Wang Bi

I’ve been distracted from reading. It’s amazing that I have to fight so hard to carve out the time, as much against myself as circumstance.

I picked up Wang Bi’s third century commentary on the Laozi again. He has such a subtle mind. To write a commentary without imprisoning the original text is, perhaps, an impossible task. But he comes as close as one can hope. As someone who spent most of my life doing nothing but reading commentaries, I am impressed with how reluctant he is to confine Laozi’s words even to his own interpretation. This is due in no small part to the nature not only of Laozi’s writing, which is more like poetry than prose, but to his worldview, the foundation of which is beyond names.

§ 1

The end of his introduction struck me. I wonder if part of me has preferred Zhuangzi because he is more artistic and complex? This is not to say I don’t adore the Laozi, just that I may have been under appreciating it because of its deceptive simplicity.

Here is the text:

Therefore a man of antiquity sighed and said: “Truly! What a difficult thing this is to understand! I knew that not being sagacious was not being sagacious, but I never knew that to be sagacious was not sagacious. I knew that not being benevolent was not being benevolent, but I never knew that being benevolent was not benvolent.” However, thus it is that only after repudiating sagehood can the efficacy of sagehood be fully realized; only after discarding benevolence can the virtue of benevolence become really deep. To hate strength does not mean that one desires not the be strong but refers to how the conscious use of strength results in the negation of strength. To repudiate benevolence does not mean that one desires not to be benevolent but refers to how the conscious use of benevolence turns it into something false. Once one tries to govern deliberately, chaos ensues; once one deliberately tries to maintain his security, danger results. Place oneself in the rear, and one will find himself in front. Finding oneself in front is not possible by trying to place oneself in front. Put aside one’s person, and one’s person will be preserved. Preservation of one’s person cannot be done by trying to preserve one’s person. Efficacy cannot be had for the seizing, as praise cannot be had for the applying. Thus it is that one must do nothing except hold fast to the mother that provides efficacy. As a section [of the Laozi] says, “once one knows the child,” he must “hold on to the mother.” If one followed this principle, what venture would ever fail to achieve complete success!

“Being good at making quick progress lies in not hurrying, and being good reaching goals lies in not forcing one’s way.” Perhaps this is all the more powerful to me now as I consider how many years have passed and how little time is left.

§ 2

His commentary is helping me understand chapters I never even found interesting, let alone inspired. Straw dogs is a brilliant image. Heaven does not favor us not because we are unworthy, but because it favors no one. To learn how to let things be is so difficult, yet exactly right. To prefer one over the other, to make institutions that promote and encourage this preference, is to make people lose their authenticity. “As long as you use kindness derived from a personal perspective, it indicates a lack of capacity to leave things to themselves.”

§ 3

I have been away for a while, and picked up where I left off, on section 15. This is exactly the kind of leader I want to be. I will pursue this path.

Also, as great as he is, you are constantly reminded that he is a commentator: he is often trying to explain things away.

§ 4

All things flourish, but each returns to its roots.

Laozi, 16

§ 5

This my be the most important thing I’ve ever read. This is as close as I’ve come to experiencing inspiration–to meditating on a text and feeling it speak to me:

It is when the great Dao is forsaken that benevolence and righteousness appear, when wisdom and intelligence emerge that great falsehood occurs, when the six relations exist in disharmony that the obedient and the kind appear, and when the state is in disorder that loyal minsters arise.

Laozi, 18

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