What Happens to a Taoist After Death?

There are two questions that will arise in a thinking person’s mind. There will be many, actually, but these two are guaranteed.

Why is life unfair?


What happens to me after I die?

We will address the second question today. Just because that’s what I feel like talking about.

What happens to me after I die?

Religions do their best to answer this question for you, and if you are an adherent to a religion or philosophy that is not Tao, you have one of the following four options:

Heaven: Having been judged a good person for your faith, reverence or good deeds, eternity is spent in Heaven or Paradise with God in a blissful state beyond our imagination.

Hell: Having been judged a bad person for your sins, eternity is spent in Hell among Satan and his demons. Torture and torment are on the menu without mercy or relief.

Transmigration of the soul: Our soul and spirit are reborn into a new human baby without awareness of the previous life. We do it again, with feeling.

Reincarnation: Our soul and spirit are reborn into another living entity – not necessarily human. Like a bug.

Quite exciting, don’t you think? The important component of this “after death” belief is that you continue to exist in some form, and that’s the comforting thing people love to hear.

If you are a Taoist, however, the answer to the “what happens after I die” question is:

Nothing: You die. The body decays and returns to nature, becoming part of the earth and the beasts and plants that dwell there. Your spirit, memory, awareness and mind return to the greater energies of the Tao and “you” exist no more. What you know as “you” ceases to be. You are gone.

We could also see it like this:

As a living being you are equivalent to a wave, a separate entity that is moving swiftly to the shore. Eventually, however, the wave will crash into the beach and the water that was “you” returns back to the ocean. You always were water and you simply return to it, never to be formed again in that manner.

All of Tao is about impermanence and returning. The same will happen to you. This entity that is “you” is impermanent, temporary, even fleeting. And eventually you will be returned to the Tao, the energy that comprises and flows within everything,

This probably is less comforting than the idea that we meet up with family in a blissful afterlife, or that we somehow get to return to another life, even if we aren’t human again. The point is that we are scared of death, of truly ceasing to be, so religions accommodate and coddle our fears with scenarios that give us comfort.

But Taoists are quite pragmatic. We know that we end, though the Tao never does. Maybe that is comfort enough.

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Minimalism and the Tao

Minimalism has found a place in modern culture; a logical response to the pervasive materialism we in the Western world have enjoyed for decades — often times to our financial detriment.

Taoist philosophy tells us that when anything reaches its zenith (highest point) it will invariable turn around and begin the descent to its nadir (lowest point). The extreme of winter begins its march towards spring. The darkest moment of night opens up for the daybreak.

Minimalism, however, has been presented not only as a tonic to frenzied materialism, but also as a lifestyle choice or a design aesthetic. It’s not about having fewer pointless possessions so much as having the stark modernism style in your trendy, urban apartment.

Needless to say, being on trend is not a concern for a Taoist.

Minimalism for Taoists is quite different. We don’t strive to be ascetics (people who deprive themselves of basic, human essentials to prove their devotion to a god or cause.) That’s not the way the Tao works. The Tao is always in you and you are not required to earn its love through self-denial.

Moreover, walking hand in hand with the Tao means emulating what we see in nature. I’ve never seen a bear deprive herself of fish simply to prove a greater point. She walks with the Tao, eating, sleeping and living as the seasons and her inner nature dictate.

So why do Taoists tend towards having fewer possessions? There are two reasons.

1. We own what we need but no more. We don’t collect or hoard or indulge in pointless purchases because we know such behavior leads to scarcity for others. While it may seem we have a limitless supply of food and consumer goods at our fingertips, indulgences in one country means hardship, pollution and poverty elsewhere in the world.

2. Secondly, we know all of existence is based in impermanence. As much as humans wish to deny that change is the only constant, Taoists accept the truth. We are eternally in motion. The good things we enjoy today will surely fade, just as the setbacks we experience diminish as well.

Impermanence should be at the forefront of our minds. We must be ready at all times to accept the twists in the path of Tao and thereby — most importantly — have the ability to move with them.

Too often the direction of our life changes and we are unwilling and unable to accept it — the loss of a job, the death of a spouse, a divorce, or some major change that alters the dynamic of our environment to the point that we must move on. We make excuses that change would be too difficult. We are accustomed to life as it was, clinging to a situation that has ended like a child who refuses to put down a toy they have outgrown.

