Clear Ground

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

Tao Te Ching, Ch.11 (Waley translation)

Western philosophy is about defining ideas as precisely as possible through discourse, explanations and examples. Words and concepts are your building blocks, and your objective is to put one atop another and build a structure that rises higher and higher. Eastern philosophy, or at the very least what I understand from my impression of Tao Te Ching and Bhagavad Gita, is the opposite. Instead of starting with an empty ground and building upwards, you work to clear away all your current preconceptions and ideas to get closer to the things that are truly real: you and the ground itself on which you build.

One effect of making room for thought is that it actually creates fertile ground for more ideas. Reading a thick philosophical treatise lets the writer push their ideas into your head, to construct their own structure on your ground, defining ever more concepts and setting you further down their chosen path. A short maxim on the other hand, maybe just a sentence long, has the opposite effect. It tells you to look in a certain direction, to notice some truth, but there are not enough words there to to fill your mind and narrow your scope. Instead, it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It gives you the room to build the idea on your own and enough direction to do it. How far you take it is up to you.

May 2012