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Philosophy in Asia

Impermanence and Death in
Sino-Japanese Philosophical Context

Maja Milcinski

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ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the notions of impermanence and death as treated in the Chinese and Japanese philosophical traditions, particularly in connection with the Buddhist concept of emptiness and void and the original Daoist answers to the problem. Methodological problems are mentioned and two ways of approaching the theme are proposed: the logically discursive and the meditative mystical one, with the two symbols of each, Uroboros and the open circle. The switch of consciousness is suggested as an essential condition for liberation of the Ego and its illusions. Rational logic as well as the sophisticated meditative ways of selflessness and detachment are suggested when treating the Chinese and Japanese philosophical notions, and examples of the discussed topics from the texts given. The instructive seventh chapter of the classical Daoist work, Lie Zi, is analyzed in detail and put into contrast with the answers given to that problem in the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition.

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When reflecting on immortality, longevity, death and suicide, or taking into consideration some of the central concepts of the Sino-Japanese philosophical tradition, such as impermanence (Chinese: wuchang, Japanese: mujo), we see that the philosophical methods developed in the Graeco-Judaeo-Christian tradition might not be very suitable. On the other hand, it is instructive to put them into contrast with the similar themes developed in the Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition, since these problems present a challenge for a redefinition of "philosophy" which has traditionally regarded itself as a European (and in an even less acceptable variation as a "Western") phenomenon and therefore today the very borders of philosophical discourse known in European history as "philosophia" are reexamined (affected).

By rethinking the history of philosophy as a single narrative, one might come closer to the movements related to the levels of consciousness that were activated in philosophical undertakings in various Asian philosophical schools. In this regard Japanese and Chinese philosophical traditions might be instructive, since from the beginning through the various stages of their development they have attempted to put into words the inexpressible. The awareness of the insufficiency of words brought many original solutions. In the Song dynasty, for instance China produced a variety of diagrams (tu), by which the philosophers and practitioners represented their theories, which often arose on the basis of meditation techniques and could not be fully transmitted by means of language alone. The illustration of the nine step process (known in Japan as kuso) is one such representation and it is taken here as a starting point for approaching the concept of impermanence and death in the Japanese philosophical context.

One of the ways of approaching the discussed topic might be to contrast it with the ways in which impermanence, particularly the phenomenon of death as one of its aspects, has been perceived in European tradition.

Japan and impermanence

The European Middle Ages developed the so called Ars moriendi, the art of dying. It was the tradition which produced sayings such as "My Lord, it is a great art to die well, and one to be learned by men in health" (1) and many variations of the Death dance (danse macabre). European thought came very close to taking the step which places Thanatos beside Eros, not as a terrifying elimination but as the expected and inevitable and sometimes welcome counterpole. It is precisely this step, however which created the notion of impermanence (wuchang, mujo) as a metaphysical notion, one which supports the Buddhist idea that all material things are considered to have come into existence through some cause and are subjected to the process of creation, abiding, transformation and extinction. This process, moreover, is cyclical: all things are born and die over and over again. The cycle of rebirth can be escaped only by eliminating all desire and thus attaining nirvana or enlightenment, the only stable, nontransient state. Such an attitude can also show us how to understand works like The Tales of Ise and it also makes it possible to find beauty in its vanishing and to accept the fact that the impermanence and evanescence of everything make everything even more beautiful.

The art, however, is not to cover one's eyes from the reality of death, but to enjoy the world as it is presented to us in all its aspects. This procedure is alien to mainstream European philosophy and psychology, although, it is sometimes found in lyrical writing and other arts.

At various stages of Japanese history it was felt necessary to educate people in confronting the inevitability of corporeal death. Its counterparts to the frescoes of the Middle Ages in Europe are various treatises reminding human beings of their mortality, and images which are more naturalistic and therefore even more persuasive than the frescoes of the Death dance in Europe, where death takes the form of a skeleton. The Japanese images take a different form and have a slightly different idea behind them. The fact that humanity is sentenced to death and to impermanence is shown by the temple images. They show the entire process of decay of the human corpse, from death to final disintegration. Believers are expected to respond in a prescribed way to the repulsiveness of these pictures.

The switch of consciousness

Except for the temple images which are intended to help people realize the inevitability of the final dissolution of Ego and its illusions into emptiness, there are in the Sino-Japanese philosophical realm various descriptions of the "switch" where life and death become "unimportant" to us, so that we look upon them with equanimity. One of the ways of reaching this point is by diving into the Void. This idea we also meet elsewhere, not always in explicit connection with the dialogue about Ego-emptiness, but perhaps instead in discussions about Dao, Nothingness, the search for truth, or the meaning of life and death.

At the beginning of all these quests, the illusion of a stable Ego that continues on and on ("Myself") presents an obstacle. Around this illusion, a system of categorizing phenomena builds up, trapping a person in stereotyped evaluations of things and events.

