By Val Leventhal
Today Im focusing the scope on the Taoist symbol of the Yin/Yang. The nature of reality is a big question bigger than any mortal understanding. So when you seek answers, remember that, as in many scientific studies, the work will take many lifetimes. If you believe in reincarnation, as millions of people in the world do, then youll have the chance to continue your work beyond this life, but for now lets look at what you can learn during this one.
There are many schools of thought, both religious and secular, that have answers for the questions of how we are to live. In my own research and experience I have come across a few really useful tools for gaining insight. The Yin/Yang is one of my favorites. It is, to me, a perfect representation of the true nature of things. Im not a Buddhist scholar, so this is just my personal interpretation of the symbol, but I believe that this is its true usefulness that everyone who studies it will find his or her own meaning. You only get answers to the questions you ask, after all. And further, I believe that the true nature of reality is that it is all open to interpretation. So, lets go on to the symbol itself. There are at least four great teachings each worthy of a lifetime of meditation contained within this simple symbol.
1. Opposites: That everything exists in relation to its opposite and that to truly understand anything, you most also study what appears to be its complete opposite. The trick is that reality is not static or singular, but exists as a continuum a range of motion and to be understood, things must be located as to where they fall between the seeming opposites. The most obvious example of this is with darkness and light. Somewhere between utter darkness and blinding pure light is everything we humans can see. Ask a painter or photographer. What gives light its luminous glow is the shadow surrounding it, and what gives the dark its deep richness (as in Rembrandt’s paintings) is the quality of light that offsets it. There is a relationship of opposites in everything. To truly understand strength, one must understand weakness. To understand compassion, one must delve into the nature of selfishness. Nothing exists in a vacuum. The German philosopher Martin Buber, in his great work, “I And Thou,” describes the relationship between all things the seer and the seen, the thinker and the thought. Newtons third law states “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” How can you practice concentration without also studying distraction? You resolve conflict through the study of its opposite cooperation. People are constantly labeling and judging others as good or evil, smart or stupid, graceful or clumsy, and yet on further examination it is always revealed that they are good and evil, smart and stupid, graceful and clumsy, depending on the moment and circumstances. Much of what the Western mind sees as paradox is easily contained in the Eastern mind as the opposite nature of things. Which leads us to:
2. The Whole: The next great teaching is the concept that both sides are a part of the whole. Not that both are needed in the moral sense as in, we need evil to teach us to be good to tempt us so we can learn strength, as in some religious teachings, but that they simply are, factually, the way the universe is. In a purely scientific, non-judgmental way, good and evil simply both exist, and to understand the big picture, you must study them both. The Yin/Yang doesnt show light as better than darkness. The two sides have equal weight in the structure of the whole. There are parasites and predators in nature. Winds and waves of destructive force. Life and death. There is no moralizing in the Yin/Yang. It is an illustration of the nature of things as they are. Animals show kindness and bravery and also cruelty and cowardice. These qualities have no moral content by themselves. We humans have decided that those parts of life that we approve of are good and those that we dont like are evil. Go too far down that road and you end up burning books and imprisoning people for disagreeing with you. The Yin/Yang doesnt judge. Death would not exist if there were no life. Life is defined by the fact of death. We are mortal and therefore alive. Opposite and inseparable are the two sides of the whole.
3. The Path: Down the center of the symbol is the s-curved line dividing the two halves. To me, this line represents the individual path through life. What Buddha called the “middle path”. The way of enlightenment or wisdom is walking the path that touches both sides of the whole equally. The path is narrow and curved making it easy to stray. I think the dividing line represents the truth that the wise person tries to achieve balance and harmony by containing both light and dark. It also shows that wisdom means learning to discriminate between the two sides. Knowledge is protection. Ignorance is dangerous. The middle path sees truth in both directions and learns that there are pitfalls on both sides. So seekers of truth must learn to explore all the wisdom that is contained in the Tao (the true essential nature of the way things are), and not to turn away from either darkness or light. So, when faced with a difficult situation, consider all possibilities and try to see with as little bias as possible. For me the curved line is a reminder that appearances are deceiving. Sometimes the path seems headed into the light, sometimes toward the darkness, but ultimately the balance is maintained and all things are as they should be.
4. The Nucleus: The final teaching I want to explore here is often overlooked, and yet extremely important. Inside each half of the symbol is sometimes shown a small dot of the other side. In my meditations on this subject I come up with two truths: First, that each thing contains some of its opposite. We say that nothing is either all good or all bad. Stillness contains motion, as in the frozen moment before the sprinter unleashes his contained power. Motion contains stillness, as the long distance runner finds when she hits the “zone” where time slows and she can run forever. Inside the rushing river are the rocks that create the rapids. Inside generosity is pleasure for the giver a self-serving feeling. Inside the love of protective parents is the desire to control. Doing terrible things in the name of good has occurred throughout human history. And doing good things in the service of something terrible also exists. Inside the monster of fascism is the desire to unite people, to feed them, to make trains run on time to create order. The second and more difficult lesson is that each side of this equation is actually the nucleus or genesis of the other. That deep inside the light is a tiny spark of darkness that creates it. For example, the pain and fear you feel at injustice in the world is a darkness that creates light i.e.: working to change things or to learn forgiveness and courage. And, conversely, the love of order and harmony leads to much darkness bigotry, intolerance, and tyranny. Or the example of the pleasure derived from appreciating beauty leading to material possessiveness.
This ancient symbol of the nature of reality is both simple and incredibly complex just like that which it represents. I use it to help find a clear path through the confusion of life. I hope you will find my explorations useful as well.
So remember that opposites are the two sides of the same coin. When you have trouble understanding something, look at its opposite there lies insight. Good luck, and dont forget to enjoy the view!
Contact the author at VJLeventhal@ltsaloon.org
Updated Nov. 19, 2009.
Val Leventhal. All Rights Reserved.