Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Yin and yang: tea for two

Yin and yang are light and dark, but they are also in continual phases of becoming.

Mount Huang, China
by  Robert André LaFleur

Imagine the following scene. Somewhere in the mountains of China, seated back-to-back at elegant little tables in an open-air café, two figures slowly sip their tea and pass the time in thought. Hour after hour, they sip as the world twirls, spins, and orbits in endless, cosmic rhythms. Except for lifting their teacups and turning the pages of their books, they are motionless - seated in place, like stones. Right now, it is mid-morning. Wearing bright white robes, the first figure (let us call 'him' East Face) sips piping hot tea. Right behind him sits his positional companion. Clad in black (let us call 'her' West Face), she drinks from her tepid, and cooling, brew. They read, chew pistachios, imbibe, and while away the time as morning passes to midday.

By mid-afternoon a funny thing has happened to our pair. Their roles have reversed - it really happened so gradually that nobody noticed. Now the hot tea is in the west, where the sun fairly beats down upon the cup. Even West Face's robes appear to be white in the bright, afternoon sunlight. East Face's garments have gone dark and the tea is now cold. Whatever could have happened? How did east warm and west cool, only to reverse course six hours later?

It is an open-and-shut, black-and-white case. 

Let me explain. Our little scenario starts with yin and yang (the latter rhymes with 'song' not 'sang'). They are light and dark -most often represented in black and white, as in the image to the right. In some Western portrayals, there is a clumsy notion that yang means male, light, strong, and hot. The parallel notion assumes that yin means female, dark, receptive, and cool. Actually, these are reasonable approximations of what is yin and what is yang, except for one absolutely central point, without which we can never understand the key elements of Chinese religiosity; neither yin nor yang ever is anything. They are in continual phases of becoming. 

They are in constant motion, on the road to becoming the other, after which they cycle back through the various phases and return to wherever we picked up the story - in a constant, cyclical process of change. The moment you realise that it is 11:25:15 on your digital clock, it isn't anymore. It has moved on and keeps on moving. In similar fashion, the first thing to understand is that yin and yang are not 'things'. They are ways of thinking, and not opposed, dual, binary, or logical structures. Take a closer look at the diagram. See the little dots? Within even an efflorescence of dark, receding, receptive yin is a shiny ball of yang. Within even the brightest, outgoing, pushy, and powerful yang is a dark circle of yin. It is ever so, and the percentages are always changing.

Yang: Mount Song, China, July 2008
Yin is always on its way to becoming yang (like our stony tea drinkers, above), and yang is always on its way to becoming yin. It is actually quite natural, and I mean that in both figurative and literal ways. Our café example fits the earliest Chinese dictionary definitions of the terms. The classic Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) dictionary defines yang as the sunny side of a slope; yin is the dark side. Of course, these positions change over the course of a day, and the sunny morning side becomes, by afternoon, the shady afternoon side. Day after day after day, the process continues in an endless cycle. On a larger scale, consider day (yang) and night (yin). Day is always moving toward night, and night moving toward day. The details change with the position in the earth's orbit around the sun, but every human (and most animals) have noticed the endless cycles. Daylight gives way to darkness, and darkness, in turn, brightens into daylight and so forth. Endlessly. That's yin and that's yang.

Yin: Mount Song, China, Jan 2008
Let's consider another cycle of the two that might give added clarity to this backbone concept in Chinese religion. The Chinese calendar is made up of six yang (warming) months and six yin (cooling) months. This is a good way to get all of the details on the tea table, so to speak. You may have noticed how deep winter gives way to spring and thawing, which, in turn, proceeds relentlessly to increasing warmth and the hottest days of the year. In turn, the hottest days of summer always turn toward cooler months in a relentless cycle of becoming colder and becoming warmer. It never ends. Every single year has the same process; warm becomes cool, after which cool becomes warm; yin becomes yang, after which yang becomes yin.

But what about those little dots? Ah, there lies the rest of our story. Have you ever noticed a warm day in January (I speak of the northern hemisphere) or, as the saying goes, a cold day in July? The specific daily details - contingencies, really - may seem to alter the story, but they are only daily oddities in our larger, relentless story of change. An 'unseasonable' day (or solar eclipse) here or there is like the opposite-colour dot in the yin-yang symbol. They are part of the story, too. Change takes place on large and small scales, and there is always room for chance, luck, contingency, and planetary cycles.

So what does it all mean? The question is the problem, and no issue is larger when it comes to the interpretation of Chinese religiosity. Until we can start to get our heads around the idea of change, phases, and 'becoming' - and, in the process, stop thinking in discrete Aristotelian terms about strictly delimited, bordered, things - we will fail to see the processual nature of Chinese cosmology and religion. We will fail to the extent that we try boiling things down to their essentials. This is a great challenge for Western thinkers seemingly born with Aristotle, weaned on Aquinas, and nourished by Kant. 

It is tough material, in some ways. Like all truly meaningful paradigm shifts, however, it will change the way you think about the world - at least once it becomes natural. And, as we conclude this week's phase in a continuing cycle of posts, let us remember that this process of becoming is all around us, all of the time. Nature understands yin and yang. We do, too. We just need to attune ourselves to the patterns, and learn to see it everywhere. @sima1085


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