Accepting the impermanence of existence means having the internal strength to accept change and move with it, often times in a literal, physical sense. Keeping your possessions to only that which is needed and no more makes you all the more able to flow effortlessly with the Tao.

Minimalism is not a trendy choice. It is a way of keeping light on your feet to accept change and move gracefully forward.

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Taoists are like water

You may know the concept to which Taoists ascribe — of emulating water to more closely be attuned to the Tao. It is a difficult idea for Westerners, as we have been taught to break through whatever barriers we face with brute strength, regardless of cost to ourselves or others.

In fact, being like water is considered too passive in a society that wants everything and they want it now. Who has a million years to carve out the Grand Canyon? Water does.

I spent the last week working a labor job, which is atypical for me but I thought it important, as I would be exposed to many lessons of the Tao. For the first couple days I was on my own, doing repetitive work that bruised my hands and challenged my joints and muscles. I am not young. But I went at the work steadily, bit by bit, box by box until the end of each work day without ceasing.

By the middle of the week, the owner of the small company decided to join me in the effort and her methods to address the work were quite different. Where I was methodical and steady, she moved quickly, pushing boxes about with a harsh shove rather than a gentle nudge.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she did the work in sloppy fashion. Materials were ruined and discarded. Others fell to the floor at her feet where she would kick them away or spend time retrieving them. Her work was loud and hurried.

I continued at the pace of water, now with the new challenge to avoid being hit by her boxes as she moved in frenetic fashion.

Even at lunch she demonstrated a different manner as she stood up to eat her processed food from a container while I sat to eat my homemade lunch. She would finish first and race back to her desk as though hurried self-denial was the mark of a good worker. Her lack of care and respect for her body’s needs was evident. She is obese and looks unwell, indicating the cost of her approach to work and life.

Perhaps the point of her frenzied effort was to show me how much faster her methods were and how my quiet, steady practices were unwelcome, but the toll on her process was high. She excused herself often to sit down and rest.

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

— Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu reminds us that water seeks the lowest level which humans abhor. We strive for the top position, hurried and angry in our efforts to rise above our peers. And for our efforts to bully and bulldoze our way to the top, we find ourselves damaged and unwell.

Through Tao we do not hurry, yet nothing goes undone. This is Wu Wei. This is emulating water that slowly drips and wears away all things with a great, steady power. As a Taoist this is your way of being in the world — unhurried, steady and strong.

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When the Student is Ready, the Master Appears

A college student was speaking with her science professor and she asked a candid question.

“You’ve been working a long time,” she said, “so I can’t understand why you still drive around in this beat up Jeep.”

The teacher laughed and replied. “Well, what do you think it means?”

“Well,” answered the student. “Your clothes aren’t fancy. Your car is old. You’re like a hobo.”

The professor and I are still laughing about that comment. In truth, the professor lives a simple life, but she has a 7-figure net worth and no longer needs to teach, yet chooses to.

Knowing the professor and her depth of insight about science and life in general, it makes me wonder if we — as students of Tao — will really know when our master appears. That’s how the saying goes. “When the student is ready, the master appears.” But will we be able to recognize them?

I’ve never been a fan of “cult of personality” masters; those people who, through the use of media, create an idealized and heroic persona. This marketing method is meant to entice others into believing gurus have all the answers and lead a perfect existence of power, money and interpersonal relationships. And they can teach their methods to you for $19.95!

Self-help gurus and supposed masters (like Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey) are usually quite sparkly, not “hobo” or humble at all. There are also quite a few who are too young and inexperienced to be offering advice. But when we are so desperate to fix a supposed personal flaw or eager to learn better how to follow the Tao, we will cling to anyone who promises us that opportunity.

So how will we recognize the master when she or he appears? How do we avoid throwing away money and wasting time on those who in no way embody the Tao, but rather exploit others’ fears for profit?

Keep your eyes focused downward. Your master is not up on a stage bathed in light, but more likely to be driving by in a tattered Jeep. Look around. She may be standing right in front of you.

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A Taoist Defines Tranquility

A parable tells of a time in ancient China when an emperor asked his minister to summon the best artists in the land.

“I want to focus on the issues at hand but my mind is unsettled. It would help me to look upon some piece of art that reflects tranquility,” explained the emperor.

