Many are afraid of death and the dying process, and treat it as a cultural (and psychological) taboo. Others become secretly obsessed with the death of others and there is ample photographic and video material on the internet to satisfy this fetish. The reality is that the word ‘death’ is culturally loaded with all kinds of superstitious and negative undertones. Death is always that ‘thing’ that happens to others – but hopefully will never happen to the individual observing the death of others. Death is always somewhere else, happening to somebody else (and this includes the death of animals, plants, and planets, etc). Individuals die and others are born to take their place. In the UK there is a hang-over from Victorian days (and possibly earlier) that treats death as a ‘failure’ and old age, illness, or accident as an ‘error’.
Of course, people die all the time at any age and for any reason, and science explains that life is premised upon death in as much as body cells are produced, function, and then pass away every single second of every day of existence. This ‘micro’ death appears to be the engine that drives ‘macro’ life. Therefore the life that humanity enjoys in its most fulfilling and pleasurable moments (as well as its most unbearable) has its basis within the dying and re-becoming processes at the cellular level. In a very real sense, human existence could be described as a positive (i.e. ‘living’) manifestation of the dying process. This seems to suggest that death is ‘yin’ and that life is ‘yang’, and that one aspect cannot exist without the other. Life as humans experience it is a polarity of existence and non-existence, with one element reflecting itself and its opposite in a continuous rotation of of being and non-being.
When a human being dies, this may be referred to as ‘macro’ death, whereby the cycle death that occurs at cellular level becomes permanent and system-wide so that no further cellular re-newing is possible. This means that the cohesive force that holds cells together, nolonger functions because it has dissipated into the surrounding environment. In Daoist terms this would imply that the ‘jing’ or ‘essential nature’ received from both parents, and which creates a human foetus in the womb, either weakly falls away, or strongly expands and becomes all-embracing – being integrated with ’empty spirit’ (or ‘shen’). Shen is the realisation and permanent identification of consciousness with universal ’empty space’ to such a degree that when the physical brain ceases to function, the ‘practitioner’ becomes the state of ’empty space’ – which is the universe that includes all things. This is why advanced Daoist practitioners are able to enter this state whilst still in their bodies, so that the actual ‘act’ of dying becomes a formality whereby ‘breathing’ ceases altogether and qi energy permanently integrates with ‘jing’ and ‘shen’ – leaving the physical body behind forever.
I think this is a good and positive model from the Daoist School that can be developed and modified to meet everyone’s belief system and expectations, although it is perfectly functional as it is. Like all transforming philosophies, Daoism requires the development of awareness at every level. This is not a superficial awareness, but one that possesses the power to penetrate or pierce reality as it appears to the senses. Many accomplished Daoist – such as Zhao Bichen (1860-1942) and Niu Jin Bao (1915-1988) – have passed away whilst sat in the meditation position as an act of will. This is known as the process of ‘Seated Transformation’ (坐化 – Zuo Hua) and involves the gradual (and voluntary) withdrawal of the breath as the primary maintainer of life, which is replaced by an expansive consciousness (and awareness of ’empty space’) as the primary basis for ‘being’.