“Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it’s the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it’s the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it’s the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a thing useful
but nonexistence makes it work”
(Taoteching, verse 11, translation by Red Pine)
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Thirty spokes converging on a hub demonstrates that less is the ancestor of more.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Ancient carts had thirty spokes in imitation of the lunar number.”
LI JUNG says, “It’s because the hub is empty that spokes converge on it. Likewise, it’s because the minds of sages are empty that the people turn to them for help.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “A cart, a pot, and a house can hold things because they are empty. How much more those who empty their mind.”
WU CH’ENG says, “All of these things are useful. But without an empty place for an axle, a cart can’t move. Without a hollow place in the middle, a pot can’t hold things. Without spaces for doors and windows, a room can’t admit people or light. But these three examples are only metaphors. What keeps our body alive is the existence of breath within us. And it is our empty, nonexistent mind that produces breath.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In this verse the great Sage teaches us to understand the source by using what we find at hand. Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.”
CHANG TAO-LING says, “When ordinary people see these things, they only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. When sages see them, they see in them the Tao and are careful in their use.”
TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven and Earth have form, and everyone knows that Heaven and Earth are useful. But they don’t know that their usefulness depends on the emptiness of the great Way. Likewise, we all have form and think ourselves useful but remain unaware that our usefulness depends on our empty, shapeless mind. Thus, existence may have its uses, but real usefulness depends on nonexistence. Nonexistence, though, doesn’t work by itself. It needs the help of existence.”
And, RED PINE adds, “Lao-tzu’s ‘existence’ and ‘nonexistence’ are tantamount to yang and yin…Until recently, the people who lived in the middle reaches of the Yellow River watershed, where the Taoteching was composed, carved their houses out of the loess hillsides. As long as the ceilings of the rooms were carved in an arch, the compactness of the soil made support beams unnecessary. Thus, the only building materials needed were for doors and windows.”
Yesterday, we talked about emptying our minds. With today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to talking about the importance of emptiness. It’s the emptiness that makes a wheel work, it’s the hollow inside a pot that makes a pot work, it’s the spaces for windows and doors that make a house work.
That emptiness, that we can’t really see, that we hardly pay any attention to at all – without it, everything that exists wouldn’t be useful to us, at all. Emptiness, nonexistence, is what makes it work for us.
When I first encountered this verse in the Taoteching, it was something of an epiphany for me. I had never before really considered the value of “nothing.” Instead, “something” was what always had my attention.
My mind was always thinking about something. I was always working on something. But I never, for even a moment, considered any purpose for empty space. Since my “epiphany,” I have taken to looking at things quite differently. I think about nothing, and work with nothing, like never before.
I started really paying attention to that empty space which “fills” the skies. Before, when I looked up into the skies, all that empty space seemed such a waste. Now, I see it as full of purpose. Likewise, all the emptiness in every cell of matter. Down to the empty space inside atoms. There is so much more empty space, so much more nothing, than there is something. And that something couldn’t work without it.
I no longer see emptiness as lack, or like it is in want (of something). I rejoice in the emptiness inside of me, rather than trying to fill it. I have everything I need.
Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING (FL. 647-663). Taoist master and proponent of using an eclectic approach to explain the teachings of Lao-tzu. His commentary was recently reedited from portions found in the Taoist canon and in the Tunhuang Caves: S.2517. It reflects the influence of Chuang-tzu along with Buddhist Sanlun and Tientai teachings and was required reading for Taoists seeking ordination during the T’ang dynasty. Lao-tzu-shu.
CHANG TAO-LING (A.D. 34-157). Patriarch of the Way of Celestial Masters, the earliest known Taoist movement, which emphasized physical and moral training along with spiritual cultivation. His commentary was lost until a partial copy, including verses 3 through 37, was found in the Tunhuang Caves: S.6825. Lao-tzu hsiang-erh-chu.