Yang-tzu > Quotes

Taking Care of Yourself

The following quote is from Lieh-tzu's book and recounts a discussion between two statesmen about the art of cultivation life (i.e. the vital principle). The stress is put on the removing of constraints, that is of what a Freudian would call repressions.

This view led the critiques to state that Yang-tzu promoted a hedonistic way of life contrary to the Taoist ideal of seclusion and abstinence. However Taoism can not be reduced to asceticism unless we want to make it an annex of Christianity.

More about Yang-tzu's views illustrated in this story may be found in our paper commenting on it given as bonus with the email course Tao Practice in the Day to Day Life.


Yen-tzu asked Kuan-chung (*) what the ancients meant by "cultivating life."

Kuan-chung replied, "Cultivating life is taking care of yourself. It means living freely and not putting constraints on yourself."

"Can you elaborate on this?"

"Let your eyes see what they see, not what others want you to see. Let your ears hear what they naturally hear, not what others want you to hear. Let your mouth speak your mind freely and not be constrained by other people's approval or disapproval. Let your mind think what it wants to think and not let other people's demands dictate your thoughts. If your senses and your mind are not allowed to do what they want to do naturally, you are denying them their rights. When you cannot think, sense, feel, or act freely, then your body and mind are injured. Break these oppressions, and you will cultivate life. When you can cultivate life, then you can wait peacefully for death. Being able to escape these oppressions for one day is better than to live a hundred years being imprisoned by them."

Kuan-chung then said to Yen-tzu, "Now that I've talked about cultivating life, what can you tell me about taking care of death?"

Yen-tzu said, "As far as I am concerned, there's not much to taking care of death. It comes when it comes."

When Kuan-chung pressed him further, Yen-tzu said, "When I'm dead I won't know anything. Therefore, it doesn't really matter whether you throw me into the sea, leave me in the open, roll me into a ditch, or bury me in a grave. I wouldn't know if you dressed me up in expensive burial clothes or wrapped me in burlap sacks. Why worry about what happens after you die?"

Kuan-chung then turned to his friend Pao Shu-ya and said, "Between Yen-tzu and myself, we've said all there is to say about the way to live and the way to die."

When you live, be contented and know what's enough. When you die, there's no need for expensive caskets and elaborate funerals. Thus, live a satisfied life and die a simple death.

* Both famous statesmen of antiquity in the service of the dukes of Chi.

Translation by Eva Wong: Lieh-tzu A Taoist Guide to Practical Living, Shambhala, 2001, chapter 76.

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