Weeks later, three large paintings were submitted to the emperor for his review. He looked upon the first which showed a calm lake surrounded by mountains. The scene was beautiful and serene, and the water completely placid.

“This is quite nice,” said the emperor. His minister took a breath of relief.

The second painting showed a valley after a heavy snowfall, the embodiment of a silent, serene winter’s afternoon. The emperor nodded his approval and the minister took another breath.

The third painting featured a roaring waterfall.

“I’m sorry, your highness,” said the nervous minister. “The artist did not understand my request for tranquility. Perhaps one of the other images will serve you.”

The emperor raised his hand to silence the minister. “This is the painting I want,” he said. “Look here.”

The minister leaned in to see a tree painted near the waterfall. In one of the branches there was a nest with a bird sleeping inside.

“See how the bird is able to find quiet even amidst the movement and roar of the waterfall?” said the emperor. “The bird walks so purely with the Tao that nothing can disturb its inner peace. This is tranquility.”

We want so desperately to find inner peace that we spend effort and money surrounding ourselves with music, incense, clothes and furnishings to help us attain it. But as Taoists, we know tranquility is within at all times, no matter how abrasive or disruptive the world becomes. It’s simply up to us to learn not to be disturbed.

The emperor chose the painting that reminded him the world would never be quiet or still enough to appease him. Instead, like the bird, we must secure a small haven in the midst of chaos and find tranquility within by contemplating the Tao.

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Taoist Turtle in the Mud

You likely know this story.

The Emperor sent his men to bring the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, back to the palace so he could serve and provide good counsel to the Emperor. Of course, Chuang Tzu declined the honor when the soldiers found him sitting in the dirt at the foot of a shade tree.

The soldiers demanded he explain his refusal and Chuang Tzu replied, “Do you recall the massive tortoise shell on the wall above the Emperor’s throne? That turtle was sitting in the mud when he was captured and taken to the palace to be sacrificed.

 “It was, of course, a great honor. But don’t you think that turtle would have preferred to be left alone in his pool of mud?”

“Of course,” replied the soldiers.

“Than leave me in my pool of mud,” Chuang Tzu replied.

I thought of this story yesterday as I worked with an acquaintance who asked for help with a project for her client. She needed to ship product and was fearful the materials would not arrive for a meeting on time. She even fretted over how straight the shipping labels were on the boxes.

This woman has owned her business for 30 years and been blessed with an income most regular people like you and me could not hope for. And she has spent it lavishly on fancy homes, cars and material goods of no lasting value.

Now, at age 60, she is down to this one client, living project to project, borrowing money and paying it back to stay one step ahead of her expensive lifestyle. The stress has impacted her health in the worst ways. She spent the day yesterday denying herself food and bathroom breaks, fearful that a momentary lapse in focus would mean a mistake that resulted in the loss of her only client.

I drove home last night to my pool of mud, thinking how much happier I was to have emulated Chuang Tzu with my life choices. I have no fancy sports car, no luxury home and I cook my own basic food. I no longer have to work, my needs are so few. But most importantly, no one owns me to the point I feel I must deny my own need to use the toilet.

Chuang Tzu knew a life in the palace would mean great riches and rewards. He also knew it would require living in constant fear and eventually sacrificing his life.

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Quote: Tattoo

“Every experience that we have, everything that we do and think is registered upon us as surely as the steady embroidery of a tattoo artist. But to a large degree, the pattern and picture that will emerge is up to us.

“If we go to a tattoo artist, it is we who select the picture. In life, it is we who select what we will become by the actions we perform.

“There is no reason to go through life thoughtlessly, to let accident shape us. That is like allowing oneself to be tattooed by a blind man.”

— Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

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Finding Tranquility

When we ask others what they want from life, the more common answers are such things as excitement, wealth, happiness and success. Never have I heard someone answer that they hope for tranquility.

In modern times the idea of tranquility seems rather boring and unambitious. We want fancy possessions, challenging careers, exciting travels and a lifetime filled with grand events that keep us on a constant high. When boredom sets in or unfortunate times befall us, we feel betrayed as though we were promised a life filled with endless euphoria.

But we know through the Tao that everything has an opposite. Every high point in life must be paired with a sorrow. Every fancy purchase comes with a cost, in dollars, time and loss of freedom. Every exciting vacation only punctuates the mundane nature of our regular lives more harshly.

