The first line of this chapter contains much food for thought. In our first edition we have translated these four words by "Going forth is life, coming home is death." We still cling to the same meaning, but we believe we have improved the diction by translating "Abroad in life, home in death."
We must grant, however, that we might translate, "He who enters life must return in death," but this interpretation that "he who is born must die," is objectionable mainly because it is too trivial for Lao-tze.
The second paragraph in this chapter is obscure and seems beyond hope of
making good sense. A literal translation reads:
"Life's followers [are] ten have three
Death's followers [are] ten have three
In man's life the moving to death places are also ten have three."
This may mean either ten plus three, i. e., thirteen, or of ten take three, viz., "three in ten."
If the translation "thirteen" be correct, "thirteen retainers" might according to Chinese folklore mean the five senses and the eight apertures which make thirteen avenues of life. This interpretation is based on the view of the commentator Lu Tze who may be right, and his view becomes somewhat probable when we bear in mind Chapter 52, where Lao-tze speaks of the mouth and the sense-gates as beset with danger. There he declares that the sage who keeps these openings closed will to the end of his life remain safe.
I applied to Mr. Ng Poon Chew for an explanation and he writes:
"The passage is very vague and obscure, its meaning is no clearer to me
than to you. I have consulted a few good Chinese scholars and they were all baffled. The words shi yiu san, "ten have three," may mean here "thirteen" or "three out of ten."
If we translate "three in ten," the reader will naturally ask, Three times three in ten make nine, where is the tenth? And we would answer, it is "the man who bases his life on goodness." Three in ten are anxious to live, three in ten somehow are doomed to death, and other three in ten walk blindly toward death; they all live life's intensity. There is but one who is above life and death, and this is the man who bases his life on goodness.
In this case we interpret the word fu, "footman, follower, retainer," in the sense of "pursuer."
We have chosen the former interpretation which seems to us the most probable, but do not claim to have solved the difficulty.
* * *
The last section of this chapter finds a striking parallel in Plato's Phædrus,
in the same book and on the same pagina (248) that contains the reference to the supercelestial being which is colorless and shapeless, quoted above in our comments on Chapter 14. The passage in Plato reads: "There is a law of destiny that the soul which attains any vision of truth in company with a god is preserved from harm until the next period, and if attaining always is always unharmed." 10
The same idea is expressed in the famous ode of Horace, Integer vitae. The belief that a truly good man is miraculously protected in danger is not uncommon in folktales and appears to have been an integral part of primitive religion.
Are these coincidences between Plato and Lao-tze accidental or are we to look upon them as echoes of a notion which in both the West and East have been inherited from a distant prehistoric past? The latter is certainly not improbable.
* * *
"Reality" here translates the word
wuh, "concrete things," and commonly occurs in the phrase "the ten thousand things" which means the entire world.
The character sh = "expansion" is a synonym of wei in the sense of assertion. The sage fears to be or to appear or to claim too much. He avoids self-aggrandizement.
177:10 Jowett's translation.