Much Ado About Nothing?

“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 wouldn’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.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “What is beyond form is the Tao. What has form are tools. Without tools we have no means to apprehend the Tao. And without the Tao there is no place for tools.”

HSUEH HUI says, “At the end of this verse, Lao-tzu mentions both existence and nonexistence, but his intent is to use existence to show that nonexistence is more valuable. Everyone knows existence is useful, but no one pays attention to the usefulness of nonexistence.”

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.”

Is this just much ado about nothing? It seems Lao-tzu can’t talk enough about the nothing we pretty much look over without giving a second thought. So much emptiness! It is all around us, and within us. Without it, the something we use wouldn’t be able to be used. Nonexistence precedes existence, just like yin comes before yang. We ought to be mindful of that. We lead too much with yang, when yin should take precedence.

Red Pine introduces these additional sages, today:

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.

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.

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