There is a tree that I know. It is a tall tree, and has been in existence for many years. The tree was there before the building that stands next to it. When the building was built, the tree was left standing and has adapted itself around the intrusion of the building. When I look at it though, I see more than most people do. I have spent many years with this tree and know every knot on it, and every branch that it has. When I sit back and look at it from a distance, there is a perfect line that can be drawn up the trunk of the tree, and when that line is discovered, there is a perfect balance in the tree. The tree is nature, and the building is man, and though they are competing for the same space at the same time, there appears to be an understanding between the two of them. This balance that lies within this single tree is what the Chinese yin-yang symbol seems to recognize, where others may not. That there is a balance within everything and it is when this balance is understood and acknowledged that there can be harmony.
The yin yang school was developed with the idea of balance within. The aftereffects of this school is present throughout many different areas of Eastern philosophy, and its reach touches Taoism and Buddhism and its influences are present in many of the great works that rule the Eastern religions and philosophies. The most interesting part of this school is that there is very little written on it, but its influence is everywhere. The union of man and nature, and the necessity of this understanding is key in comprehending the ideas that exist in this way of thinking. There is no official founder of the school, and while Tsou Yen is often associated with the school, there is evidence of this way of thinking present in other earlier works1. The essential theory behind the yin and the yang is that there are equal and opposing forces that control the physical and metaphysical world. In locating the balance, there is enlightenment and understanding. This balance that exists within all things can provide an understanding of how the world works and mans place in it. In further accepting that there needs to be a balance between man and nature, there can be a harmonious co-existence as well.
The Yin Yang school works in correspondence with the Five Agents. The theory is that there is a natural co-existence of man and nature, and all that is a flow or harmony that exists within nature. It is an elemental theory that proposes that all “things and events are products of two elements, forces or principles: yin, which is negative, passive, weak, and destructive, and yang, which is positive, active, strong, and constructive”2. The influences of the yin yang school are vast. What is interesting though, is that despite its importance, there is very little written in it. Tsou Yen’s work has been destroyed, and all that remains is a brief overview of his life in the Book of Changes. The Yin Yang school emerged at roughly the same time that the theory of the Five Agents arose. By Tsou Yen’s time, the “two concepts, which have much in common, were thought of together … he is usually credited as the one who combined the two independent currents into one”3. The influence of the Yin Yang school is seen throughout various Chinese classics has a major impact on Taoist thought. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu make reference to the idea of a natural balance throughout their texts. This theory of yin and yang is also seen in military texts. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War uses theories of balance, and uses Taoist thought in its pages.
The origin of the symbol of the yin yang has a number of different theories surrounding it. The two sides of yin and yang are thought to have originally “designated the shady side and the sunny side of a hill, and gradually came to suggest the way in which one thing ‘overshadows’ another in some aspect of their relationship”4. The role of nature seems to be a key component of this, and there is some speculation that the two sides could also represent the male and female. Taoism takes this idea and in Lao Tzu there is a passage that encourages to “know the male, yet keep to the female”5.Whether the yin and yang are male and female, or hot and cold, night and day, black and white, they are consistently seen as a pairing of opposite forces. It is in grasping the balance between the two forces that one can understand reality.
The idea that the yin and yang are male and female combining to be one is an idea that makes sense in a cultural context as well. As the ancient Greeks believed that Gaia gave birth to the Gods, who in turn reproduced to make the Earth and reality as they knew it, so too did the Chinese believe that their reality was made of a male and female. In Appendix III of the Book of Changes there is a passage that reads that “there is an intermingling of the genial influences of heaven and earth and the transformation of all these things proceeds abundantly. There is a communication of seed between male and female, and all things are produced”6. This combination of male and female means that all things are born from themselves. By knowing that all reality comes from the male and the female, there is an importance in understand the requisite harmony that must be achieved. Without it there would be a constant battle within the self to understand which side of the self controls. In Lao Tzu there is a passage that says “all things stand with their back to the female and stand facing the male. When the male and female combine, all things achieve harmony”7. It is this harmony that the Yin Yang school teaches. It is the understanding that all things that exist must know both the male and the female to truly be at peace with themselves. There also must be points of solid fixture to which all things can be measured between. The Book of Changes claims that it is heaven (ch’ien) and earth (k’un) that are fixed, and that all other lies between these forces. Heaven and Earth have their own roles in this act of procreation as well:
The way of ch’ien constitutes the male, while the way of k’un constitutes the female. Ch’ien knows the great beginning, and k’un acts to bring these things to completion. Ch’ien knows through the easy, and k’un accomplishes through the simple.8
With this said, it does appear, as though reality is born of the male and female-that there is a balance that lies within. The forces of nature that are at work here are those of a natural human understanding. It takes the reality known by man, and transposes it onto the existence of the universe.
