UNDER HEAVEN XL

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.” (Laozi 1)

This translation would be considered very controversial in the unlikely event that any scholar cared about my opinions, in as much as the traditional rendering has it imply that we should eschew desires altogether. However, to my thinking, this rendering is entirely consistent with and is implied by the rest of the chapter.

This simultaneous experience of freedom from desire and its apparent opposite, the exercise of desire, wonderfully illustrates the middle way that Madhyamika Buddhism later developed to a science. Not this; not that; both and neither. Empty, yet full; full, yet empty.

There is dialectic here—thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . . thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . .

It is dynamic and unending. We don’t discover the middle way, the final and clear guiding principle. Rather, we are cast into perpetual motion, drift and unfixedness—an emptiness (shunyata) in motion.

Philosophical Daoism covers this ground through a via negativa, the way of wu: Dao that is not-Dao, doing that is not-doing, knowing that is not-knowing, hope that is not-hope, desire that is not-desire, being that is not-being.

The concept of wuwei, not-doing, is taken as the signature virtue of the Daoist sage. But what is it? It is not not-doing, but a way of doing that is also not-doing. We struggle to define it, but by definition, to define it is to miss it. To stop the motion and say, “this is it”, is to say what it is not.

This is not to say that we should not say it, for this too is part of the process. Only we should not think that our saying says it.

In the end, wuwei is a way of living, and living is an inexplicable spontaneous arising.

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