Lao Tzu, Chapter 11

Tao Te Ching —
The Classic about Ways And Instances

Lao Tzu

(Translated, with comments, by William P. Coleman)

Chapter 11

Thirty spokes unite at a hub;
  it’s the emptiness there that makes the wheel usable.

Shape clay to make a bowl;
  it’s the empty space inside that makes the bowl usable.

Cut out doors and windows;
  their emptiness makes the room usable.

Thus,
  the ways a thing exists make it have benefit;
  the ways it doesn’t exist make it usable.

<– Chapter 10

Table of Contents

Chapter 12 –>


my comments:

It’s easy to get so involved with the spokes in the wheel that you don’t notice the value of the hole in the middle that allows you to fix the wheel to an axle: How can something that isn’t there be one of the working parts of the wheel?

With doors and windows, the problem is the opposite: you notice the emptiness right away and you home on in the fact that the emptiness is what you want.

About the bowl though, who knows? Which is the part you want — the bowl or the empty space inside it?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote a beautiful sentence that captures the idea of the necessary interaction of positive and negative exactly. Kant was discussing Plato’s theory of Ideas, and he had the notion that Plato thought the ideas are the only reality and they exist in some separate realm far from everyday objects. I personally do not think that’s what Plato thought at all: in fact, I believe that Plato thought he has reduced such notions to absurdity and refuted them. (See also my comments on Rupert Brooke’s Tiare Tahiti and on Plato’s Phaedo.)

But, regardless of whether Kant understood Plato correctly or not, his remark about what he thought Plato thought is expressive and enlightening:

Die leichte Taube, indem sie im freien Fluge die Luft teilt, deren Widerstand sie fühlt, könnte die Vorstellung fassen, dass es ihr im luftleeren Raum noch viel besser gelingen werde.

A light dove, parting the air in free flight, feeling its resistance, could get the idea it would succeed even better in a space with no air.

— Immanuel Kant;
Kritik der reinen Vernunft [1787]

For the dove to be able to fly and to feel that lightness, the air has give just the right resistance. If it resists too much, the bird cannot make headway. If it resists too little, there is nothing to hold the bird up and it falls.

We’ve seen in previous chapters this idea that “much” is not intrinsically good — and “little” isn’t intrinsically good either. What’s good is meeting the world exactly: what’s good is reality.

This idea is also important in the lines from Lao Tzu’s Chapter 1 that I’ve translated as:

So, we clear ourselves of passion, to see natures;
  just as we’re passionate too, to see appearances.
These are the same, but are called differently as they arise.

As I discuss in the Inroduction to my translation, many translators are convinced a priori that passion is bad and clearing yourself of it is good. Therefore, they translate this to mean that if you clear yourself of passion (good) you’ll see appearances, but it you’re passionate (bad) you see merely an empty outer shell instead of the inner reality. (This interpretation would require ignoring Lao Tzu’s explicit statement that both are the same.)

I think that Chapter 11 throws light on Chapter 1. The “natures” you get from clearing passion and the “appearances” you get from embracing it are like the bowl and the emptiness inside it — or like the spokes and the emptiness at their hub: they’re useless without each other — they don’t even make sense separately. Neither solidity alone nor emptiness alone is any good.


For comparison, I’m including the translation by Lin Yutang, which I always love and respect, even when I disagree:

11. The Utility of Not-Being

Thirty spokes unite around the nave;
  From their not-being (loss of their individuality)
    Arises the utility of the wheel.
Mold clay into a vessel;
  From its not-being (in the vessel’s hollow)
    Arises the utility of the vessel.
Cut out doors and windows in the house (-wall),
  From their not-being (empty space) arises the utility of the house.
Therefore by the existence of things we profit.
And by the non-existence of things we are served.

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3 Responses to Lao Tzu, Chapter 11

  1. servio says:

    hey William, where is your chapter 12 ? You made me read
    all 11 chapters and I did not find the 12th ? :-)

    very original and practical your interpretations

  2. williampcoleman says:

    Servio,

    Sorry about that. I had it set on a timer, so that it would post just after midnight UCT — only a few minutes after you looked at it. I thought that it would be accessible earlier to people who found a link to it — but apparently not.

    Best wishes,
    Bill

  3. Clara says:

    My classmates and I were discussing about this poem and applying it to our professional life in terms of professional boundaries a massage therapies. The way I read and interpret it is that the 30 spokes on the wheel represents the principles and rules and regulations that we enforce by using the centre of the wheel to lay our basic foundation. So the client-massage therapist relationship is clear. But because as massage therapists we are bounded by the ethics and regulations of the professional association, that we are enclosed in the four walls including the windows and doors covered. We were molded to act as a professional. By cutting out the doors and windows, we have room to breathe. The holes in the wall mean we need some breathing space to show our compassion and to give our clients some breathing space if needed. What we have are the skills to perform our job to make money, but if we forget ourselves and forget our clients, we simply are not making use of the breathing space. We have to care for our well being. Not only the clients. The vessel we embark brings us a long way into the future, the hollow space it has is the emptiness we need to feel.

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