary for me to engage in a process which I call “making rat jerky.”

    I am drying out the stinky carcass by running the furnace as often as possible and arranging the ventilation of the resultant pungent airs in as felicitous arrangement of windows doors and fans as possible. Once dry, I have been assured, the jerked meat will not smell nearly as bad.

    Needless to say this involves a lot of time and frequent excursions into the woods, far away from the premises. The resultant carbon footprint is unconscionable, the usual pains of the electric bill will be exponentially more excruciating than usual, and the shame of it all is nearly more than I can bear, even though it is not my fault. Except for everything I have done since my nose informed me something needed to be.

    I had thought about flooding the duct system with diesel vapor and igniting it with a weed-burner, but was advised against it even after I pointed out that the resultant conflagration would be brief since all oxygen within the system would be used up quickly and the fire would rapidly extinguish itself in the absence of fuel.

    I may still try it, because I believe my theory is workable and just needs proving. I’ll keep you posted. In case things don’t work out, please have your spare bedroom in readiness there for two persons and a Labrador retriever. Thanks, Louis.


    • Let’s look at your situation from a Taoist perspective. The material world consists of the ebbs and flows of Nature. Where there was once nothing, life is created. Life is followed by death. Death involves decomposition in such a way that a decomposing animal will draw the attention of Nature’s scavengers to dispose of it. There is Yin and a Yang, which are opposite but complementary. You could not appreciate the clean sweet smells of the living world as much if you had never known the smell of death. And the Way of the sage is not the way of the ordinary man. The sage must recognize that he may be shunned because the path he follows is not the path of the unenlightened – and that even his best friends may avoid his home for olfactory reasons.

      It seems to me that you should get yourself a jackal to wander through your heating ducts until the mouse is located. You will still be shunned by friends for some period of time until the house is again filled with smells of pine and sage (or whatever your local aromatherapist may recommend). You will also have the smell of the jackal to deal with, of course.

      As for the diesel vapor approach: That doesn’t seem to be the Taoist Way. It is certainly not the wu wei. I would suggest checking with your homeowner’s insurance company to verify the extent of your coverage before trying that.

      Good luck to you.

      • dear louis

        i seem to have lost my punctuation and related writing skills

        i took your advice and my insurance agent says fire is covered but not jackals so that is out

        i would try the diesel vapor and weed burner thingy but i seem to have intermittent loss of coordinaavmnvbxnvcm,m and possible dain bramage which seems to rule that out

        my insurance agent suspected neurological erosion due to eau du rat so he sent me to the doctor and he told me that he is taking a french cooking class and he would have been happy to have had the rat last week which was meat sauces because most of the traditional recipes rely on portions of cat and dog and rat and can you believe it animals with even more letters in their name than that

        so i finally know the reason why there are so many sauces in french cuisine

        oh and then the doctor sent me to one of his lawyers he has seven and said he could spare one for a couple of hours because one of his patients survived and i told the lawyer you suggested the wu wei and so he sent me to a rich guy who looks like lloyd bridges and he called me joe and gave me a case of orange pop and told me to go to an island in the south pacific where there is a lost jewish tribe called the waponis who worship a volcano called the big wu and I should go there and jump in and i wouldn’t smell like rat anymore so that all sounded reasonable to me and the wei is clear thanks to you i won’t forget it old buddy it’s the wu wei for yours truly


        • Joe? Bob?

          Tom, is that really you? All of these three-letter names (to go with the animals). . . Meg, too.

          Be sure to take your dead mouse along to the Big Wu (Big Woo?)

  2. Pingback: Tao Te Ching Chapter 50 | The Cascadian Wanderer


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