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)
Today, Lao Tzu comes back to how being and non-being work together to create all things, to hold together the fabric of the Universe. It gives us another opportunity to try and wrap our minds around what non-being is. Being and non-being go together, like yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. They create each other; and so, are dependent on each other. The Tao works with being and non-being to achieve balance in the Universe.
In our chapter today, Lao Tzu talks about three ordinary things. Things he was familiar with in his own time. Things his readers would immediately recognize. When he has a point to make he will point at something familiar, to illustrate that point. Often he paints quite the picture for us. Let’s look at these three everyday items.
First, we have the wagon wheel. We can immediately conjure in our minds exactly what Lao Tzu is describing for us. Spokes joined together in a wheel. Can you see it? That visual image in your mind is very important. Now, notice that without that center hole, the wagon will not move. The spokes are obviously important to the wheel. But what we don’t so readily see, is the necessity of that empty hole in the center. Without that hole, without that empty space, which has for its sole purpose, to be filled. Your wagon is going nowhere. This is Lao Tzu’s first illustration of the relationship between being and non-being. We work with being. Those spokes that we crafted. But that center hole. That is a whole other thing. That is an illustration of non-being. We don’t make empty space. We leave it. Or we fill it. Those are our only options. We can’t work with it. Not really. What is there to work with? But we can use it. That is its purpose. To be used.
Second, we have a very handy thing. A pot. Something we use just about every day. In talking about a pot, we can talk about what it is made of, or we could talk about what we want to use it for. If we are talking about what it is made of, then we are talking about the clay (that is being) that we shape into that pot. But if we were to stop there, we wouldn’t have any idea what it was going to be good for. What are you going to do with your pot? If you have some use planned for it, then we are going to leave the realm of being behind and venture out into the realm of non-being. Because it is non-being that we use. I am sure you have a picture of a pot in your mind. You have finished shaping it. It is now all ready to be put to some use. What are you going to do with it? You might put it on your head. Or you might put some dirt and seed in it. Perhaps, you are going to make something delightful to eat. Or pour yourself your favorite beverage. Whatever you imagine, you need that emptiness inside the pot. That is what the pot was made for. When you were shaping that clay, you thought you were creating that empty space. But the empty space was always already there. All you did was fill up space around that empty space. You worked with being, that clay. And you formed your pot. Now you can use that emptiness that always was there. That is non-being.
Third, something we all want to come home to, a house. Lao Tzu understands construction. He says we hammer wood for the house. I know you are picturing that right now. Maybe you are up on the roof, hammering away. Or maybe, you have just finished one of the walls and you are lifting it and pushing it into place. But once the house is done, as necessary as those four walls and the roof are. The one thing, we can never forget was the whole reason for constructing the four walls and roof. It’s the inner space. That is what makes the house livable. Without that inner space, your house is nothing. We like empty space in our homes; or at least, I think we do. We certainly seem to fill it up very quickly; and find our house is not so empty anymore. Then that house isn’t so livable.
Well, that’s it. That is all that Lao Tzu needed to say, today. We work with being, so being is important. But it is non-being that we actually use. Three cheers for the nothing. The most underrated important thing of them all.