Why Nothing Has Value

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 11, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, we return to something that Lao Tzu first introduced to us back in chapter two: The yin and yang of non-being and being. He said that being and non-being create each other. Today, Lao Tzu once again refers to being and non-being and their complementary relationship. But this isn’t something new. He has been talking about being and non-being all along; any time he has referenced yin and yang. Understanding how being and non-being create each other is going to help us to forget our work once it is done; to do our work; and then take a step back and wait on the Tao.

Understanding how being and non-being create each other will take understanding what Lao Tzu means by being and non-being. Being seems simple enough to understand. It is what we work with. The spokes of a wheel, or the clay of a pot, or the wood for a house. These are what we work with. But to only see the spokes, or the clay, or the wood, is not to see the complete thing. That is only what we work with. There is so much more to see. Being is creating non-being. And we often overlook that nothingness, that emptiness, that inner space; though that is what we end up using.

Today’s chapter is all about coming to appreciate that nothing. And finding out, it is everything. Lao Tzu began speaking about the importance of emptiness back in chapter three where he said the Master leads by emptying people’s minds. Then, in chapters five and six, Lao Tzu referred to the Tao by two different metaphors to talk about the importance of emptiness. First, he talked about the bellows being empty yet infinitely capable. Then, he talked about the Great Mother being empty yet inexhaustible. It was there, Lao Tzu told us to hold on to the center. And, that we can use that emptiness any way we want.

If we want that wagon to move, we need the center hole. If that clay pot is going to hold anything, we need that emptiness inside. If we want to live in that house, we need the inner space created by the frame we have constructed.

Perhaps this all seems elementary to you. But that nothing is everything. If we are going to understand how to work with the Tao, we are going to have to understand the need to stop when enough is enough. To make that space that allows the Tao to work. We need to take a step back and wait on the Tao. Then, it will be time to work again.

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