The Empty Spaces (chapters 11 and 16)



Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.

Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.


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In today’s post we’re going to look at two chapters. We’ll continue our journey through the TTC by looking at chapter 11, which talks about the so-called “empty spaces” in the world and in our hearts, and how they are far more valuable than we think they are.


I’m also going to jump ahead to chapter 16, which ties in perfectly and I think makes some of the abstract nature of chapter 11 more down to earth. In sixteen, we see a call to being mindful, being present, being open to the things and people around us so that we can truly live a life full of peace, joy, purpose, and of course love.


Chapter 11 - the wheel, the pot, the house


Chapter 11 is one of the most famous from the TTC. It’s another one of those chapters that sounds so abstract when you first read it that it’s tempting just to skip over it - but you just can’t because you feel like there is something so profound hidden in it.


Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that allows the wheel to function.

We mold clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that makes the vessel useful.

We fashion wood for a house,

but it is the emptiness inside

that makes it livable.

We work with the substantial,

but the emptiness is what we use.

-Translator: J.H. MacDonald


Basically, we are given three analogies to illustrate one abstract concept, which is very similar to the way Jesus taught in his parables.


The first one might be the most famous image from the TTC: the wheel with thirty spokes. The wheel has lots of parts that converge upon a center, but if there weren’t an empty space there for an axle to fit into, then the wheel wouldn’t be worth anything at all. “The emptiness is what we use,” the translation says.


Then we have the example of the clay pot. “We work with the substantial,” this chapter says. In other words, we use the clay to make a pot. And what good is a pot that’s just a solid lump of clay?


The last image is the house, and it’s probably the most obvious: we build houses out of wood and brick and sheetrock and shingles - but all of that material “stuff” would be a total waste if there wasn’t actually space inside to make a home. Again we are reminded that “the emptiness is what we use.” There’s another translation I like that puts it a different way, repeating the same phrase over and over again to really drill the point down: