Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Picture Worth A Thousand Words: Yin and Yang

The Yin Yang is the most recognizable symbol of ancient Chinese tradition in our culture today. Despite the widespread awareness, this icon of philosophy and wisdom has largely been misunderstood and misrepresented in modern times. Too often I hear people using it as a metaphor of the constant battle between good and evil or light and darkness in the world. I have known people who have even gotten Yin Yang tattoos based on this erroneous assumption.
This misconception is mostly based on the need for American and Western culture to integrate anything foreign into its world view. As Yin and Yang do represent two contrasting forces, it is convenient to place it in the same category as our religious dualism of good and evil, or the moral philosophic dualism of right and wrong. In the classic dualistic type of thinking, these forces are always at war with each other trying to assert dominance over the other. Furthermore, it is up to the individual to make a free will choice between the two alternatives, with one universally regarded as the superior force, i.e. good will eventually conquer evil.
This is where the similarities between Western dualism and the Yin and Yang dynamic fall apart.  Looking at the picture we notice that Yin and Yang make up one complete circle. We have the black side representing Yin and the white side representing Yang. Yin is associated with darkness, femininity, the Moon, and Mother Earth and is characterized by being passive and receptive. Yang represents the opposite principles like the Sun, the masculine aspect and fire, and is active, creative and aggressive. Although they are opposing forces, both are component parts of the whole, and the circle can’t be complete without either, so both are equally necessary.
In China, you will never hear this symbol called Ying Yang. The word they use for it is The Tai Chi, or Great Ultimate, (the form of martial arts we call Tai Chi in English is called Tai Chi Quan, or Fist of the Great Ultimate). In the Chinese creation story, in the beginning there was the Great Ultimate a force of both Yin and Yang which contained all matter and energy. It was static because with the two basic forces joined, there could be no change. This is reminiscent of super dense, super massive, super small singularity that The Big Bang Theory tells the whole universe exploded from. When this navel of the universe split into Yin and Yang, then their interaction gave rise to the five elements, Earth, heaven and man, as well as everything else in the universe. Change was born and with it the ten thousand things.
But how can two powers that work against each other work together to form the universe? I think the best way to explain it is to talk about where the original Chinese characters for Yin and Yang came from. Yin and Yang literally mean the shady and sunny side of a hill. If you imagine a hill as the day goes by, part of the hill will be in the Sun, part will be in the shade, but the ratio of the two will continually change all day. There is never any more or less hill, and the percentage of the shaded hill and the hill in the Sun will always add up to 100%. However, this change is necessary because if it was always bright or always dark, life would not be possible. During the day, the plants absorb Sun rays, but they need the nighttime too to perform the chemical processes that change water and sunlight into life.
Thus is the nature of Nature and Yin and Yang. Nature is based on the waxing and waning of cycles. We may experience wild swings towards extremes, but it will always eventually seek balance and correction. Whenever an excess of energy in one direction reaches its greatest strength, it will at that moment begin to diminish over time until its opposite is dominant. The Sun begins to get lower after noon; right after the Winter Solstice, the Sun begins to rise higher in the sky and the days begin to get longer.
This is why in the typical depictions of Yin and Yang there is a small dot of Yin in Yang’s half of the circle and vice versa. This is the promise of change. No status quo can be maintained indefinitely. On the hottest August day, the seed for winter is already planted and growing. Nature changes slowly, sometimes excruciatingly so, and some cycles are too large of time span for us to even recognize them, but as they say, it is always darkest before dawn. Even if change is happening too slowly to be discernible to us, it is happening all the time, all around us.
So, we can see that Yin and Yang balance each other out in the long run, but the variations in their interplay produces all change and thus the whole universe. It affects things on the quantum microcosm and the movement of the galaxies. More than working against each other they are dependent on each other for definition and derive meaning from the other just as all opposites do.
If you think about it, all adjectives are based on your perception and nothing else. A point guard for a professional basketball team has probably been taller than most of the people in his life prior to being drafted, but once he enters a community of his peers, he will be considered short. I’m six foot one inch and a half, which is slightly above average for the American population, but I was considered a borderline giant during my year living in Southern China.  Is there any objective measure for tall? Even the world’s tallest man would be dwarfed by a brontosaurus. Tall and short are opposites, but it’s impossible to have a concept of one without the other. They depend on each other, just like Yin and Yang.

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