Thirty spokes converge in the hub
But the essence of the wheel is the emptiness of the hub.
The vessels are made of clay
But it is the inner emptiness that makes the essence of the vessel
The wall with windows and doors form a house
But it is their emptiness that makes its essence.
In general: the being serves as the useful means
The essence lies in non-being [in emptiness].
Various images are used to express the idea that the essence of the material and the sensible lies in the immaterial and the invisible, that the “fullness” is ordered to “emptiness”: a reference to the metaphysical plane (“emptiness”=transcendence) and a reference concordant with the nature of non-acting. The wheel with thirty spokes was that of an ancient sacred chariot.
In the esoteric interpretation typical to operative Taoism this chapter was also put in relation with the distillation of the subtle from the dense, the second being ordered to the first and having to be resolved in the first (in the yang soul) in the “solution of the form”.
For the ambivalence of the Tao, see the expression: “It is as heavy as a stone, as light as a feather.”
The vision of colors blinds men’s eyes
The perception of sounds deafens the ears
The taste of flavors dulls the mouth
Identifying in action darkens the mind
Prurient desire destroys the possibility of motion (being tied to the desired object)
Therefore: the True Man
Does not lose the I in the not-I
He keeps out of the exterior, he consists in the interior.
Aphorisms with possible initiatic significance, in relation to the discipline of avoiding the duress of impressions of the external world (see, also, the “closing of the gate”) so that to develop a subtle sensibility (that, which in the first lines is said to be muffled or prevented) and to consolidate inner freedom, so that it is equivalent to a gradual movement of the center from the level of the p’o soul to that of the hun soul. It is indeed Taoist teaching that the natural use of the senses can be detrimental, when it is a question of protecting and preserving intact the “original simplicity” (p’u): the bursting of the multiplicity of sense appearances into the mind.
As an example of the distance, in the Chinese text, between the literal meaning of the characters and their abstract meaning: literally the penultimate line would sound more or less like this: “The True Man is for the belly and not for the eye”. If it is that the eye is considered as the gate through which the external world penetrates into the I, it alters it and transports it, muffling the inner senses, while the belly is taken as the “empty” part of the body, therefore, transposing (according to the ideas espoused in the preceding chapter), to symbols of the essential and transcendent part of the human being.
The preeminence of the belly over the eye therefore signifies that the True Man does not lose himself in the world that is revealed to the eye, i.e., in the outer world, in the not-I. Something generally unknown in the West, obesity, the “great belly” with which “Immortals” and Taoist sages, but also certain Chinese and Japanese Buddhas, were often portrayed, has a symbolic character based on the idea just explained: it alludes to the development that has precisely the “empty” principle in such beings, or the dimension of “emptiness” – the immaterial or transcendent element. The lower belly – in Japanese: hara. On its significance of the center in Japanese esoteric schools existing to this day, see K. Durckheim, Hara, Vital center of man according to Zen and its problems that are connected there in our essay: The Japanese Hara-theory in its Relation to East and West (in East and West, number 2, 1958).
Favors received injure as much as disgrace
Greatness weighs down the body.
What is meant by: “Favors received injures as much as disgrace?”
Favors received entails its own reduction
There is anxiety in waiting for it
There is anxiety in losing it.
What is meant by: “Greatness weighs down the body”?
To have a body [person] means to offer a hold
The body is the principle of heaviness
If you did not have it
There would not be possibilities.
Therefore: whoever is detached from greatness
Can freely rule the empire
Whoever is attached to the body as little as the empire
Can be entrusted with the empire.
The text of this chapter is somewhat corrupt. Thus there have been divergent translations. Instead of “favors received” one can also read: fortune, honors received; it refers, then, to depending on the cause of that, with the implicit lowering of its own more intimate dignity, which is “disgrace”. The ideogram for the body can also be rendered as “person”; then the possibilities given as terms of comparison for that to which the outer profane greatness shows, there are those inherent to being person, in the limitative sense: by varying this, with which the whole can agree equally by creating minor modifications, preserving the comprehensive interpretation given to the chapter.