Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
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Poem 11

Thirty spokes
meet in a hub.
Where the wheel isn't
Is where it is useful.

Hollowed out
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot's not
Is where its useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn't,
there room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn't.

—Taken from Ursula LeGuin's version of the Tao Te Ching

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 isn't.

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 weight.

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 following note:

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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