Li and Wen

Language

Both of these words relate to patterns. In Chinese civilization from the time of the Han onwards, Wén (文) has held primary importance, partly through the influence of Confucius. Wen has also held importance in the West through the influence of Plato, Aristotle and many others. Wen can be thought of as human-constructed cultural patterns that occur in various places, and conspicuously in Confucian literature. Wen is one way that human beings pass down knowledge and wisdom through the generations. It is simultaneously one of the main vehicles for passing down culturally conditioned delusions. The word Lǐ (理) can be used as a compliment to Wen, but also as a contrast.

The Analects of Confucius can be taken as an analogy for Wen. The analects represent a mechanism by which the thought patterns of the past can be transmitted forwards and conveyed to others. We have this cultural facet in the West as well – if we want to know about something we often turn to a book. Indeed, our western religions are often described as “religions of a book”.

On face of it, Li is a similar thing to Wen, but the book of Li is not made of paper – it is the whole of Nature. Li does not originate from a person (however eminent), but directly from the Dao. In one sense, this makes Li a more reliable source than Wen.

In mythology, Li can be thought of as being the patterns of Nuwa, and Wen as being the patterns of Fu Xi. Some of the Wen patterns can be useful, while others are delusional/misleading, even though they may seem convincing.

Part of Daoist practice is the mitigation of the dominance of Wen in a person’s life, and merging with the Dao so that Li can come to the fore. In contrast to the variable situation with Wen, Li patterns are always reliable, though their utility can take more effort.

When approaching Daoism, it is natural to turn immediately to books and start reading. There is some value to this, but on the other hand there is the pitfall that you end up learning Daoism, not doing it. This is also true of the various schools of Daoism – they are not exclusive clubs, but rather the collected Wen and associated Li of Daoist masters of the past. In setting out upon The Great Way, books and schools are less important than you might initially think. This is not to say that they have no value, but rather that Nature has more, and doing Daoism has far more value than learning Daoism.

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