Masters who are aware of these dynamics warn that while trying to get through this blind alley, we should not stick to an image of Nothingness or Emptiness. (2) To reach this switch is not easy, even in Japan where in philosophical circles this theme is not rejected as logically unacceptable, as it often is in Europe. The concept of the Void is not disdained as incompatible with the basic principles of European philosophy. Master Soko Morinaga Roshi describes his personal crisis on this Way as follows:

I, myself however have to confess that at the very beginning of my practice, I could not grasp the idea of the ungraspable. My education was directed since early childhood towards an intellectually decided aim and later to pursuing this aim with intellect and the will; therefore the first three years of the Zazen practice were filled with a strong desire for enlightenment and for the will to endure all physical pains and the feeling of exhaustion. However, in spite of all this, I did not reach enlightenment. Therefore I practised at noon and in the evenings, and at 'the time of repose' of the strict monastery order. And since I thought that my fatigue was caused by the food, I stopped eating. The consequences were even stronger pains and mental confusion. Sitting on the pillow there was just a lump of pain, fatigue, and confusion. Although I thought that this might lead to death, I could not stop.

Suddenly, one night, like a fog dispersing, the physical pains and mental unclearness were gone. With bright clarity only sight and hearing were left. There was no Ego (Self) which could see or hear, I do not know how long it lasted before I came to my senses again, but when it happened, there was just an immense joy in which I could not keep quiet anymore. I did not think that it was enlightenment or a kind of religious experience, but simply joy, which was pouring out of me. Such experiences, although not reached by the same process, have recurred since. (3)

This master's story is a description of the crises through which one has to go to pass from the insights of Ego-emptiness to the dive into the void. It is significant that between these two stages there is no complicated thought and logical operation, but rather a switch of consciousness, which the searcher feels as an experience of enlightenment, and which at the same time represents the step to the level of spiritual experience the essence of which cannot be expressed in words. Who is able to judge if this is the border of philosophy or if it is precisely at this point that we enter the area of the unknown — an area which is still looking for researchers and methods?

The purpose of this long reflection has been to demonstrate how the acceptance of human impermanence is arrived at by diving into the void.

Generally, it is very difficult for people to grasp exactly these phenomena and connections between them. This is because they perceive them through barriers constructed in advance, in a certain preformed frame that is essentially defined by Ego. It is entirely different if one opens one's heart to everything that happens, and realizes the "here and now" without any second thoughts. When we ponder and choose as we usually do, we are caught in the net of discursive perception, making connections, and assimilating phenomena. As the Master states it, the Truth is 'a place', where there is no pondering. (4)

Lie Zi and the Daoists

To conclude with the Daoists whose works have provided us with many precious insights into the problems of impermanence and death:

"Life is the companion of death, death is the beginning of life. Who understands their workings? Man's life is a coming together of breath. If it comes together, there is life; if it scatters, there is death. And if life and death are companions to each other, then what is there for us to be anxious about?" (5)

In the 7th chapter of The Book of Lie Zi (Yang Zhu) the basic problems of existence in classical China are discussed. The story starts as follows:

"Meng sun-yang asked Yang Chu: 'Suppose that a man values his life and takes care of his body; may he hope by such means to live for ever?' 'It is impossible to live for ever.'" (6)

To ask a Daoist philosopher for advice on how to become immortal might not have been, at the time when this was happening, naive or obviously absurd. Welch (7) stated that although the Daoist movement has always been a mixture of heterogeneous elements among which were philosophy, everyday hygiene, church duties and especially alchemy, they never really became a compound. In the realm of alchemist elements we can count also the stories about a mystical island Pen Lai, which at the time was searched for by various expeditions. It was believed that the people who lived there, did not know death, because they possessed the elixir of life which had been discovered by alchemist sciences. It is supposed that it was the otherwise poisonous compound of cinnabar and mercury-sulphide.

Meng Sun Yang was not satisfied with the laconic answer of the master. The story continues:

"'May he hope to prolong his life?'

'It is impossible to prolong life. Valuing life cannot preserve it, taking care of the body cannot do it good. Besides, what is the point of prolonging life? Our passions, our likes and dislikes, are the same now as they were of old. The safety and danger of our four limbs, the joy and bitterness of worldly affairs, changes of fortune, good government and discord, are the same now as they were of old. We have heard it already, seen it already, experienced it already. Even a hundred years is enough to satiate us; could we endure the bitterness of still longer life?'"

Meng Sun Yang continued:

"If it is so, and swift destruction is better than prolonged life, you can get what you want by treading on blades and spearpoints, rushing into fire and boiling water."

Yang Zi answered:

"No. While you are alive, resign yourself and let life run its course; satisfy your desires and wait for death. When it is time to die, resign yourself and let death run its course; go right to your destruction, which is extinction. Be resigned to everything, let everything run its course; why need you delay it or speed it on its way?" (8)

It is worth analyzing these final words: the point of this final wisdom is that anybody who is about to retain ones essence and dignity has to accept ones own impermanence, without restraining the earthy pleasures when there is time for them. To combine these two approaches one has to take farewell of ones life at the time of one's life. Yang Zi however does not mean that one should commit suicide while still young, but rather something close to Meister Eckhart's (9) Abgescheidenheit (or Abgeschiedenheit), translated as "detachment", which might be explained with the sense of separation, objectivity, self-reliance, equanimity. Some would describe this as a complete standstill, rest in oneself; to be with oneself in the soul, in regard to the people and the world to remain withdrawn. However this state is not the same as that practiced by a stoic who has withdrawn from life and is keeping oneself far from the reach of any emotion, joy or suffering. "The detached person", according to Meister Eckhart is the way Jesus Christ was able to live his passion in complete detachment. He was able to live, suffer and rejoice while remaining detached (germ. ledig) to everyday outer reality.

