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:
Thirty spokes gathered at each hub: absence makes the cart work.
A storage jar fashioned out of clay: absence makes the jar work.
Doors and windows cut in a house: absence makes the house work.
Presence gives things their value, but absence makes them work.
-Translator: David Hinton
These short verses aren’t something we can just “take in” as new information and add it to our collection of facts. We have to really chew on them, or meditate on them, to let them have their full effect. They are truly paradox, which is something that Lao Tzu is obsessed with in his writings. Benjamin Oliver captures this idea well, “Though we often think of emptiness as a sort of absence or loss, it very often suggests exactly the opposite: a great wealth of richness, potential, and efficacy.”
Jesus also was very clear about the great potential of people who are totally empty in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. I have a section on this in the podcast, so you’ll just have to listen to it if you want to hear more! For now, let’s move ahead to a “practical application” of this chapter.
Chapter 11 part 2 -The “empty spaces” in our lives
In the last post, I talked about the American addiction to being busy, or what I have called the “business of busyness.” It really is out of control, and it’s amazing how much it has taken over even the Church, with pastors often being the most busy people in the whole congregation!
Thankfully, in relatively recent history, we have seen a resurgence of emphasis within the church on “Sabbath.” Taking time for “holy rest,” as some have called it. By looking back to God’s own commandment to Sabbath as one of the most important things he commands his people, many evangelicals are rediscovering the importance of making so-called “empty space” in our lives.
In the Creation Narrative/Poem at the beginning of the Bible, this commandment is rooted in God’s own poetic “rest” on the seventh day after creating the universe. We aren’t ever told what it even means that God rested, but somehow we are shown that the need for a harmonious balance between work and rest is built into our DNA.
The analogies in the TTC easily feed into this train of thought: when our minds, lives, and schedules are so full that they don’t have room for anything else, then we’re not very “useful” in the true sense of the word. We have to be able to adapt, to flow, to make space in our hearts and minds (and our schedules) - and that is the space where we find the greatest potential energy for beauty and blessing.
Now, of course the danger of doing this without real intentionality and thought is that we can end up masking “laziness” as Sabbath or space-making. I don’t just mean having a nice “lazy day” (as my mom calls it) … where you sit around and watch some TV or play board games or do a puzzle with your family, but I mean a more general lazy outlook and approach to life.
The church has long called this “sloth,” or “acedia,” and it is one of the seven deadly sins. The number one component of sloth is a weakening of our emotions, a lack of any feeling about ourselves or others. This is a state of mind that leads to a lack of action, which leads to boredom, apathy, and passiveness. And I don’t mean being “passive” in the way the TTC encourages us to be - I mean the totally disconnected, un-caring “passiveness” of someone who just doesn’t give a rip about anything.
We need to consider the choices we are making about our time. What are the things we are choosing to fill our day with? It’s not wrong to be busy, but why are we busy? What’s our motivation? Are we choosing work, or hobbies, or even ministry for God’s Kingdom or are we choosing for our own self interest?
As far as I can tell, neither the command to Sabbath nor the Tao te Ching are calling us to acedia. Making “empty spaces” in our lives means to carve out holes from which what Jesus calls “living water” can flow forth. This kind of emptiness is perfectly described in chapter 16, which we’re going to look at next.
Chapter 16 - Emptiness before God
Chapter 16 pairs very nicely with chapter 11. For those familiar in any way with mindfulness meditation, the general idea of this chapter will feel very familiar. For those unfamiliar with mindfulness, it’s a very ancient idea that has gained a huge amount of traction in the last few years - there are now dozens of apps and hundreds of articles and books about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for everyone from schoolchildren to top-tier executives at multi-billion dollar corporations.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t nearly as spooky as it sounds. Basically - and this is a super brief description here - it’s the act of stopping, closing your eyes, becoming aware of your immediate surroundings and body, and simply allowing yourself to be fully present and fully at rest instead of letting your mind wander and face a barrage of constant thoughts and distractions. It isn’t about achieving nirvana or some kind of mystical transcendent experience. It’s just about calming the mind by letting all those intrusive thoughts just pass us by without holding onto them, learning to be more peaceful and restful in the present moment, which then frees you up to move forward with new energy and productivity and love. If you want to totally Christianize it, we can just cite the very cliché but also very powerful verse, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Anyway, if you’re interested in mindfulness, there are literally thousands of resources available. But let’s take a look at the TTC, which gives us what I would call one of the most ancient, and definitely one of the wisest, descriptions of mindfulness.
Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
Lao-Tzu and other Eastern thinkers have known for millennia what it has taken most of the West a very, very, very long time to learn: we find our center when we allow our minds to calm, our hearts to open, and our anxious thoughts to pass us by. Every thought and idea that we choose to hold onto also necessarily has a hold on us - that’s just how it works. And that’s not always a bad thing, but regular practice of mindfulness allows our clenched minds to relax and let things go - at least for a few moments. And when we return back to what some people call “real life,” well, we hopefully find that we’re holding this a little more loosely, which allows us to learn to adapt and be more in tune with the way things are happening around us.
I’m pretty sure that this is why we see Jesus retreating to solitary prayer so many times in the gospels, especially before he has a big action to take. There are a few specific citations, but Luke tells us that Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places for prayer.” We can have no idea of what Jesus was praying, but I think a lot of what I just said probably had something to do with it. At least for myself, I’ve seen that regular practice of mindfulness opens my heart and mind for connection with God and others - and without at least some form of mindfulness, I’m far too distracted and holding on to far too many things to feel any level of connection.
Now, in case you didn’t catch it, there were two lines in there that might be a little bit alarming to some people: “You will attain the divine, and attaining the divine, you will be at one with the Tao.” It’s hard to be entirely sure what Lao Tzu meant by that - as we discussed before, his concept of the “divine” was totally different from a monotheistic view. Other translations say we become “heavenly” or “at one with heaven.” Marshall Davis’ Christian translation of the TTC simply calls it “holiness.”
I think that’s a slightly better choice of words, since “attaining the divine” could be interpreted by some as to mean that we actually “become God.” Still, there’s a long history, especially in Eastern Orthodox theology, of becoming, in a sense, one with God. “Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is,” said Athanasius. Interestingly, in the Bible we read that we are able to go before the throne of God the Father, that we are “in Christ” or we are “the body of Christ,” and we are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, we are invited into the Trinitarian love and community in a radical way in Jesus. If we look at it this way, this passage from the TTC becomes even more profound.
We were born to follow this path.
To realize this truth is wisdom.
To be ignorant of it results in evil and discord.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
This whole chapter ties in so well with chapter 11 that I’m sure you can see by now why I chose to pair them together for this episode. No other chapter we’ve looked at so far, and maybe no other chapter in the TTC, does a better job at showing us why Lao Tzu uses the examples of the wheel with 30 spokes and an open center, or the clay pot or the house that are only useful because of the empty spaces inside. Remember, “Presence gives things their value, but absence makes them work.”