The Emptiness Which Makes It Work

“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.”

Existence makes a thing useful, but nonexistence makes it work. Yang makes a thing useful, but yin makes it work. This verse is about the emptiness inside. The emptiness of the hub; the emptiness of the pot; the emptiness, the space for windows and doors, in your house; the emptiness inside your mind. No, not your brain. Don’t equate your brain with the mind, here. The mind, here, is the nonexistent part inside of each one of us.

The nonexistent mind. Empty, it produces the breath we need to live. I like what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, here: “Doors refer to a person’s mouth and nose. Windows refer to their ears and eyes.” Be careful what you allow in and out of your doors, what you allow your eyes to see and your ears to hear.

In a later verse (verse 47), Lao-tzu will tell us we don’t have to go out our doors or look out our windows to know the whole world and the Way of Heaven. It is all within us, that emptiness inside, the nonexistent mind. Thus, sages know without traveling, name without seeing, and succeed without traveling.

Ordinary people, as Chang Tao-ling says, see these things, and only think about how they might employ them for their own advantage. Sages see them, and see in them the Tao, being careful in their use.

Yes, what exists is important. Of course it is. But what is not, what is nonexistent, is all the more important. For without it, your existence wouldn’t work.

It is a lack of understanding with regards to the value of nonexistence which gives us so much trouble. We are all for yang, and disdain yin. But yang without yin doesn’t work. Yang can exist without yin, but not for long. Without it, it grows old, withers, and dies.

Without emptiness how will that cart move, or that pot be useful, or your house be livable? Without that empty breath you cease to live.

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.

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