The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.