I have generally had an ambivalent disposition toward the first chapter of the Laozi as an exposition of philosophical Daoism primarily because of its introduction of the concept of Non-Being into the mix, and this, above all else, is its primary contribution. The problem, I am discovering, lies not in the text itself, but in the interpretations given it. Not surprisingly, these tend to miss the ironic dimension of the newly introduced category of Non-Being and take it as an occasion to turn it into a positive value, a 'thing'. (I say "not surprisingly", as I so often do, because it is precisely this propensity that permeates our manner of interfacing with the world and, ironically, is exactly that which philosophical Daoism, and the introduction of Non-Being, attempts to overcome.)
Take for example the assessment of Laozi given in the Tianxia (33rd) chapter of the Zhuangzi: "They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it in the supreme Oneness." (Ziporyn) What the author essentially does here is to give a positive, concrete cognitive reality to Non-Being. It makes something of nothing. It misses the ironic altogether; it misses the fact that it is the actual emptiness and inarticulatablity of the term that gives it its power. As I recall (my knowledge is tenuous here; my eyes probably glazed over as I read them), the great neo-Daoism expositors like Wang Bi did precisely this same thing. They turned Being and Non-Being into two 'things' upon which to speculate, when the Laozi introduced them to demonstrate that we cannot.
Referencing a Mr. Bai Tongdong, Ziporyn shows one reason this misunderstanding arises. There are two ways in which Being and Non-being are presented in the Laozi, symmetrically and asymmetrically. Symmetrically, they are presented as co-equals; they are two aspects of one Reality. This can be looked at as the "horizontal" view. Asymmetrically, Non-Being is privileged over Being. This is the "vertical" view. The symmetrical is comparable to Yin and Yang, two equals that give birth to each other and together form a whole. The asymmetrical is more about that whole. This whole coheres with what is incoherent, and is thus itself incoherent. Non-Being is the incoherent, unknowable and valueless, and it is from this that all Being arises and to which it returns. This is why it is privileged. It informs Being of its own incoherence.
Being privileged, Non-Being renders a whole that cannot be identified. It provides a coherence that is also and foremost an incoherence. It opens us up to an openness that is open-ended. There is no answer, no resolution, no “constant”. It is what provides “the Radiance of Drift and Doubt”. It is in stepping through this gate that we begin to wander.
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