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 two, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, in the opening chapter of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, we were introduced to the eternal reality. That eternal reality, Lao Tzu hesitantly called Tao. I say, hesitantly, but I don’t really know whether that was really the case, or not. I just know that he wanted us to understand, right up front, that any words he used to describe it, and any name he was going to give to it, couldn’t possibly do it justice. In its essence, the Tao is unnameable and indescribable. That is its mystery. But how this mystery manifests itself in our Universe is something that we can describe and name. That is why we will spend a great deal of our time describing and naming the manifestations of the Tao; as we let go of all desires along our journey to realizing the mystery of the Tao.
Naming the unnameable. That is what we are about on this journey. Today, Lao Tzu introduces us to the concept of yin and yang, as we start naming things. Yin and yang are the Taoist way of dealing with the problem of duality in our Universe. He begins with the problem. When people see or name some things beautiful, other things must become ugly. When people see or name some things good, other things must become bad. This is the problem of duality. For there to be beauty, there must be ugliness. For there to be goodness, there must be badness.
I am sure you would like to try and imagine a Universe where there is only beauty and goodness, with no trace of ugliness or badness. The only way I have managed to do this, has been in imagining a parallel Universe, coexistent, where there is only ugliness and badness, with no trace of beauty and goodness. You hopefully can see the problem. The reason we can’t have one without the other is because we must have some standard by which we measure these things. You could argue that we could have standards of beauty that don’t correspond to ugliness. We could just say that one thing is more beautiful than another. But even then, the least beautiful thing measured up against the most beautiful thing, leaves us with the same duality. No matter what euphemism we use for the word ugly.
The real problem with duality lies in our seeing these things as opposites. And, determining the one is good while the other one is bad. Beauty, that is good. Ugly, on the other hand? Well, just try to make the ugly out to be good. All you are really doing is making the ugly, beautiful; and, the beautiful, ugly. Then, we are right back where we began.
If this is all beginning to get ugly for you, consider this: This is not the way Lao Tzu wants us to see things. Instead of seeing yin and yang as opposites, we should be seeing them as complements. I want to make sure that you don’t confuse complements with compliments. They are entirely different things. When Lao Tzu introduces yin and yang, he is introducing complements. They complete each other. The Tao is the great equalizer. Yin and yang is the way the Tao equalizes, or balances, everything. And, that will take care of the problem of duality.
Being and non-being create each other. We are going to talk a lot about being and non-being in the coming days, so I don’t want to spend a great deal of time today explaining what Lao Tzu means by the two. Today, let it suffice to say that they are not opposites, but complements of each other. They create each other.
Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open. These are not opposites, but complements. The one is not complete without the other. You can’t have one without the other. I don’t mean to discourage any one from messaging me, please do. But before you do, I just want to say that I am not saying that a woman needs a man, or a man needs a woman. Female and male here, refer to more than woman and man. Each and every one of us, whether male or female (or something else I can’t seem to define) have both yin and yang in us. We need to let those be in balance in us. Sometimes I am much more yin and sometimes I am much more yang. But in the grand scheme of things, it all balances out.
Where there is yin, there must also be yang. They balance each other. One is not good, while the other is bad. The only thing that would be bad is if there is not balance. Yin and yang create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. They follow each other. That is what Lao Tzu is meaning when he talks in today’s chapter of being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, before and after.
As long as we are thinking of them as opposites, we are thinking of them as being in conflict. That is the problem with duality. But Lao Tzu wants us to embrace them as complements of each other. See how they create each other, how they support each other, how they define, depend on, and follow each other? This isn’t conflict. This is a loving relationship.
I almost wish I could end today’s commentary with that picture of a loving relationship between yin and yang. Perhaps I can. But first, Lao Tzu introduces to us the Master. This is only an introduction. She or he, is going to appear again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching. Resist the urge to treat the Master as some unattainable ideal. A superhuman.
The purpose that Lao Tzu has in mind with giving us the example of the Master, is to help us to flesh out his teachings. Any one of us can be a master. It is only a matter of our relationship with the Tao. The Master is someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Stephen Mitchell, in his translation is going to alternate between calling the Master a she and a he. The reason he has for this is two-fold. First, because the original Chinese does not have a gender specific pronoun with which to reference the Master. And, second, because he doesn’t want us to fail to be able to see ourselves in the role of the Master. Our goal in this journey is to learn to master ourselves, both our minds and our bodies. Prior to Stephen Mitchell’s translation, he had counted 103 different English translations. And each one had, using 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.
But enough of explanations. What I really want to end today’s commentary with, is the relationship (dare I call it, loving) between the Master and the Tao. Lao Tzu is going to cover each of these ideas in much greater detail later. Today, I just want to watch the Master dance with the Tao. How they complement each other. She acts without doing anything. She teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come. Things disappear and she lets them go. She has, but she doesn’t possess. She acts without any expectations. When her work is done, she forgets all about it. That is why it lasts forever. Like the dance; it goes on and on and on.