Verse 11     The Wheel


The empty hub at center
Allows a wheel to roll
The vacancy within defines
The function of a bowl

The openness within a house
Provides the places to reside
The open space that is the heart
Is where ten thousand things abide

Commenting on verse 11, Ursula Le Guin says, "One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny. He's explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counter-intuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly doubles the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots."

Seeing the Dao (the whole) "suddenly doubles the size of the universe." That's how it feels to me, and that's how it felt when I first discovered it, that is, saw IT. Call it a kind of quiet joy. I find it to be a feeling of satisfaction and completion and sufficiency. It was a great surprise when I first saw it after reading Chapter One of Douglas Harding's On Having No Head. It's still a little surprising when it comes to awareness. To see one's universe double! What a gift!

The wheel is a wonderfully precise image for the Dao. Douglas Harding had wheels of his own. He called them maps. One of his maps is pictured on the left. His maps are wheels with their spokes going out in all directions from the hub. This wheel is a map of my first-person private identity, of myself as I am to myself. At the center is the hub, the empty (Laozi's word) and faceless (Douglas's word) center of my presence (you), a nonpresence (wu)in fact. Here at the hub I AM pure capacity or awareness. How do I look to myself from this hub? What do I see when I look outward and downward at the spokes of the wheel? You can try it for yourself. Spread your arms in front of you by about 160 degrees, just to the point where they come into view and frame your world. Look down at your feet. Bring your attention up to your chest. Do you see the line on your chest where your view of your body ends? Below that line is awareness only (I AM) and absence or nonpresence (I AM NOT), both clearly in your view as shown on the map or wheel. Now look straight out. In the nearer regions, you see the place where humans reside. With a large mirror you can even see your own public appearance. Look beyond this human region and you see the scenery. Farther still you see the heavens, the sun, planets, stars, and galaxies. It's all part of who you really are. It's what's presented to the hub of the wheel, to your own aware center. Now look within. It's easy to do. Point a finger at the place where others see your face. Do you see a face? Or do you see emptiness (wu), empty and aware capacity for the world of appearances, the realm of I AM NOT?

The hub is the center, the heart, the place of faceless awareness. It's also still, empty, single, and constant. The spokes are many, but they converge in the one hub of all. The spokes are not constant. They change positions. This verse sums it all up in one homely image, the wheel.

So what is the Dao? What is my real identity? Is it the Hub? Is it the Whole wheel--both the hub and the spokes? Inwardly I AM NOT. Outwardly I AM ALL. At the hub and center I AM.

For more a detailed discussion about the wheel as a Daoist image, see page 27 of Hans-Georg Moeller's Daoism Explained.