Taoism takes the view that there is the necessity of the male and the female within this Nature, but also acknowledges that it is not sufficient. The thought that “all things are born of being. and Being is born of non-being”9 is also prevalent. Within this theory is also that there is a pair of opposites that control the world. Being and non-being create a space within a space that reality can exist within. While it is the being that has existence, it is the non-being that enables us to have understanding. It is a theory of opposites that together, combine and make reality. The second chapter in Lao Tzu says that:
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Before and after follow each other.10
In understanding reality, it is important to realize that while existence is what is seen, there are forces that cannot be seen that are what make the harmony. This concept of moving within can be seen in many aspects of thought. Sun Tzu used Taoist rationale for his thoughts of warfare.
The title of Sun Tzu’s book “The Art of War” is in itself an understanding of opposites. Rather than seeing it only as an attack and conquer theory, it becomes an art to him. When fighting, there is the need to understand what the enemy is doing, and react accordingly. It can be argued that the Tao does not encourage fighting, and that there should be peace and harmony, however, in Lao Tzu there is a passage that says that “the Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil”11. Rather than deny the existence of war, one accepts the Tao, and understands that there can be success with its assistance, can be lead to triumph. Sun Tzu’s theory on the conduct of armed conflict states that:
Military operations must entail unconventional means. Therefore, have a capability, but appear not to; make use, but appear not to; be near but appear far, or be far but appear near; show gains to lure them; show disorder to make them take a chance; where superior, set protections against them; when strong, avoid them; if of high morale, depress them; seem humble to fill them with conceit. If at ease, exhaust them. If united, separate them12.
Sun Tzu uses a theory of opposites in his methods of attack. Rather than going by standard strategies, there is something valuable to the concept of using the opposing force of what is to be expected. Having the being, but using the non-being, in a sense. He also understood the necessity of using Nature to his advantage. That there are “cyclic natural occurrences which include yin and yang, cold and heat, and the seasons and lunar periods”13. In this very instance he uses the theory of yin and yang as points of relevance for success. It is important to understand the natural parts of the universe, and to use them to an advantage rather than a disadvantage. The cyclic part of nature is a primary component of the Yin Yang school, as well as the Five Agents. Both acknowledge that the universe has forces working within it that need to be used harmoniously, rather than in opposition.
Whether or not man and Nature are opposing forces or are one force combined is a theme that recurs throughout the theory of yin yang. The Five Agents as well as the Ying Yang school both rely heavily on the forces of nature and the changes that occur. The constant and fluid motion of the yin yang symbol implies this natural transformation. Wing-Tsit Chan says that “both operate in cycles of rise and fall, and in a universal pattern, thus uniting man and nature”14. The seasons change, and with every motion there is a natural response to it. In Chuang Tzu there is a story of the death of Chuang Tzu’s wife. Rather than sadness for his loss, he becomes aware of the fact that she came from nothing and returns to nothing. Being is in the middle, and to be sad for what is part of the natural cycle of life is to deny the existence of that nature. He says only “this is like the mutual cycling of the Four Seasons”15. The changing of the seasons and the changing of the self is an important concept. Without change there is a static existence, and with that comes little room for growth or personal enlightenment. Chuang Tzu advocates change in the self in order to find personal virtue. In a tale, he is asked where he stands on being useful and useless. Rather than be somewhere in the middle he tells the knights that question him that in the middle they can get drawn in, but:
That’s not the case if you just get to the chariot of the Tao and the power of its virtue. Then you’ll drift or ramble where there is neither praise nor blame. Be a dragon. Be a worm. Change with the season. No need to specialize in anything. You may rise or go down, making harmony your measure16.
In changing the self as the seasons change, there is never fear of becoming stagnant or turning into the desires of others that surround. If there is an ability to fluidly change the self whenever change is necessary, then there can always be peace within the self. Understanding the importance of opposites combining to become one means letting go of thoughts of stopping and starting. The yin yang has no beginning, and it has no end, and that is why it has harmony. Nature does the same thing. It is “when yin and yang go wrong that heaven and earth are riven, thunder rumbles, and there is fire in the water, fire to burn even the great spirit tree”17. The only thing that can stop the natural occurrences in the universe is when they are not understood for what they are. They are unchangeable, and it is when man tries to interfere with something that he has no comprehension of that the metaphorical thunder rumbles.
What strikes me as I write these words is that my tree has achieved balance in its own nature. It did not attempt to overcome the obstacle that presented itself when the building was built. Nor did the building stop the tree from growing. The two entities were able to successfully co-exist without even trying. My tree knows the value of the Tao, and the importance of balance within the yin and the yang. I also think about man and Nature in this way. There is constant concern about the environment, and whether man is attempting to overcome nature with its onslaught of buildings and roads. There may be cause for concern, but there is a balance point at which point man can create harmony within. There is not going to be a ceasing of building, this in itself would be as unnatural as asking a bird to not build a nest.Man is going to continue to grow in numbers, and in order to survive his environment must also continue to expand. In order to achieve the necessary harmony, it is important that he not forget the theory of balance and harmony. Rather than trying to overcome it, if he takes the theory seriously, there can be a satisfactory co-existence. Like my tree, nature will adjust itself accordingly, and like the building, man must not stand in its way.