Back to the Tao

I first read the Tao Te Ching in a graduate class more than twenty years ago and section 11 made such an impression on me that I still remember it today. Like all great poetry it made me see the world in a different way, in a way I had never considered before. Here's Red Pine's translation of section 11 of Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

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 something useful
but nonexistence makes it work

And here are three of several different interpretations of this passage that Red Pine cites:

LI-JUNG says, "It's because the hub is empty that spokes converge on it. Likewise, it's because the sage's mind is empty that the people turn to him for help."

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 in our stomach. And it is our empty, nonexistent mind that produces breath."

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."

When I first read the passage I was struck by the same ideas that Wu Ch'Eng begins with. It is the hub that holds the axle and makes the wheel useful, and yet we ignore it. We admire the color of the China, but it's the empty shape that is most important. I suppose I paid less attention to the last line "nonexistence makes it work," or, if I did, I cannot remember what I thought it meant.

After several years of reading Asian literature and practicing meditation, though, it's the last line that seems most significant. On one level, perhaps, the Tao itself is "nonexistence," and it is the Tao that makes existence work. If you've spent much time meditating, you can begin to believe that "empty mind," makes the rest of your life work. Empty mind leads to awareness, and awareness makes everything else possible.

5 thoughts on “Back to the Tao

  1. Such profound concept although it seems only natural to be such a way. I am also struck by this simple truth!

    Every time I encounter some wisdom extracted from Tao Te Ching, it makes me want to learn more about Tao Te Ching. Is there any book you can recommend about this subject?

  2. The book I am quoting here, Red Pine’s Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching is an excellent source, Sue. It has the original Chinese characters, Red Pine’s translation, and then 8 or 9 commentaries on each section of the poem. Perhaps your library has it.

    There is also a lot of free translations and commentaries on the web, though I don’t know which one in particular I would recommend.

    It is one of the most translated books in the world.

  3. I can see how that would make an impression on a person. That’s one of the best translations of that verse I’ve ever seen, very easy to understand.

    On reading your last paragraph the thought entered my mind: Because Tao lacks ‘existence’ or even a concrete definition- it works. If it were more solid and full it wouldn’t.

    You’ve given me a bit to think about. 🙂

What do you think?