Daodejing chapter 11: the power of emptiness

「三十輻,共一轂,當其無,有車之用。埏埴以為器,當其無,有器之用。鑿互牖以為室,當其無,有室之用。故有之以為利,無之以為用。」
Thirty spokes share a wheel hub;
But it’s the empty space at the center of it that makes the cart useful.
Clay is shaped into a pot;
But it’s the empty space inside it that makes the pot useful.
Doorways and window bays are cut for a room;
But it’s the empty space in these openings that makes the room useful.
To enjoy the full benefit of something,
Harness the usefulness of nothing.

Emptiness is one of the most common metaphors that Laozi employs in the Daodejing to illustrate the qualities of the way. In Chapter 4, he points to the infinite capacity and potential of the way by describing it as an “empty vessel” that can be drawn from without ever being exhausted.

In Chapter 11, he expands the scope of the metaphor by showing how empty space enables the utility of everyday physical objects. Without an empty space at the center of a wheel hub, there would be no way to connects a cart to it. Without an empty space in the middle of it, a clay pot would be useless as a drinking vessel. And without the empty space provide by its doorways and windows, a house would be uninhabitable because people wouldn’t be able to enter it and no air would be able to ventilate it.

By extension, Laozi is challenging us to recognize the importance of looking beyond the color and noise of our surroundings in order to understand what is really happening. More often than not, it is the words that are left unsaid during a conversation that have a far more powerful impact than the ones that are actually spoken. By the same token, it is generally the silence hanging over a room that gives a clearer indication of the mood the people inside it are in than their gestures and bearing.

At a time when information is being pumped at us from all in ever greater volumes, it is far too easy to allow yourself to get carried away by the emotions it stirs up and lose sight of what is truly important. To regain your equilibrium, take step back and contemplate the emptiness and silence that surrounds the noise and thunder.

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