In an email conversation with a Christian friend of mine, we discussed some basic Taoist concepts and explored the relationship between Taoism and Christianity. I think some good things were said, so I’ve decided to post portions of my half (or 3/4, since I tend to get carried away) of the conversation here. The below isn’t all, but is enough for the moment; I’ll post the rest later on.
I agree that empty things are useful because they can be filled — emptiness is their substance (rather than being filled with their own solid substance), which makes them more useful than things that can’t be filled. A [good] image to explain this is a wooden bowl — it’s useful because of the lack of wood in the center that allows people to put soup or rice or whatever into it. If it were full of wood, rather than empty, it would just be a solid wooden mound with no purpose. So, in terms of people, being empty means letting go of your own desires and selfishness and ambition […] so you can harmonize with the rest of the world; you can be “filled” by other people and learn to make your way in the world without creating conflict, instead of struggling against the grain to have your own way. There’s a strong survival component in Taoism because of the era in which it originated — the Warring States Period in China, where everyone was fighting with everyone else, change was rampant, and you never really knew who was the friend or foe of your people. So, from that perspective, there’s a practical side to being malleable or “empty.” As I’ve come to understand it, Lao Tzu advocates staying empty in order to be filled ceaselessly, being open to taking on new ideas and ways of life without holding onto them. So, like the bowl, the Taoist sage allows him- or herself to be filled, but also allows him- or herself to be emptied again. It allows for a free flow of ideas without attaching one’s ego to them. It’s a way to have peace in any situation and is also a practical survival mechanism, should that be necessary. Does that make sense?
I think [Taoists] do prefer emptiness over fullness, but only if [they’re] forced to choose between one or the other. Taoism seeks balance, above all, so it’s not considered ideal (or even practical) to be completely empty or completely full. Just like it’s not good either to starve or to eat so much that you feel nauseous — it’s better to eat just enough that you’re comfortable. The rationale for choosing emptiness over fullness is that (here comes yet another metaphor) being at the bottom of a mountain is safer than being at the very top. Once one reaches the top-most point of something — success, celebrity, love, depression, literal height — there’s only one direction left to travel: down. But if you’re at the bottom, there’s always room to travel up and, if you fall, it hurts less. Emptiness is good for the mind, especially in meditation, because it’s a state of purity in which one can just experience life, without all the hang-ups of being human — struggle, worry, painful love, consuming desire, sadness, etc. But even complete emptiness can’t be maintained all the time, so a state of balance — wavering between more-full and more-empty — is best.
On Thinking About the Tao and Other Big Questions:
You’ve made a good point. I don’t think that one shouldn’t think about the Tao, either, and I don’t think that Lao Tzu would have considered not thinking about the Tao a “rule” of Taoism. I think it’s a lot like thinking about God and why certain things happen — it’s a mystery; no one can possibly comprehend God or God’s plan. So while it might be soothing (or just fun) to try to rationalize certain things, and while it might be useful to seek out knowledge where it can be found, one has to keep in mind that there will always be mysteries. And it’s good, I think, to respect mystery, even to love it. It’s good to acknowledge that blank spot in human wisdom that can’t possibly be filled. It’s humbling. Still, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions, to wonder and search, even if it leads us nowhere but staring mystery in the face.