Less is More: The Beauty of Empty Spaces

photo by Brian Thompson.

I have something a little different to share with you today...

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11

“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
yet it is its center that makes it useful.

You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
but the ultimate use of the house
will depend on that part where nothing exists.

Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”

—translation by Kari Hohne (2009)


There's many different translations of the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Taoist text that was written in the 6th century BC, and each version seems to uncover a completely different flavour to Lao Tzu's timeless wisdom.

I'm amazed how at how such a subtle change in interpretation and style can impart such a considerable change to its insight and meaning.

In this particular verse, “Emptiness” is explained in beautiful simplicity, a concept that's common in Zen, Taoism, and other traditions of non-duality.

There's so much insight to learn from these few brief words.

It explains why the space between the notes of a song are just as important as the music itself.

It explains why simplicity in design is so effective, attractive and revered.

In fact, much like the teaching itself... the beauty of this verse is found in the empty spaces found in between.


Consider the differences between these alternate translations of the last two lines:

“Therefore take the useful as the useless,
the useless as the useful.”
—translation by Chao-Hsiu Chen (2004)

“Therefore profit comes from external form,
but usefulness from the empty innermost.”
—translation by Isabella Mears (1922)

“So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn't.”
—translation by Ursula K. Le Guin (1998)

“We work with being
but non-being is what we use.”
—translation by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

“Therefore,
The benefit of things lies in the usefulness of nothing.”
—translation by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004)

“We work with the substantial,
but the emptiness is what we use.”
—translation by J. H. McDonald (1996)

“So the existent may be regarded as profitable;
the non-existent may be regarded as useful.
The sage discards the outer life
in favour of the inner.”
—translation by P. J. Maclagan (1898-99)

“Thus, it might be something that provides the value,
But it is nothing that provides the utility.”
—translation by R. T. Ames & D. L. Hall (2003)


How might this understanding of Emptiness and Nothingness be useful in your own life?

Without empty time and space in your day, you'll never be able to think.

With too many ingredients in a recipe, none can be tasted.

Without the emptiness of quietude, nothing can ever be heard.

Less is always more.