Attain Complete Emptiness

After years of reading and re-reading the Tao Te Ching I think I understand it better now than I did the first time I read it, but I’m not foolish enough to claim that I understand it now — and I’m sure that’s part of its appeal. I do remember that the idea that has stuck with me the longest is the idea found in Chapter 11 of Lombardo and Addiss’s Tao Te Ching , the importance of “emptiness.”


Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.
Wu chih i wei yung

Seeing the wheel, the pot, and the room from this new perspective was nearly mind-blowing to me. It was like one of those optical illusions where you can never see the figure the same way again after you have seen both the vase and the face, or the beautiful young girl and the old crone. I’m still biased by the culture I’ve been immersed in for my whole life, but reading works like the Tao have helped me to see my life and my society differently than I did before. I can even begin to understand what Lao Tzu means when he says “Having leads to profit, /Not having leads to use.”

Of course, my life style has changed in the years since I first encountered The Tao Te Ching. I’ve been meditating in various forms for nearly 40 years now. I’ve also been regularly practicing Tai Chi for nearly nine years now, and, since it is deeply rooted in Taoism, practicing it has, in turn, helped me to better understand parts of the Tao Te Ching.

In a world that seems to be changing at a frightening pace, it’s sometimes wise to “hold fast to stillness:”


Chih hsü chi
Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is. Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to TAO.

TAO endures.
Your body dies.

There is no danger.

When events happen too fast or threaten to overwhelm me, I’ve learned to rely on meditation to cope with them. In the past I would sometimes obsess on events, believing that the more I thought about them the more likely I was to come up with a solution. More often than not, though, my efforts would make the problems worse, the stress making me less capable of dealing with, much less solving, the problems that faced me. Stepping back some times allows “problems” to resolve themselves if we don’t make a bigger issue of them then they are. Of course, some problems don’t necessarily resolve themselves just because we step back and observe them dispassionately. Judging from the Tao Te Ching, some “problems” are an inevitable part of life. In those situations, meditation simply helps to cope with them.

I’m not certain how one “understands” the ordinary,” but I do know that learning to appreciate the ordinary makes for a much richer life. Learning to see the beauty in ordinary things may not have enlightened me, but it certainly has made my life better in many ways. I think I’ve got a long ways to go before “heavenliness,” probably longer than I have left, but I’m doing my best to enjoy the journey to the very end.

Apparently it is going to take a few more readings before I understand the lines, “ Not understanding the ordinary:/Blindness creates evil,” but I’m okay with that. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to read the Tao several more times.

4 thoughts on “Attain Complete Emptiness”

  1. Loren, congratulations on your recent anniversary and thanks especially for this post, which I really appreciated and learned a lot from. I’m glad you’re here.

  2. Loren I found this fascinating reading. I read it several times and feel I need to read it over and over again before i even begin to understand it.

    1. Looks like you’d be a good candidate to buy this edition. It’s easier to understand individual chapters within the context of the whole work.

      However, it is quite different from the typical Western perspective on life.

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