We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu returns to talking about non-being and being. I say, returns. But I only mean it in the sense that he hasn’t specifically mentioned the words being and non-being since chapter two. It was there that he said being and non-being create each other. Chapter two was our introduction to yin and yang. And I said, then, that the relationship between yin and yang can best be explained as the relationship between being and non-being. They create each other; the seed of each one is in the other. But then, after introducing being and non-being, I said how difficult it is to try and put into words, what being and non-being are. We are talking about the eternal reality, after all.. I hoped, then, that it would suffice to understand that being and non-being are represented by yin and yang.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers me another opportunity to expound on what non-being and being are. We will see if I do a better job, today, than I did nine days ago, of explaining them. How to explain non-being and being, being and non-being. One way to look at it would be how Lao Tzu said it in chapter one. Mystery and manifestations arise from the same Source. While caught in desires we can’t realize the mystery. We can only see the manifestations. In this sense, being would be the manifestations and non-being would be the mystery. In my commentary on chapter two, I said it was tempting to say that being is something and non-being is nothing. But I didn’t think that is especially useful. Another way that you could think of being and non-being is to call being, existence, and non-being, non-existence. That may be a little more useful.
What Lao Tzu has been doing for the last several chapters, now, is spending a whole lot of time explaining the value of emptiness. He has talked of emptying and filling, I think, as a way of expressing the infinite Tao. And, ultimately, that tells us more than we, at first, may realize.
Today, he gives us three metaphors to explain the relationship between being and non-being. Being is what we work with. It is what we see. Like the spokes that we join together in a wheel. The clay that we shape into a pot. Or, the wood that we hammer for a house. Being is what we work with. It is what we see.
But non-being is what we use. What would being, be, without non-being? You simply can’t have one without the other. They create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. They follow each other. Without that center hole in the wheel, the wagon won’t move. Without the emptiness inside the pot, you won’t have anything to hold whatever you want. Without the inner space in your house, you won’t have a place in which to live.
And, I can already hear the arguments, I have made them myself, that without those spokes, and that clay, and that wood, we wouldn’t have that empty space, either. But that just proves Lao Tzu’s point. Being and non-being need each other. What we are doing today is distinguishing between the two.
Perhaps, you have never thought about these distinctions before. We tend to not give non-being a second thought. We can’t really see it. We don’t work with it. Before I started going through the Tao Te Ching, I didn’t think about the value of emptiness. When I would think of all the empty space in our Universe, I would wonder why that was. Why all that vast emptiness? And then, when I learned that each atom is primarily a whole lot of empty space… There must be value in that emptiness. It is meant to be used. To be filled. I suppose, if I am traveling through space at greater than light speed, it helps greatly, that most of it is empty. Thank you, Han Solo, for reminding me.
I just keep returning to emptiness and fullness for an expression of non-being and being. Yin and yang. They balance each other out. If you were to ask me if I am a glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of guy, I would answer that it depends on whether you are emptying or filling the glass. What is non-being? It is everything above and beneath, being. It is everything before and after, being. Now you see why I don’t think it is especially useful to call being, something, and non-being, nothing. It is because without non-being, being is nothing. And with being, non-being is everything. Even the idea of a distinction between existence and non-existence starts to get wiggily-jiggily for me. I am afraid I have crossed over into the realm of the more I speak of it, the less I understand it. I knew this was going to happen the moment I started talking of it. It is time for me to stop. Treat it like a bellows. Use it more. Talk of it less.