"The use comes from what is not there."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 11
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
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
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