To understand others is wise, but to know oneself is radiant.
One who wins victories is powerful, but one who conquers himself is stronger.
The contented are rich.
Those who use force are ambitious
but those endure who do not lose their proper place.
To die without dying is the way to longevity.
A brief and incisive manifesto for the spiritual life. The last line is the most difficult to translate and different authorities have made different things of it. I think that my suggestion fits the Chinese and is in accord with the sentiment of the chapter.
The notion of not losing one’s proper place is in accord with much Chinese philosophy, not just Taoist. It is quite close to Dogen’s idea of accepting one’s lot that I have explained in my book on Genjo Koan.
The second line makes the same point as the Dhammapada where in verses 103-5 it says “Though one may conquer a thousand thousand men in battle, yet nobler is he who conquers himself. Self-conquest is far greater than to conquer others. Not even a god, Mara nor Brahma can turn to defeat the victory of one who subdues himself and is always restrained in conduct.”
The question I will then be asked is, how does one do so? The first line tells us that the key is in knowing oneself, which really means, coming to know human nature through noticing one’s own case. Knowing oneself here does not really mean knowing what makes one distinctive, but rather, through honestly observing one’s own case, coming to know the frailties that humankind in general is prey to.
Then one naturally develops compassion and wisdom because one no longer sees oneself as superior or different. One’s ego-centricity dies away. This is the meaning of dying without dying.
When one is literally dying many of the things that have occupied one’s mind throughout life seem completely unimportant. Our lives are complicated by inessentials. At the time of death one has much greater clarity. With the benefit of this clarity one may feel great regret, realising that much of one’s life has been wasted on trivia. Or, alternatively, one may feel great peace looking back on a life well lived. Thus, at the time of death there is some degree of natural awakening. Of course, it would be better to have such an awakening earlier in life and this is what is meant by dying before you die. Enlightenment is thus a kind of death. Also in Genjo Koan, Dogen says that the dead do not come back to life again. He is not talking about reincarnation or anything of the kind. What he means is that those who have experienced this kind of spiritual death do not fall back on the spiritual path.
In some versions of the Chinese text, the last line has some additional characters which change the meaning so that it reads “To die but not be forgotten is true longevity”. This sense can also accord with much Chinese wisdom where ancestor worship has been long practised. Here there is no final clarity about what the original text said, so we must leave that open. However, it seems to me that the choice I have made accords more closely with the general spirit of Lao Tzu's approach which is not about seeking the kind of fame that will live on but about living a life that does not offend the deep spiritual meaning and course of the Tao.