The Uses of Not
Concerning the 11th poem of the Tao Te Ching, my mother wrote:
One I really quite like is the one about … the bowl is most
useful where it isn't-- the room is really a room where it
It's so fun to think about. Although I've never quite gotten the
wheel part - 8 spokes or something is where the wheel isn't.
I finally figured out the meaning of the wheel reference
in this poem… alright, I must be honest, I picked up a new
translation of the Tao (translated by Jerry Dalton, and this one
had a note that explained it:
A wheel has [a] solid form, but the hole for the
axle is what makes it useful.
And now that I think about it, a wheel will still function,
that is, it will still "roll" around. But without a hole for the
axle, it doesn't do anything useful … it doesn't carry any
Same with the room … a house with no rooms would be nothing more than a
large block. Sure, it will still keep the rain off, but if there is no empty
space, then it doesn't keep the rain off of anything useful. In fact, in Dalton's
All these things have a practical form, but the emptiness at
the center of each is where the usefulness lies.
I found it interesting that it is the hole at the center
that is important… our center? I may be reading more into this, but it
seems that it isn't about cleaning out enough of our garage to park a bike,
but to clean it out to the very center.
Meditation in the Zen tradition (which was influenced by Taoism)
describes sitting and attempting to clear everything from your mind.
Once your mind is empty, you allow enlightenment to enter (See also the 10th poem in the Tao Te Ching).
Most religious traditions have similar concepts … the Christian
traditions talks about emptying the soul of sin in order to let
the Spirit of God inside.
But to be "empty in the center" in both the Buddhist and Taoist tradition
is to "get rid of all desire."
Desire fills up our soul with longing, and when we don't get what
we desire, we allow suffering to enter. And this cycle is what
keeps us filled to the point where the "real" can't enter.
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