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“Death and Renewal” by Richard Wilhelm

As the Chinese conceive the world the appearance of everything that exists is conditioned by a pair of polar opposites, light and shadow, positive and negative, Yang and Yin. These extend also into the metaphysical realm as the opposites, life and death. It is not accidental that one of the oldest Chinese documents we have includes among the good fortunes promised to man the finding of a death that will crown life, his death, while among the misfortunes which threaten him the worst is an untimely death, a death which dismembers life instead of completing it. So we see that even death, the dark side which accompanies the light, is not merely negative and opposed to life but that, by its presence and its form, it also conditions the light of the living side. That the ancients accounted no man lucky until he was dead was not merely caution or superstition; rather it is a fact that life receives meaning from what lies beyond it, from that dark something toward which we advance.

Richard Wilhelm

In order to face this directly a certain courage is required, for no one has the right to speak of death who still fears it.

We must develop in ourselves an habitual readiness to meet without fear whatever comes upon us and to encounter directly whatever the future may bring.

Let us ask, therefore, what China can tell us of death.

From the very beginning the problem was approached somewhat differently there than in Europe. For in Europe life and death were formerly regarded as two time periods of unequal length, opposed to each other. The Western concept has been that life, lasting seventy, eighty, or even a hundred years, takes its rise in time and is, despite its brevity, of the greatest importance, since whether a man will go to heaven or hell for eternity—that is, for time without end—depends upon its outcome. This conception—which apparently originated in Persia and was then, along with certain Platonic influences, borrowed by Christianity—is generally felt to be unsatisfactory in present-day Europe, although on the whole we have nothing with which to replace it.

The first half of this concept— namely, the brevity of life on earth—we accept as real but we are doubtful about the second half, about what follows. In the East the idea of reality is somewhat differently apportioned between these two halves. Life, the half which seems so important to us, is robbed, as it were, of its garish sunlight. It is less real than with us. For in the end reality in the East still signifies only appearance, only one reality within the polarity mentioned above. As a result, although on one side life has less body, on the other side the shadowy world of death is not so purely negative; instead, the darkness of night is drawn into the great context including life and death. This is carried so far that life and death belong to the same extent in the world of appearance, and being transcends them both.

There is a natural and quite general idea in the East that anything which begins in time also ends in time. But similarly whatever ends also begins again. The life which comes to an end in time will begin in time again. The idea of a circulation is expressed here, a circulation which—just as it contains day and night in equal measures—also contains death and life.

Such a circular movement is familiar to us throughout all of organic nature. When the leaves fall in the autumn and the sap withdraws from the ends of the branches, we are sure that this ending will be followed by a new beginning; when the sun comes back and springtime recurs, the sap will rise once more and new leaves will bud out where the old ones dropped off.

The Confucian Interpretation

Starting from this general concept of life and death which is current in the Far East, we will speak now of some of the attempts to find solutions that give meaning to human life.

First, the Confucian interpretation. Naturally Confucius must have reflected upon these matters, too, but he took care not to say much about them. When a young man questioned him about death, he replied: “You hardly know life yet. How can you know death? Wait till you die; then you will experience it yourself.”

Another time when a young man asked him if the dead were conscious, he replied: “If I should say that they have consciousness, then it is to be feared that respectful sons and obedient descendants would use up everything for the burial of the dead and leave too little for the living. But should I say that the dead have no consciousness, then it is to be feared that undutiful sons might leave their parents unburied.” The point of view of Confucius is that men should be left in a state of doubt and tension about these matters lest their behavior be conditioned by dogmatic creeds and conceptions, for a personal sense of value and dignity is the inner imperative that leads men to act rightly. Therefore, in general, Confucius refused to answer such questions. He did not wish to set up any dogma but wanted men’s moral behavior to be shaped quite freely, independent of both those great enemies of mankind, fear and hope.

However, we cannot say that Confucianism had no views about death; quite clear conceptions of it are to be found there. It is entirely due to our ignorance that for centuries we have tended to see Confucius as nothing but a rationalist, leading the millions of Chinese for thousands of years with a worthy, bourgeois, and somewhat humdrum code of morals.

This image of Confucius is always reappearing and seems well-nigh indestructible. It derives entirely from the fact that a misunderstanding of Confucius was imported to Europe at the time of the Enlightenment, and that this false picture, highly honored in its day, has, like the Enlightenment itself, lost esteem with the changing times.

But what are the views of Confucianism about death? They are to be found in those commentaries to the Book of Changes which go back to Confucius and his school. Here we find the idea that a polarity exists which can be designated as heaven and earth, or light and darkness. Of these two principles, it is said:

“Looking upward we contemplate . . . the signs in the heavens; looking downward, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we know the circumstances of the dark and the light. Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and death. The union of seed and power produces all things; the escape of the animus (and the sinking of the anima to the depths) brings about change (Verfall, literally, decline, decay). Through this we come to know the conditions of outgoing and returning spirits.”

The union of seed (the image, the concept) and power (the material, the form) produces animated substance. On the other hand something quite different happens, too: consciousness arises, and this arising consciousness contains, preformed, as it were, the primal image of the human being. The life of the psyche originates the moment when this preformed consciousness, this spiritual thing, unites with nature (that is, with power or energy)—not in such a way that they mix but so that they constitute a polar tension which calls forth a kind of rotation. Thus the psychic life moves continually between these two poles, the poles of consciousness and of power. This motion attracts the elements and shapes them into forms that correspond with its nature. Therefore this duality is a basic characteristic of life as a whole. As I have said elsewhere, at the moment when the infant gives his first cry the two principles—which till now slumbered united in the mother’s womb —separate and never find each other again during the whole course of life.

From then on consciousness is the observer, the knower. Deeper down, consciousness is the experiencer, too, and, in the deepest depths, the feeler. Beyond that the motion reaches to the realm below, to the realm of organic power or energy. But the organic is only indirectly accessible to consciousness, and is by no means a compliant tool. Rather, it is something against which the spirit (which is higher but less powerful) must fight. From this we can understand why consciousness and power separate again. “The animus escapes and the anima sinks to the depths.” That is death. And in the moment of death the two principles take on another aspect. During life they constituted what appeared to be a seeming unity in the body. That which we call a person (persona, meaning really a mask) is in Chinese the body.

The body is the bond unifying the different psychic powers that act within a man. But inside this bond they always act as separate powers, and only the wise man, who stations himself at the center of their movement, succeeds in establishing harmony between them. At death the body disintegrates and therewith the appearance of unity also ceases. At one place in the Book of Documents the death of a prince is described as “a soaring upward and a sinking downward.” The two principles are so constituted that one, the corporeal soul, the anima (Po), sinks down and the other, the immanent spirit, the animus (Hun), mounts up. After the elements divide, what sinks falls into a condition of dissolution. For along with the body the anima also disintegrates. But this dissolution does not mean simply annihilation: just as the constituent parts of the body do not disappear at death but undergo reorganization and may even retain organic connections which are taken over by the new organism, so this Chinese point of view supposes that another kind of entity may be constituted from these corporeal souls.

“Death and Renewal” by Richard Wilhelm is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores. highest state of consciousness


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