by Alan Watts
keep Life in
At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies
the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the
ideas of opposition or conflict.
In the metaphors of other
...and thus an idealism
to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes
throughout much of the world.
To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as
incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and
negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus,
north and south, are different aspects of one and the same
system, and that the disappearance of either one of them
would be the disappearance of the system.
People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew
aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any
possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as
distinct from cyclic) view of time and history.
Indeed, the whole
enterprise of Western technology is "to make the world a better
place" - to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and
health without sickness.
We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships
which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the
more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study.
As we try to comprehend
and control the world it runs away - from us. Instead of chafing at
this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means.
What is that which always
retreats when pursued?
Taoists view the universe as inseparable from themselves.
Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as
different and separate from themselves - that is, as a system of
external objects which needs to be subjugated.
Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from,
themselves so that Lao-tzu could say,
"Without leaving my
house, I know the whole universe."
This implies that the art
of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important
is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons,
and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may
use them and not fight them.
In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per
Chuang-tzu writings are full of
references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of
"going with the grain."
The point is therefore
that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do
not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.
From Progress to
Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking
has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and
rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.
The masculine and the feminine principals.
In Chinese, the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and
yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the
firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the
dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are
even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and
Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing
yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one
without the other.
When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference
is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics
which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes.
The male individual must
not neglect his female component, nor the female her male.
Thus Lao-tzu says:
Knowing the male but
keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a
universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.
Becoming a universal stream.
The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that
there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male
and the affectedly flimsy female.
The key to the
relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng,
mutual arising or inseparability.
As Lao-tzu puts it:
knows beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness,
there is already evil.
"To be" and "not to be" arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited;
Before and after are in mutual sequence.
They are thus like the
different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet,
or pulse and interval in any vibration.
There is never the
ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for
they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting.
Being and non-being
are mutually generative
and mutually supportive.
It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are
mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and
imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the
We do not easily grasp
the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from
non-being as sound from silence and light from space.
unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
This space is not "just
nothing" as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away
from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the
same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch
Hui-neng, writing eleven
centuries after Lao-tzu:
The capacity of mind
is broad and huge, like the vast sky.
Do not sit with a
mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral
kind of emptiness.
the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains
and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad
things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the
midst of emptiness.
The emptiness of
human nature is also like this.
The somethings and the nothings.
Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the
nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the
spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and
the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually
Yang and yin are in some ways parallel to the (later)
Buddhist view of form and emptiness, of which the
Heart Sutra says,
That which is form is
just that which is emptiness and that which is emptiness is just
that which is form.
The yin-yang principle is
not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather
an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.