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The Utility of Not-Being

Part 11 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends.

Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends.

The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends.

Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.

(Tao Teh King 11)

Mitchell’s translation is a bit more clear:

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.

The idea here is that we simply see things wrongly. We think that “solid matter” is real, and that absence of matter is “nothing.” But in actuality there is no such thing as solid matter except to the sense of touch. There is far more space in an object than there are atomic particles. So “things” are mostly empty space. If the space was removed, the particles would collapse into a dense blob and we would have another form of nothing.

So emptiness gives shape to everything, and that is why the ancient yogis of India realized that there is a fifth element: Space (Akasha). Akasha, or Ether, is like the canvas on which a picture is painted by spreading pigments over it. It is unseen, but without it the picture could not even exist. The yogis went even further in their investigations and found that Space is not just an element, but is properly called Chidakasha: Conscious Space or the Space of Consciousness. Consciousness is the fundamental reality upon which the illusion of thingness rests. In India they use the simile of a pond covered with algae. All the observer sees is the algae, but if it is moved aside the water is revealed and the algae is seen as only incidental. In the same way Maya, the Appearance of Illusion, is only a veneer behind which is Eternal Reality: the Tao.

Emptiness is seen in this verse as Potential, as observable being. The many forms will eventually disappear, but the frame or background on which they were resting remains forever. That is the Tao.

So all things depend on the Tao, and to be united with the Tao in our consciousness is to be limitless in our potential and in our actualization of the potential.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Senses

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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