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 returns to how being and non-being work together to hold together the fabric of the Universe. It gives us another opportunity to try to wrap our minds around what non-being is. Being and non-being go together. They create each other. They are how the Tao achieves balance in the Universe, like yin and yang.
Lao Tzu uses three ordinary things, things he was familiar with in his time. And things that his readers would immediately recognize in order to illustrate this point. Let’s look at them one at a time.
First, the wagon wheel. He begins by talking about being. We join spokes together in a wheel. Those spokes are what we work with to make the wheel. But it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. Without that center hole, the spokes in the wheel would be of no use. It is that hole that Lao Tzu wants to highlight for us. It is the center hole that we actually use to move the wheel.
Second, Lao Tzu draws our attention to a pot. We work with our hands to shape clay into a pot. But, it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever it is we want to put inside the pot. So once again, Lao Tzu highlights the emptiness inside the pot. That is what we ultimately use.
Third, the house that we build by hammering wood. But it is the inner space in the house that makes it livable. Without that space, it isn’t a house. It is that space inside that we use.
Now, I can already hear you all arguing with me that without those spokes the wheel wouldn’t turn either. Without that clay there wouldn’t be a pot. Without hammering the wood for the house, there wouldn’t be a house. And I don’t think Lao Tzu would argue with you. That isn’t his point.
What he is trying to get us to understand is the relationship between being and non-being. That hole, that emptiness, that inner space may not be all that is important. But they are of vital importance. Just as vital as the being that we work with to create that hole, that emptiness, that inner space.
I don’t intend to read more into the chapter than what he is saying. We work with being. So being is important. That is what we work with. But non-being is equally important. That is what we ultimately will use.
To me, it makes the classic question of whether a glass is half full or half empty, a very silly question, indeed. It doesn’t make you an optimist or a pessimist to choose which one it is. The realist looks at the glass and determines its use. If you are filling it up, it is half full. But if you are emptying it out, it is half empty. Either way, the glass is being used for its purpose. And isn’t that the point?