UNDER HEAVEN XLII

So much rests on how we understand the lines in the Laozi (1) which I have admittedly controversially rendered, that it’s worth spending more time with them.

“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.”

The most translations frame it in hierarchically valuative terms: Free from desire you will see the spiritual; desiring, you will only see the material. In other words, we should strive to be free from desire so as to become spiritual. Desires are to be eliminated.

I have taken a more Zhuangzian approach, namely that we would do well to walk both roads simultaneously. Desires are to be embraced and affirmed; only now they are informed by a sense of their relative nature. The difference between these views is like night and day.

The more traditional view is essentially dualistic. The “spiritual” is better, higher, purer; the material is bad, lower, corrupted.

The lines immediately following seem to support the alternative view: “These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.”

What “two”? The “subtle” and the “manifest”. They are the same as equal participants in Mystery. And the gate into Mystery is not the denial of the one in preference for the other, but rather the embrace of both.

This is further supported by the second chapter which illustrates the mutual arising of opposites: “Being and Non-Being give birth to one another.” Together, Zhuangzi tells us, they can be united to form a oneness wherein the newly arising third term is openness and emptiness.

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