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"The use comes from what is not there."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 11

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


11

Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel's hub.

The hole in the middle makes it useful.

Mold clay into a bowl.

The empty space makes it useful.

Cut out doors and windows for the house.

The holes make it useful.


Therefore, the value comes from what is there,

But the use comes from what is not there.



The Necessity of Emptiness

This chapter, with its focus on the essential role of emptiness, could just as well be a Zen saying. Surely, Lao Tzu made this observation with a smile on his face. The paradox of emptiness making so many things useful is amusing.

       In Zen, emptiness is taken much more seriously. If there is a purpose to be pointed out in Zen meditation, it's to strip oneself of any unnecessary thought to reach the state of an empty mind. This mental emptiness is regarded as the foremost clarity, a wisdom liberated from knowledge. It's not far from the ideal of the Tao Te Ching.

       Lao Tzu returns to the subject from several different angles. He propagates the superiority of doing nothing, of keeping people ignorant, of presupposing nothing, and so on. This brings his ideas close to those of Zen. But he has other reasons. To him, this is the conclusion one reaches from studying the order and workings of the universe.

       Emptiness is not something by which the human mind advances, but finds its roots. When we realize the significance of emptiness in nature, we return to it and become again in harmony with it. Because nature operates by emptiness, so should mankind.

       When Lao Tzu states that the value comes from what is there, but the use from what is not, he strongly advocates the latter. The value of what is visible and palpable is an illusion. It has no use without that which is absent. What is of no use has no value.


Bringing Order to Chaos

The use, the function, is closer to Tao, because Tao is present through how it works and how it makes the world work. One could say that it's much more a verb than a substantive. Therefore, an object without a function is as meaningless as the chaos that existed prior to the order introduced to the universe by Tao.

       Although Lao Tzu seems to have cared very little for decorations, his statement does not exclude them completely from what can be valued in this world. Beauty is a function, and indeed there is a lot of necessary emptiness in the arts. Music is played on the silence between the tones, as well as on the tones. Great novels intrigue us with what is not spelled out. Paintings fascinate us by what they omit. Dance enchants by moments of stillness.

       Nothingness is present everywhere. Without it, chaos would return. So, in the universe of the Tao Te Ching, order was accomplished by introducing emptiness into the full, balancing something with nothing. Emptiness is a blessing, without which it would all be too much.

       We need to remind ourselves of this simple fact. Music soothes the soul, but not if we listen to it constantly. Colors delight our eyes, but more so when they are handled with some restrain. Dance invigorates, but excess fatigues us. Everything should be enjoyed moderately, and we should make sure to have generous portions of tranquil emptiness in our lives.

       Maybe the best symbol of this is a work of calligraphy, where the black ink forms an intriguing character – but only because so much of the paper is left white, untouched by the brush.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





My Taoism Books:


Tao Te Ching - The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.


Tao Quotes - the Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Quotes

The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. 389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.



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Other Books by Stefan Stenudd:


Cosmos of the Ancients. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Cosmos of the Ancients

The Greek philosophers and what they thought about cosmology, myth, and the gods. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.


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Sunday Brunch with the World Maker. Novel by Stefan Stenudd. Sunday Brunch with the World Maker

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Stefan Stenudd, Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction. Stefan Stenudd


About me

I'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.

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