We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. (Daodejing 11)

What does this mean?

Why does the emptiness hold the things we want?

  • suppose the pot is filled with water — where is that water? it is in space — what space? the space inside the pot.
    – nir
    Dec 8, 2015 at 14:17

6 Answers 6


One English edition is Smith, Trey; Paul, Alex: Around the Tao in 80 Days. 2009. The title alludes to the famous book of Jules Verne and also to the 81(!) Chapters of the Dao De Jing.

The book authored by Smith and Paul is a nice translation and introduction. It stays on a middle path between the trivial on one hand and excessive pensiveness on the other.

Chapter 11 is entitled by the editors

Much Ado About Nothing:

We join spokes together in a wheel, but 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 is the inner space that makes it livable.

We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

Translation due to Stephen Mitchell.

Putting in parallel the verses of your post one recognizes three well known, concrete examples illustrating the general, but abstract claim in the end.

Concerning the interpretation of the abstract claim the editors quote the following interpretation of Marc Watts:

The strategic advantage of recognizing the value of space is not only practical, however, because the bowl, representing space, is also a metaphor for the vessel of consciousness, and what is true of a ceramic bowl is also true of the mind - it works best when empty.


On a trivial level, it's saying something self-evident.

Bowls and pots are useful because they are objects fashioned to contain things.

For instance, this morning, I ate a bowl of cereal, but the bowl only works because it can hold things, but it can hold things because it as a space.

What it means a on deeper level is going to be open to debate. The Daodejing is a constructed text. It's not the continuous sayings of anyone and Laozi is probably not a historical person. So, we have to ask what this meant to the original writer and to the compiler. As to the original author, I've got no idea.

As to the compiler, the text may have been compiled as a kind of counter-text to either Mohism (sometimes called "legalism") or Ruism ("Confucianism") which suggest a different vision of the Tao. For those views, the Tao is going to be or involve some human project and its completion. In this context, the point may be that the Tao is not to be found in the positive construction but in the space it opens for freedom (possibly wuwei).

This would put the compilation at this point partially in line with the Zhuangzi as the value of non-action and deformity over and against ideals of the individual and the state.

Working with the basic framework of the yin-yang from the I Ching (accepted by all major schools by the time there are major schools), it's an assertion that the Tao is not merely composed in the positive and actual but in the negative passive and non-actual.

Most of this is regrettably speculative but there's not much else to go on.


Like Socrates' dialogues and Zen koans, this passage presents a paradox as a way of guiding the reader away from superficial beliefs and easy conclusions, and towards a more profound mode of thought.

The specific idea here is that we think of a pot as a valuable material object, made out of ceramics. But a pot-sized lump of solid ceramic material wouldn't be very valuable at all. It's actually the empty space inside the pot that makes it usable. Yet, the paradox is that there is empty space all around us. How is the same empty space made valuable by being inside the pot, and yet the pot is made valuable by enclosing the empty space?

On one level, pondering this guides us towards viewing other places in life where similar counterintuitive principles might be at work (for one example, the concept of the "empty center" --meaning that the apparent center of power was actually powerless --was foundational to traditional Japanese politics). At a deeper level, however, the goal is to invert our entire conventional way of thinking. Philosophical aphorisms of this sort are always intended as gateways, not as destinations.


The simplest possible explanation seems to be that without that 'space' or 'nothingness' inside, the pot would not have the capacity or potential to hold anything.

I'm equivocating between space and nothingness here, as I read something recently that suggested the former reading was a better reading; another reading might be to read space as place.

Undoubtedly, it requires a clearer reading of the canon of the Tao, to come to a proper understanding what the term means.


The emptiness (or void) is a key concept of Taoism which is hard to translate without losing some important aspects.

The Taoist void is not something which "miss", or an absence of something, it is a "space of possibilities". So what is important into a pot is not it's shape or material it is made of, but only the space that may be filled with something.

The Dao also takes the example of a house : an emptiness inside walls. The inside of the house is what matters because it permits its usage and allow possibilities to flourish.


It is from chapter 11.


Due to the inherent turbidity of Chinese language, it is very difficult to decipher this piece of aphorism; as of today, any interpretation is good interpretation. Roughly speaking, it illustrated the relation between 有 (sounds exactly like "yo") and 无 (sounds exactly like "woo").

有: have,     presence, existence,     the quality of there is.

无: not have, absence,  non-existence, the quality of there isn't.

There is a another distinction between 利 (/lee/) and 用 (/yeong/), which is pretty much lost in modern usage. 利: the means, the instrument. 用: the end, the usage.

The morale is something like this:

有 is the 利; 无 is the 用.


What is there provides the means; what is not there provides purpose.


Where there is something, this something is for employment; where there is nothing, this nothingness serves the purpose.

There is no much in it as far as I can tell. What is interesting is that his reasoning is inductive: from statements about wheels, pots, houses to a general statement about "there is" and "there isn't." Another interesting point is his conception of two universals: the quality of 有 (there is) and the quality of 无 (there isn't.)

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