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On Emptiness



Emptiness is a core theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, it is the eternal and inexhaustible wellspring from which everything is derived. 


In Taoism, emptiness (Wuji) is represented by a circle. From Wuji the Taiji is derived and the polarities of Yin and Yang come into being. The line separating Yin and Yang represents Qi and from these the “10,000 things” (ie everything in the world) are descendent.

Verse 11 from the Tao Te Ching: 

We join spokes together in a wheel, 

but it is the center hole 

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot, 

but it is the emptiness inside 

that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house, 

but it is the inner space 

that makes it livable.

We work with being, 

but non-being is what we use. 


The above verse of the Tao Te Ching has always been one that has stuck in my mind and fascinated me. We often only focus on the physical form of what is in front of us and don’t look beyond the nuts and bolts, practical aspects of what we see or use, or grasp the underlying concepts of what it is we are doing or trying to achieve.

Take the example of the pot from the verse above. Who looks at a pot and really notices the space inside? We’ll look at the design, the image on the side, shape of the handle, its thickness – everything but the most useful thing of all – the emptiness inside.

Not to say that we should ponder the nature of emptiness every time we’re having a cup of tea (although it might be more productive than scrolling through Facebook!) but certainly I think that our martial arts practice should go beyond the surface level and be something which prompts a deeper consideration of what it is we are doing and why. 


As the famous Bruce Lee quote says: 

“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!” 


If we only focus on the mechanics of a tai chi, or other martial arts form, we’ll miss the deeper essence, we’ll miss all the heavenly glory by remaining focused on the finger. We’ll fail to appreciate the emptiness inside by merely noticing the outline of Wuji’s representation. We’ll never get beyond the level of mere movement – and the deeper, more profound benefits of tai chi (or whatever martial art you practice) will forever be hidden from us if only the accumulation of moves and forms are the focus of our training. 


As the concepts of Yin and Yang spring forth from the emptiness, a martial arts form is an act of creation where before there was nothing. In a Taoist sense, where before there was emptiness (no form), we create the polarities of Yin and Yang the moment we stand in preparation to start our form, we’ve instantly created left and right, front and back, up and down, inside and outside, energy and matter. Our 10,000 things – or we could say, the potential of our movement – now exist. 

Like the opening chords or a song where there was previously silence (emptiness), a form in some sense has an almost ethereal quality to it. Whilst the piece of music we listen to exists, we can most definitely see and feel a form but it also has an essence of intangibility – the emptiness, the void from which it is derived. 

“We work with being but non-being is what we use”

What is more important, the song or the silences within the song? Listen to the opening chords of Metallica’s Master of Puppets – a masterpiece of thrash metal – even at 212 beats per minute the guitar riffs are accentuated and defined by fragments of silence. 

In Chinese art there is a concept called ‘designing the white’. Empty space in a painting represents the concept of the void, or emptiness. The empty space holds as much importance as the rest of the artwork. Chapter 28 of the Tao Te Ching says:

“Knowing the white, retaining the black”

Without the emptiness, there is no appreciation of the image on the canvas. Without the stillness, there is no movement – and it is the interplay of stillness and movement, Yin and Yang, that is the essence of a martial arts form. 


Ok, ok, so I realise this is all a little bit esoteric and ‘out there’, requiring perhaps a leap of faith or imagination. However, tai chi is so vast that as a practitioner, you can explore whichever hidden depth you are interested in – or all of them. In the end they are all interrelated, of course. 


I think that in many cultures the concept of emptiness is probably one associated with ‘the void’ or a state of nothingness, which can actually seem like a rather intimidating concept. In creation myths across the world we see repeatedly that ‘something’ comes from nothing – it’s a concept central to Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought. You don’t need to be a follower of a major religion to battle with the concept either, our current knowledge of the physical universe breaks down at the big bang. Whilst I’m no expert in either field by any stretch of the imagination, it seems to me that emptiness, the void, nothingness… however you wish to describe it, is all around us, we are in some ways defined by it.


Non-being/being, Yin/Yang, is also represented as order and chaos. Out of the chaos of nothingness or emptiness, comes the polarity of Yin and Yang. Suddenly we have the unlimited potential to create order, things now exist and because they have an opposite they can now be ordered and organised. 


Emptiness and chaos may well be a somewhat extreme way to describe one’s day to day lifestyle but it can occasionally feel like that for some of us, we all experience those times when relationships/finances/jobs, and/or our state of mind etc just don’t feel like they are going right – those bashing our heads against a brick wall kind of days. 


This is where a practice of tai chi – or other martial arts – can be of great benefit – it can bring structure where before there was none, it can bring order where before it felt like there was chaos. It can bring our potential into being, emptiness represents unlimited potential but it is only when we bring order to that potential and give it structure that we can use it. 

A form may feel in a way like we are restricting ourselves by working within a defined set of parameters and rules but approached the right way with discipline and focus we can go beyond the structure and realise the underlying potential. 


We all have tremendous potential, more than we ever truly realise, but we spend our time distracted (both knowingly and unknowingly), looking at the finger and missing the moon. 


We hammer wood for a house, 

but it is the inner space 

that makes it livable.


Martial arts again is the perfect microcosm, the forms we learn are incredible but it’s only when you take a step within that they truly come to life. You don’t think about how your walls are holding up the ceiling whilst sitting in your living room. When you don’t have to think about how the moves are strung together,is when a form can come to life and from that emptiness within, you can begin to realise your potential, in life as in martial arts.


The structures in which we live obviously have their uses! However, it’s the life that we live within that counts, that is the realm of unlimited possibility.


5 responses on "On Emptiness"

  1. What an excellent article, it made me think. Then I tried to empty my mind – that’s the hard bit!
    Thanks for your wise words and references to the Tao Te Ching

  2. The trouble with understanding these esoteric observations is that you tend to be alone on the island.

  3. Dear Mark,
    Thank you for nothing.
    From now on I have different relationship to what was just the cup for my tea.

    Thought you might like a couple of lines I wrote after a meditation session.

    ‘Noiselessness surrounds me like a hum that isn’t there. Apart from the singing silence, emptiness fills my ear.’
    Best wishes, Geoff.

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