Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 11

The more I read Japanese poetry the more I find myself looking back at Chinese influences in order to understand the underlying ideas. For that reason, recent purchases include not only translations of Basho and Buson, but translations of much earlier Chinese writers like Meng Hao-jan, Cold Mountain and Stonehouse.

Before beginning to read these works, though, I felt a need to go back and review some of the material I covered in my grad classes on Chinese literature. In particular, I felt a need to review the ideas in the Tao Teh Ching, that seminal work of Chinese Taoism. It is a work that nearly stunned me with its radical concepts, at least radical to my western mind, when I first read it twenty years ago, and it still seems almost startlingly new as I re-read it today because it expresses a mindset diametrically opposed to much of what is found in western philosophy.

Although I prefer the poetic presentation of the Tao found in Sebastian de Grazia’s Masters of Chinese Political Thought, I decided to also consider the prose translation offered by Raymond Van Over in Chinese Mystics, because it is, after all, the meaning of the idea behind the words that it is most important.

I still remember being struck by the striking metaphors found in Chapter 11.
Grazia translates it:

Thirty spokes are united around the hub to make the wheel,
But it is on the non-being [the area of the circle] that the utility of the wheel depends.
Clay is molded to form a utensil,
But it is on the non-being [its hollowness] that the utility of the utensil depends.
Doors and windows are cut to make a room,
But it is on the non-being [its empty space] that the utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility.

Van Over translates it:

The Use of What Has no Substantive Existence

The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The doors and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that it’s use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.

In one sense, at least, this made perfect sense to me because when it comes to architecture it always seemed to me that in the best work “form followed function.” The best design is the simplest design that effectively fulfills the object’s function. Eliminate the clutter and you have Shaker or Danish modern furniture, personal favorites.

That may also explain why my favorite cooking utensils are still an old-fashioned carbon-steel Chinese wok, without a non-stick surface, thank you, and a simple carbon steel, medium-weight cleaver that is carefully honed before each use.

On a more important level, of course, such lines establish the philosophical basis for meditation, a form of non-thinking generally neglected or rejected in the Western world. After all, what could be a greater waste of time than sitting around thinking about nothing? If you’re going to be wasting time, you at least need to be out and about doing something, spending money on a hyperactive video game (which I, unfortunately, do happen to be fond of) or, better yet, roaring across the water on the latest, greatest version of a Skidoo, which, perhaps, irony of ironies, generally seems to be a product of the Far-East rather than the West.

Too often even when meditation is endorsed, it is endorsed because it refreshes the individual enabling him to think more clearly and accomplish more in the future. The ultimate goal still remains to “get things done.”

What would happen if we turned the western world on end and argued that the greatest value of having money is simply to allow the individual time to meditate, to allow the individual to escape worry long enough to find the inner silence that is at the heart of true wisdom? Perhaps the greatest value of money isn’t the ability to acquire things, but, instead, to free man from the need to acquire things, to allow the individual to simply “be” free.

5 thoughts on “Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 11”

  1. Hey Loren!

    “Perhaps the greatest value of money isn’t the ability to acquire things, but, instead, to free man from the need to acquire things, to allow the individual to simply ‘be’ free.”

    Perhaps this is a good time to point out the utility of the “emptiness” of the begging bowl!

    I liked this translation by R.L. Wing:

    Thirty spokes converge at one hub;
    What is not there makes the hub useful.
    Clay is shaped to form a vessel;
    What is not there makes the vessel useful.
    Doors and windows are cut to form a room;
    What is not there makes the room useful.

    Therefore, take advantage of what is there,
    By making use of what is not.

    Which, I think, speaks more clearly to your reference to the utility of meditation.

    “That was Zen, this is Tao.”

    Cracks me up.

  2. I prefer R.L. Wing’s translation, too, Dave.

    And the emptiness of the begging bowl would certainly fit the Eastern tradition, wouldn’t it?

    What little personal experience I’ve had with poverty suggests that not knowing what you’re going to eat or how you’re going to afford going to the dentist is even more distracting from what’s important than the “toys” that we crave for ourselves.

    In other words, unfortunately I’m far too worldly to ever be satisfied with sitting beside the freeway with a sign reading, “I’m enlightened, feed me.” But maybe it’s just the Vietnam Vet in me.

    Besides, I’d keep worrying about where I could plug in my new G-5 if I were living under a bridge at night 🙂

  3. Oh, I agree that the begging bowl isn’t for everyone. Especially me! I certainly don’t think working for a living is any more a barrier to enlightenment than anything else.

    No G5 for me in the near future, I’m afraid. But one day…

  4. What a pleasure to see you two (Dave and Loren)–thinking and doing. In the end, that’s what both the Tao and Zen seek, although their paths are subtly different. In another book, Taoist Tales, you can also find tales and legends where the uneducated, hard-working peasant is exquisitely aware of the distinctions and importance of insides and outsides.


  5. Wow, it’s a pleasure to have you drop by, Raymond.

    The internet is certainly becoming a fascinating place when the author whose book you’re discussing drops by with a comment.

    I’ll add Taoist Tales to my wish list at Amazont although I have quite a stack of books on Chinese and Japanese literature waiting to be discussed.

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