When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced us to the problem of desire. We have to be free of desire in order to realize the mystery which is the eternal Tao. As long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. For me, the Tao Te Ching was written to help us all to circumvent the problem of desire.
Today, Lao Tzu begins to show us the manifestations of the Tao. By looking at the manifestations, we can find the common thread that is evident in the manifestations, and trace them back to the Source, which is the eternal Tao. Today’s chapter is probably the most important chapter in all the Tao Te Ching. It is here that he introduces yin and yang, as a way of understanding the Way of the Universe. It is also here that we meet the Master, Lao Tzu’s ideal person; at one with, and in perfect harmony with, the way things are.
The yin yang symbol is the most familiar icon of philosophical Taoism. It shows the duality that exists in the Universe. When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. This is the duality with which we struggle. The problem isn’t with duality, though. The problem is with desire. And that is what we are going to circumvent as we take our journey through the Tao Te Ching. Yin and yang are going to show us how to do this.
The yin and yang symbol shows how the duality coexists, not as opposites but as complements of each other. It shows the constant state of flux, the motion of the Tao. And, that there is always something of the other in each one. It isn’t a static symbol; there is a dynamic relationship between yin and yang. It is alive with possibilities, with change. And it always brings about balance. That is how yin and yang circumvent the problem of desire.
The relationship of yin and yang can best be explained as the relationship between being and non-being. Between what is, and what is not. They create each other. Like difficult and easy, they support each other. Like long and short, they define each other. Like high and low, they depend on each other. And, like before and after, they follow each other. This last point should not be taken too lightly. Because of the constant flow of change, there is a never ending wave of before and after. Instead of calling being and non-being, what is and what is not, it would probably be more accurate to say that they are what is now and what is yet to come. But, even these words limit our understanding of something that is eternally existent.
Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, front and back. Don’t think of these things as opposites. Think of them as complements. Everything in the Universe has elements of both yin and yang in them, otherwise they wouldn’t be complete. I see it as a loving relationship, a dance. The dance of the Universe.
We will talk much more of yin and yang, but that is enough for today. Now we need to continue looking at chapter two. And that means introducing the Master. I said earlier that the Master is Lao Tzu’s ideal person. But I do want to be careful here to not give you the impression that the Master is some superhuman, an unattainable ideal. Without patting myself on the back, I can say with all honesty, that I am becoming more and more like the Master each day. If I can do it, any of us can. I don’t claim to have arrived at some level of perfection. But I am further along today than I was yesterday.
The purpose Lao Tzu has in mind in giving us the example of the Master, is to help to flesh out Lao Tzu’s teachings. The Master is our example. The Master is the Master, because of his or her relationship with the Tao. I say “his or her” here, because the Master can really be any of us. Anyone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. It doesn’t depend on our gender, or our ethnicity, or our family. It doesn’t depend upon which side of an imaginary border you were born. It doesn’t matter what your economic status is. All the various ways we have of differentiating between humans, are non-existent in the Tao.
Now, given that the Master can be anyone, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Stephen Mitchell, whose translation I am using, chooses to alternate between gender specific pronouns when referring to the Master. Today, he is using “she and her.” Tomorrow, it will be “he and him.” Now, in the original Chinese, there is no gender specific pronoun being used. The English language is not so blessed. Mr. Mitchell wanted to include all genders, because he knew that was Lao Tzu’s intention. But back in 1986, when he published this translation, and it isn’t much improved today, it wasn’t easy to render a translation in English, gender neutral. Prior to Stephen Mitchell’s translation, he counted 103 different English translations already. And each of these had, to use his word, “ironically” chosen to refer to the Master exclusively as a man. That word “ironically” was chosen because of how inclusive Lao Tzu’s teachings are. To insist that the Master is a man is to go way overboard on the yang. Where is the yin to balance things out? It was, as if the translators were denying half the population the possibility of becoming masters themselves. To circumvent that problem he chose to alternate gender specific pronouns. You have his permission, and mine, to change the gender specific pronoun to yours as you read along.
I am sorry this is going on so long; but this chapter deserves this kind of treatment. We are going to learn so much from the example of the Master. Just today we will end with the relationship of the Master with the Tao. This is what perfect oneness and harmony looks like. I won’t say much more today. Each of these we will cover in much greater detail in the days and weeks ahead. We will see how the Master acts without doing anything. Wu-Wei, doing not-doing, is central to the art of living. She teaches without saying anything. This involves knowing not-knowing, another important aspect of the art of living. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. That word “lets” is the perfect balance of yin and yang, passive and active, which goes with the flow of the Tao in our Universe. She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect. Having nothing, desiring nothing. She has completely circumvented the problem of desire. Now, she realizes the mystery. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. And with that, my commentary on chapter two is complete.