The Value In Emptiness

The Tao is like a well;
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void;
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu introduced what many will call the pressing problem of our time, that of excess and deficiency. It may or may not be a surprise to some, that excess and deficiency were a problem in Lao Tzu’s day, as well. Indeed, excess and deficiency is a perennial problem for us humans. Why is there excess and deficiency? Well, surprise, surprise, the problem is our desire, which Lao Tzu has been addressing the last two days. We create deficiency, when we do anything to excess. The two always go together. If there wasn’t any excess, there wouldn’t be any deficiency.

And, of course, there will always be those who, because deficiency is something “bad” will propose solutions to solve the problem of deficiency. We have been doing this for thousands of years, now. It is so very obvious to us clever humans, exactly, what must be done. We need to do something about that excess. Excess is what caused the deficiency, get rid of the excess and, voila, no more deficiency.

Except… That isn’t ever how it works. When we intervene, when we interfere, we only bring things further out of balance. Oh, don’t misunderstand, here. The Tao will adjust excess and deficiency. And, the Tao will do it by taking from what is too much and giving to what is not enough. But, unlike us humans, with our good intentions, the Tao doesn’t make it personal. The only thing we should do in the face of the problem of excess and deficiency is to do nothing. Yes, Lao Tzu was serious, yesterday. Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.

I wanted to rehash yesterday’s theme, before I got into today’s theme, because it is so very important for us to understand. The practice of not-doing, or doing without doing, is a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. An often misunderstood concept, and one the vast majority are loath to put into practice in their own lives.

The problem is, we don’t see the value in nothing. And, so, Lao Tzu is going to spend a few of our upcoming chapters talking about the value of nothing, of emptiness. Once we start to see that doing nothing is doing something, and the infinity in emptiness, we can really start to harmonize with the Way things are.

In today’s chapter, Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses two different metaphors to point to the value of nothing, emptiness. “The Tao is like a well; used but never used up. It is like the eternal void; filled with infinite possibilities.” But. before I try to work with these two metaphors for the infinite possibilities to be found in emptiness, I want us to look at one other translation of today’s chapter. I talked about Robert Brookes’ translation in my commentary on chapter one. I was just introduced to his translation, copyright 2010, a couple of months ago. And, today’s chapter, is one of those chapters, where Brookes’ translation really gets at what Lao Tzu is conveying.

“The Tao is an empty bowl, inexhaustible to those who use it. Indeed, in its depths lies the origin of all things.”

The reason that the “empty bowl” metaphor works better for me is because the utility of the empty bowl is its emptiness. With a well, we keep wanting to draw something out of it. You might tell me it is empty, but as long as I can draw water out of it, I am not buying the whole “emptiness” argument. And, then to shift to saying it is like the eternal void, while that certainly does conjure up images of emptiness, it is just too abstract to think of the infinite possibilities with which it is filled. But an empty bowl? That I can work with. For Lao Tzu wants us to see the value of emptiness. What is the purpose of that empty bowl? Well, as long as it is an empty bowl, the uses for it are inexhaustible. Are you going to use it for cereal and milk? How about ladling some hot soup into it? Or, maybe you will put it to some other use. I don’t want to spend all my time coming up with the infinite variety of ways that empty bowl can be put to use. The point is, that emptiness has value. It has utility. And, we rarely take the time to appreciate the value of emptiness. Of nothing.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss Lao Tzu’s instructions to practice doing nothing. Everything will fall into place, if we will only get out of the way, and let them.

Robert Brookes points out the emptiness of the Tao, and says that in its depths lies the origin of all things. Stephen Mitchell, too, talked about origins in today’s chapter. “[The Tao] is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”

Older than God? That is just a humorous way of saying the Tao has existed forever. And since it has no beginning, it has no end. Now, what was it we were saying about the Tao in chapter one? Oh, yes, it is the infinite and eternal reality. If we want to break away from the limits of the finite and temporal reality, discovering the value of emptiness will bring us a long way toward tapping into the infinite and eternal Way things are.

Tomorrow, we will look more into the practice of doing without doing. And, we will have another metaphor on how emptiness produces infinite possibilities.

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