As to Yang Zi, who had been trying to describe the situation " when the death is approaching" to Meng Sun Yang, one could understand it also in the way how Socrates, under the influence of hemlock, was expecting his death and yet kept teaching, sometimes also in a very ironic way as when he told pragmatist Crito: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius, will you remember to pay the debt?" (10) Why should he have any debts toward the god of medicine Asclepius and his subordinates? Because they found such a practical method of euthanasia?


The above patterns of approaching impermanence and death are although distanced in time and space, very similar in certain basic conceptions; the Sino-Japanese and European idea of impermanence and death overlap to some extent, particularly with the didactic elements regarding the human body, from conception to decay. But in the spiritual aspects of the phenomenon, these two ideas differ. The Sino-Japanese model of the open circle is different: the phenomenon from which one takes leave at the time of death is an illusion. The reality which surrounds us is an illusion. And Ego with which we identify ourselves, is an illusion as well. Nevertheless, the essence of the Sino-Japanese model is not a simple denial of objects and reality pictured to us by our consciousness. This means that in surpassing what we understand as "reality" and "ego" in everyday life, a flood of words and clever neologisms cannot be of any assistance. The Sino-Japanese model teaches that the essential condition for this is a switch from the logically discursive thinking to the meditative mystical experience. But the paradox is that the illusion of our everyday existence, is at the same time an important medium in this switch, a practice ground where we learn to surpass our ego, its conclusions and desires. This is undoubtedly very different to Heidegger's accepted being-unto-death (Sein zum Tode) filled with tension, or coming to terms with the absurdity of life in the fashion of Camus' Sisyphus.

The Sino-Japanese open circle, presented in the paper by quotes of Chinese and Japanese philosophers and put into contrast with the Hebrew Bible, can best be illustrated by the insight of Vivekananda: "When death approaches, Bhakta will accept it with a smile. 'I am honored that all come to me, all are welcome'." (11) The aforementioned switch from the logically discursive way of thinking to the meditative mystical experience which often in Sino-Japanese philosophical traditions forms part of the philosophical undertakings, might represent a considerable, perhaps even insurmountable obstacle to somebody who wishes to remain faithful to the style of philosophy developed and dominant in European tradition. But the attempts which have prepared this switch and which are still trying to facilitate it must be remembered. With this I refer to the works of European medieval mystics, who were not favored by the Church and relegated to the fringes of philosophy, and modern studies such as those exploring or continuing the exploration of the European scientific pattern developed on the borders between psychological and philosophical methods.

The discussed quotes from the Sino-Japanese philosophical realm, particularly the Dao de jing with its inability to express the supreme Way, as well as the undescribable experience of the enlightenment, lead as closer to the theoreticians that claim: "Notions of the all-encompassing power of language and word have been ubiquitous in the history and philosophy of religions. So too, has been a recognition of the inability of language and word to give full expression to the realities that constitute and engage human beings and the world in which they live." (12) The basic philosophical problems and notions like impermanence, together with the phenomenon of death as one of its manifestations as they were posed and answered in the Sino-Japanese philosophical realm, bring us to the conclusion that they can be only dealt with when combining the two discussed methods, the logically discursive style of Uroboros with the meditative mystical style of open circle.

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(1) The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, 1651, and The Book of the Craft of Dying, London, 1917.

(2) Hui-Neng, Das Sutra des Sechsten Patriarchen. Das Leben und die Zen-Lehre des chinesischen Meisters Hui-Neng (638-713). Barth V., Munchen 1989, p. 95.

(3) Seng-Ts'an, Die Meisselschrift vom Glauben an den Geist. Otto Wilhelm Barth Verlag, Bern 1991, p. 159.

(4) Dialog uber das Ausloschen der Anschauung. R. G. Fischer, Frankfurt/M 1983, p. 157.

(5) Chuang-tzu. The Inner Chapters. Translated by A. C. Graham. Unwin Paperbacks, London 1986, p. 235.

(6) Lie Zi ji shi. Zhonghua shuju. Beijing 1985. English translation: The Book of Lieh-tzu. Translated by A. C. Graham. Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, pp. 147-48.

(7) H. Welch, The Parting of the Way. Beacon Press, Boston, 1957, p. 216.

(8) The Book of Lieh-tzu, pp. 147-8.

(9) Maitre Eckhart, Du detachement et autres textes. Jarczyk, Laborriere ed. Rivages poche. Payot, Paris, 1995.

(10) The works of Plato. The Modern Library, New York, 1956, p. 189.

(11) S. Vivekananda, Bhakti Yoga. Maisonneuve. Paris, 1938, p. 93.

(12) F. E. Reynolds, Foreword: Ineffability. The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion. State University of New York Press, 1993, IX.

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