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People often assume having things is good, and not having them is bad. However, when sages examine life, they find “having” and “not having” to be equally crucial. For example, the wheel of a chariot needs its spokes to be a wheel. At the same time, it also needs a hole in its center for the axle, so it can function as a wheel. Similarly, when you form clay into the shape of a bowl, you must also create the space in it as holding capacity, so it can function as a bowl. It is no different with a room. You can erect walls to enclose an area, but you must also have openings in the wall, so you can access the space and have it function as a room.
These examples make it obvious that you need “having” for the resources in life, and “not having,” or emptiness, to make that life useful and meaningful. Thus, living the Tao is all about the optimal balance between the two.
In a wheel, thirty spokes come together in one hub. The hole in the center of the hub — the place where it is empty — is what makes the wheel useful as part of a vehicle. This is our first hint that there is more to emptiness than meets the eyes.
When we mix clay to create a container, we notice that it is the empty space in the center of the container that gives it the usefulness of holding things. We may assume it is the substance of the container that makes it a container, but it’s actually the lack of substance in the middle that allows the container to function as such.
When we cut open a wall to make space for windows and doors, we notice that it is these openings that make the room truly useful to us. If such openings did not exist, we would have no way of accessing the room at all, much less use it for any purpose!
From all these examples, we begin to see emptiness and substance as a yin-and-yang complementary duality. Both are essential. We create solid objects to provide us with the benefits of having something, but it is actually the emptiness formed by, or embedded in such objects that really allows us to do things with them, to infuse them with a purpose that can be fulfilled.
What about us? We have the physical body, which is the subtance we use in the material world. How about the “emptiness” within? How about the Tao in us that gives us our purpose, or usefulness, or reason for being in life?
The first characters of this chapter, 三十幅, can only mean “thirty spokes.” It’s simple enough to be an instance where there’s no room for multiple interpretations. These characters can only be translated in one particular way.
This gives us a minimum qualification for Tao Te Ching translation. For instance, there’s a book that claims to be the definitive translation, but when we look at its rendition of this chapter, we see the beginning says “we join spokes together in a wheel.” This change, taking out “thirty” and adding “we” in an arbitary way, means the work cannot qualify as a translation — and certainly cannot be definitive by any stretch of the imagination, no matter what it claims.
Copyright (c) 1998 - 2019 Derek Lin