The Use of Emptiness

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter five


天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗; Tiāndì bù rén, yǐ wànwù wéi chúgǒu;
聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗。 Shèngrén bù rén, yǐ bǎixìng wéi chúgǒu.
天地之間,其猶橐籥乎? Tiāndì zhījiān, qí yóu tuó yuè hū?

虛而不屈,動而愈出。 Xū ér bùqū, dòng ér yù chū.
多言數窮,不如守中。 Duōyán shuò qióng, bùrú shǒu zhōng.

Heaven & Earth are not benevolent, because of this all things become straw dogs;
Sages are not benevolent, because of this common people become straw dogs.
The space between Heaven & Earth, it is like a flute, is it not?

Empty and unyielding, it arouses as well as heals.
Many words frequently exhausted, not as good as abiding by the Middle.

Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

I have to confess to struggling with my understanding and appreciation of this verse.

Yes, the Dào is indifferent to the suffering or successes of “all things” — that’s just nature. 萬物 wànwù literally translates as “ten thousand things” which was the metaphor used to say, “everything”, much the same way we would use the term ‘infinity’.

If we are to believe Darwin (or at least Darwinian school of thought), then let the law of the jungle reign supreme. We can extend this idea to the notion of non-attachment that exists in certain Buddhist doctrines also… because that is in line with what seems to be the message of this verse too.

This is the part I struggle with about this verse, and it comes down to the phrase 不仁 bùrén: without benevolence/humaneness. It is basically saying that Heaven, Earth and Sages don’t have humaneness.

Even in Buddhism, there is the notion of compassion which is what inspires a bodhisattva to perform acts of kindness and work towards enlightening all souls before evacuating samsara (the eternal wheel of death/rebirth). 

If one is completely non-attached, then why would you even bother with compassion at all? 

Would attachment to compassion prevent one from attaining buddhahood…? I’m pretty sure that’s simply not a thing; I am assuming that the idea is we can be unattached to everything except compassion.

A part of me thinks that the reference to 不仁 bùrén in this verse is possibly striking a distinction from Confucian philosophy here. 仁 rén is one of Confucius’ most important of the Virtues for the ‘Superior Person’ to possess. I always translate it as “humaneness” to distinguish it from 爱 ài, ‘loving care’, which I feel is closer to what we would call ‘compassion’. In which case, I think this verse is part of the group of verses we would call the anti-Confucian verses.

The people who wrote the Tao Te Ching were fairly antagonistic to the Confucian school, so there are plenty of examples throughout the text referencing these Confucian virtues and explaining how irrelevant they are, and not helpful for those seeking to align themselves in accord with the Dào

They were pointing out that the fetish with the virtues (such as rén) can get in the way of being ‘natural’; perhaps they saw Confucians trying to be humane, and just make a complete asses of themselves in the process.

Honestly, I’ve tried to sit in a dispassionate bùrén state… and I don’t find it pleasant: it does not feel human to not be “humane”. 

For the most part, I think ‘humaneness’ is a natural, organic part of being human. If we presuppose the truth of the (Taoist) idea that we are microcosms of the Dào anyway, how is it that we possess a quality so innately, and be part of the Dào, if the Dào is also not humane?

But we are told that of course Heaven, Earth, and Sages have this quality of non-attachment, and thus do they treat everything around them as “straw dogs”. These are objects used as offerings in ancient sacrifices, brought in with pomp, then thrown away afterwards. These rituals were also a vital part of Confucianism; hence I feel these lines are more directed at ridiculing Confucian doctrine and practice than they are at making the Dào appear to be heartless and indifferent. There is certainly evidence for that in other Taoist texts and commentaries.

I love the metaphor of the flute. “The space between Heaven and Earth” is of course everything in existence. The flute’s magic and the beauty that emanates from it comes from its hollowness. So we get a further re-iteration of the importance of this notion of emptiness, and how it’s not always the dynamic things which stimulate

I feel I have already “exhausted words frequently” here, and will allow the brevity of the text to convert its meaning, rather than me just rambling on further.

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