The paradoxical power of emptiness in the Daodejing

Richard Brown
2 min readMar 27, 2024

One of the great strengths of the Daodejing is its use of paradoxes to provide you with a more nuanced way of looking at the world around you. A good example of the effectiveness of this device can be found in how the text highlights the paradoxical power of emptiness.

Emptiness in the Daodejing is not regarded a void or lack of something, but a state of boundless potentiality and the root of all things. This paradox is vividly illustrated in several key passages of the text, which reveal the depth and complexity of what it means to be truly empty.

Chapter 11 of the Daodejing illustrates the power of emptiness using common items such as a wheel hub and a clay pot as examples. The utility of a pot, the text argues, lies not in its solid clay walls but in the empty space within. It is this very space that makes the pot useful, enabling it to hold whatever you wish to put into it.

In other words, it is the absence of material, not the presence, that renders a pot, a wheel hub, or even a house functional. This metaphor extends beyond the physical to suggest that in life, qualities of emptiness such as flexibility and openness are what enable us to grow and adapt to changing circumstances.

Similarly, Chapter 5 uses the image of a bellows to convey the inexhaustible potential of emptiness. Though the bellows is empty, it fills with air when it expands and becomes capable of producing a force of such power that it can raise the temperature of a fire, forge, or furnace. The emptiness of the bellows is not a deficiency, therefore, but a source of strength and endless possibility.

The concept of emptiness is also central to the idea of wuwei, or effortless action. Wuwei involves understanding that the most appropriate course of action can often be to hold back rather than rush in to force an outcome. Emptying your mind of preconceptions, prejudices, and desires allows you to see the world as it actually is instead of how you would like it to be. The greater clarity this gives you ensures much more effective decision-making.

Emptiness is not a void to be feared or avoided but a state to be cultivated and embraced for the boundless possibilities it holds. Before you can become truly full, you must first understand how to be empty so that you can become receptive to the richness of life.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.