These highs accompanied by disappointing lows could be balanced by walking the middle path of Tao. Following the way means moderation in all things, and a contentment that comes with having just the right amount but no more.

This rather unattractive offer of a life of tranquility has benefits that are undervalued in our time. The person who spends only what she can afford and saves for a rainy day, for example, has the benefit of sleeping well at night with no money worries. She can weather the storm of a temporary, financial loss. That’s hardly sexy compared to the allure of purchasing a luxury vehicle that is well beyond one’s budget, but people of Tao see the value of tranquility and a moderate lifestyle.


Find the space that exists between extremes where you have the right amount but no more and you will find both tranquility and the Tao.

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The Single Greatest Benefit of Meditating

Everyone from East to West knows meditation generates positive effects on the body and mind. The faster our lives become and the more technology we are exposed to, the more we need to take time every day to turn off everything, including our own thoughts, through meditation. Benefits such as stress reduction and increased happiness are just two of many.

The single, greatest benefit of meditation, however, is this — it teaches us not to react.

Our society is on reaction overload, whether we’re raging at the driver next to us on the highway or writing a scathing review of a restaurant on the Internet. Every comment deserves a retort. Every slight requires a raging comeback. Back and forth we go verbally or even physically slapping one another in a volley of constant, uncontrolled reaction. We are all too ready to respond with violence if someone pushes our buttons.

The Tao teaches us all things are best in moderation, including our own reactions. How much calmer and wiser we would be if we refused to react to slights and impulses. What if we disabled our own buttons so there were none to push?

Meditation isn’t about controlling your thoughts so much as learning to prevent thoughts from controlling you. Through meditation, we let thoughts come and go like a butterfly flitting past, and then we return focus to breathing. We learn to ignore the body’s twinges and fussiness. We simply refuse to react to whatever our mind, body and the entire world throw at us for those 10 or 15 minutes.

The skill you are building is one of non-reaction. Through meditation, you will grow mental muscles that allow you to feel an urge and not respond to it. Taoists admire bamboo for its ability to face a storm and merely bend with the wind without breaking. Taoists act in this fashion, being flexible and enduring amidst the worst storms.

You may feel hunger, but mentally you have the capacity to acknowledge it and wait patiently for the appropriate time to eat.

You might be around people who say things that would otherwise offend you, but you have the strength to sidestep being offended by their foolish slights and not react.

Showing strength against those things that would agitate others is the greatest gift meditation provides. Practice daily and learn to avoid the cycle of endless reaction that pushes you further from the Tao’s centering ways.

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Why Taoists meditate

Before we discuss how to meditate or list all the benefits of doing so from better mental focus to reduced stress to preventing hair loss (kidding), it’s important to discuss why Taoists meditate.

It’s not much different from why Hindus, Buddhists or everyone else does really, save for one subtle tweak. Buddhists meditate to attain enlightenment, quieting their minds and reducing attachment to things and people, thereby moving past their limitations as humans to become higher beings that need not be reincarnated. Tell that to a Taoist, however, and she would laugh.

We laugh not to be cruel or to mock because we love Buddhists — but also because we Taoists believe humans are pretty darn perfect as we are and there isn’t anything to move beyond. We are part of the Tao and we are exactly as we were meant to be.

If you see a fox, for example, you know it was meant to be a fox. It doesn’t need to move past its limitations as a fox. It doesn’t need to strive or aspire to be anything but its foxy self. That’s its true nature, to be a fox and do foxy things because it is part of and attuned to the Tao.

We as humans are no different from that fox, save for one thing — the burdens we have placed on ourselves through age and society.

Think of yourself like an onion. (I’m sure you do this often.) Over time, those around you and society as a whole placed burdens, demands and expectations on you. You started to wrap your true nature in a cocoon of unwanted nonsense. Like an onion, layers and layers of demands wrapped around you. Moreover, you placed them on yourself. Your ambitions added layers to the onion, as did your pursuit of material goods and indulgent experiences. As adults, we become big, fat onions.

Taoists meditate to assist in the peeling off of these layers. Once the demands and ambitions are satisfied to at least some degree, you can begin to push them aside. You no longer strive for superficial things. You no longer listen to the chatter of those who put you in roles that are inauthentic to your true nature.

This is called returning to the source.

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 16

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

Meditate every day to engage in the process of rediscovering your true nature — the one you were born with and always had deep inside. Reclaim your foxy self.

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