Monday, July 27, 2009

Verse 11: Much Ado About Nothing

Verse Eleven
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
~ Stephen Mitchell translation~
Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship...oh...wait a minute, wrong metaphor.

This verse does address the concept of space, but in a rather humorous way. As Ursula LeGuin remarks,
One of the things I like about Lao Tzu is he is so funny. He's explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.
In western society, we view the space between things as emptiness or nothing at all. It is this nothingness that serves as a separator and causes each person, substance and concept to be isolated from all others.

Alan Watts points out that
We always think of space as separating, but remember that which separates also joins. This is why the word cleave is so interesting. It means both to stick to and to divide. We are cleaved by space. [emphasis added]
This perspective greatly influences the Taoist worldview. While the Abrahamic religions posit that we are each separate individuals who join together temporarily as a community in the church, Taoists see the interconnection of all things. Our only distinction is our concept of self and, when we are able to leave our self-ness behind, we recognize the oneness of all.

The other thrust of this verse is that space fills an important place in the utility of the world. More often than not, it is what is "not there" that makes something functional and useful. Alan Watts explains this idea in relation to music.
Most people imagine that in listening to music they hear simply a succession of tones, singly, or in clusters called chords. If that were true, as it is in the exceptional case of tone-deaf people, they would hear no music, no melody whatsoever -- only a succession of noises. Hearing melody is hearing the intervals between the tones, even though you may not realize it, and even though these particular intervals are not periods of silence but "steps" of varying length between points on a musical scale. These steps or intervals are auditory spaces...
In almost every aspect of life, space plays a pivotal role. If there were no spaces between these words I type right now, then this post would be made up entirely of letters and, chances are, you wouldn't be able to read nor understand it.

It is space that makes a cup or bowl functional; remove the space and you have a solid object that cannot be filled. And this brings us to the final point to be made regarding this verse.

While Lao Tzu is indeed speaking of wheels, pots and houses, he is also making a profound statement about each of us. As Alan Watts' son Mark writes in the introduction to Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking,
The strategic advantage of recognizing the value of space is not only practical, however, because the bowl, representing space, is also a metaphor for the vessel of consciousness, and what is true of a ceramic bowl is also true of the mind -- it works best when empty.
This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. this is one of the verses that really sticks out in my mind. as an artist, i frequently utilize white space, it's as important as the places i fill with color... as a martial artist, the meaning becomes more integral. if you fill each moment with movement, then you will tire quickly and only confuse yourself. a good fighter does the least possible, she only sets a trap, and the opponent does the rest. she makes herself empty and uses the energy of her opponent to take him down.

  2. You added great depth to this verse. Dank you! Dank you! : )


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