Thirty widths share one hub,
. . . out of its nothingness exists the useful vehicle.
Mix water with clay soil, think utensil,
. . . out of its nothingness exists the useful utensil.
Cut out a door and window, think room,
. . . out of its nothingness exists the useful room.
Hence, of having what is thought favorable,
. . . of the nothing think as the useful.
Limits: Translations, even the nearly literal one above, lose some of the original meaning due to the cultural context of contemporary words. Studying the numerous synonym-like meanings of the Chinese characters in the Word-for-Word translation mitigates this. (Click graphic at right for on-line Word-for-Word.)
Chapter of the Month
Archive: Characters and past commentary
None this time
The three lines that precede the last line, Hence, of having what is thought favorable, of the nothing think as the useful, set the stage for making a case that nothing is something important! I wonder if our Taoist ancestors would have used the Big Bang, instead of a wheel, to hint at the true nature of nothing had they know that was how the Universe began.
All the same, they knew the awesome ‘power’ of nothing as other chapters reveal. Consider these examples:
Hence existence and nothing give birth to one another. #2 [In principle, this speaks to the Big Bang, does it not?]
When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing? #10 [And then the difficulty can become remembering that you know nothing! ]
The way normally does nothing, yet there is nothing not done. #37 [This somewhat parallels Jesus in Matthew 6:26-34, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap… Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”.
In the opposite direction, of the way moves. Loss through death, of the way uses.
All under heaven is born in having, Having is born in nothing. #40 [The survival instinct probably makes this difficult to appreciate fully! Of course, that is a factor through out the Tao Te Ching.]
Sees nothing, yet understands. #47 [The ‘power’ of nothing stands out more if we use ‘and’ instead of ‘yet’, i.e., no (not) see (appear, become visible) <conj.> and (yet, but) bright (light; clear; open; honest; understand). 不见而明。(bù jiàn ér míng.]
I do nothing and the people change themselves. #57 [This brings the ‘power’ of silence to mind.]
Taking this, the wise do nothing, hence never fail, Hold nothing, hence never lose. #64 [This must sound repugnant to anyone who has yet to develop a subtler sense of nothing.]
Under heaven, nothing is more yielding and weak than water.
Yet for attacking the hard and strong nothing can surpass,
Because of its nothing-ness and ease.
Of weakness and loss through death, superior to strength. #78
As a final example, consider the post, Fear & Need Born in Nothing, It speaks to how nothing is foundational to life processes.
The difficulty of acknowledging the value of Nothing
Animal instinct naturally focuses on the ‘somethings’ of the environment. Thus, it is not surprising that human culture places no particular importance on Nothing. This is what sets the Tao Te Ching apart from all the rest. While Buddhism places a premium on Emptiness (Śūnyatā), Buddhism fails to link the Nothing and Something together as we see in the Tao Te Ching. That is not surprising since Buddha wisely focused on practical issues and steered clear of mystical speculations. The practical and powerful aspect of Nothing is hard to perceive. Chapter 72 hints at the consequences of this blind-spot, When the people don’t fear power, Normally great power arrives.
Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth comes into play here also when it points out, “the illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Word meaning counts as ‘things’ upon which we cleave. Indeed, word meaning may be one of the things to which we hold onto most tenaciously. Conversely, there is nothing to grasp onto when it comes to the no-thing of Nothing.
Only Nothing remains when you destroy word meaning
Word free consciousness is the natural conscious state of all other life on earth. Language has made human dominance of this planet possible. Knowledge is power, and words allow us to gather and share knowledge to a degree impossible for other animals. Naturally, we pay a price for this power. Chapter 71 points to this problem — this ‘disease’… Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Truly realizing we don’t know is difficult because our ‘knowing’ begins at basic word meaning. We have an unquestioning trust in the words of our native language. Breaking that trust is essential if we are to fully realize we don’t know. Yet, word meaning has been an integral part of our awareness since infancy. How can we disassemble something so ingrained in our psyche?
The Zen Koan is an attempt to do just that. It is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, used in Zen practice to provoke the great doubt. For example, “Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?” or “What is your original face before your mother and father were born?” The problem with the Koan is that the ‘master’ must personalize it for each aspirant.
Art, music, poetry and such offer some temporary cognitive relief by leaving word meaning behind for a few moments at a time by inviting the ‘feeling’ mind to tune in. Yet, word meaning retains its potency and always rushes in to reclaim awareness. None of the arts can penetrate word meaning in any permanent way like the Koan.
If you are interested in a do-it-yourself Koan style process, see Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations. The correlation process may help wean you away from word meaning to some extent. How much probably depends on how emotionally attached you are to word meaning in the first place. Anyway, test it out and see.
Fully destroying all trust in word meaning, if one could, would turn one into an idiot of sorts, I suppose. You could not function in society. No worries though — there is no way you can destroy total trust in words. The Koan or correlations only sever the deepest roots of word meaning, leaving you with enough to function in society, and yet, allow you to always have the constant — Nothing — close at hand.
Original mind — nothing mind
Animals, other than human, are not burdened by the dialectic baggage of words and language. While they do focus on the ‘somethings’ of their environment, they don’t have the cognitive background ‘noise’ of words to drown out conscious space. When the external ‘somethings’ are at rest, an animals awareness easily notices ‘Nothing’ by default. When the external ‘somethings’ are at rest, a human’s awareness habitually fills up with imagined ‘somethings’, in a kind of virtual ‘hunt & gather’. I suppose that is when we pick up a book or another source of distraction to chase after.
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