Beyond Right And Wrong
Yin and Yang
Merging with the Tao begins with an understanding of the principle of interconnectedness – that all is Tao. Then we explore particular elements of the Tao, such as mystery and emptiness, which open us to the unity of life on an experiential level.
A deepening of this experience occurs through the principle of yin and yang. This fundamental concept lies at the very root of the Taoist tradition. It describes how the interconnectedness of life is expressed through the relationship of two primal forces.
Yin and yang are these two essential energies. While they are interdependent – one cannot exist without the other – they are also opposite in nature which provides the dynamic for movement and change. Yang is characterized as energy that is creative, assertive, positive, and light, while yin is receptive, yielding, negative, and dark. It is important to understand that these attributes do not carry any moral or judgmental value.
The symbol at the beginning of this article is named the Tai Chi Tu (Supreme Ultimate Map), less formally referred to as the “yin-yang symbol”. It depicts the harmonious balance between these two energies. The curved line represents their dynamic interaction – as each energy reaches its fullest expression it already carries the seed of its opposite, signified by the small dot. These two forces are literally flowing into and becoming one other.
Our entire physical reality is based on the interplay of yin and yang. Whether it is the structure of DNA, with its positive and negative strands, the transmission of neurons in our brains, from a positively charged sender to a negatively charged receptor, the makeup of electricity with its positive and negative currents, or the existence of the earth’s magnetic fields which regulate the ebb and flow of the ocean tides – all of these processes take place because of these two opposing energies. Yin and yang make the world go round!
“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is
ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil.”
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2
How interesting and how challenging that the underlying unity of the Tao, the interconnectedness of life, is expressed through opposing energies! To fully experience this interconnectedness we must be able to embrace the opposites of yin and yang. That is the challenge.
Taoist texts speak of “life in the round”. The “round” is symbolized by the circle of the Tai Chi Tu which encompasses both energies. Living “life in the round” means to connect and flow with yin and yang as they pass through one phase of change and then the other. Reconciling them is to bring them into a harmonious whole.
While the concepts of change and balance found within yin and yang are fairly straightforward, to see the equality of opposites and their fundamental unity is not an easy undertaking. When considering opposites we most often think of conflict or struggle. And just as often we attach ourselves to one side or the other of this process and then assign it a fixed moral value. Lao Tzu reminds us that one polarity cannot exist without the other. Also, because these opposites are relative to one another and in a state of continuous change, because they arise from a common source and actually create each other, he can then ask, “Is there a difference between yes and no? Is there a difference between good and evil?” Take note of what you are thinking as you read these words. This is definitely out of the box!
Chuang Tzu illustrates this same line of reasoning. He states that depending on your point of view,
“Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this.’ Therefore, ‘that’ comes from ‘this’ and ‘this’ comes from ‘that’ – which means ‘that’ and ‘this’ give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between ‘that’ and ‘this’, it is called being one with the Tao.”
Again, consider these words! What does all of this mean? Is there no moral compass, no taking a position in life? Is there really no difference between “good” and “evil”? Who are these guys?!
Daily Living – The Challenge
“The sage harmonizes right with wrong and rests in the balance of nature. This
is called taking both sides at once. Behold the light beyond right and wrong.”
In life the Tao harmonizes and balances. It “blunts the sharpness and untangles the knot”, as Lao Tzu writes. To become one with the Tao is to carry out the same function. However, our tendency is to categorize things as “right” or “wrong” and then to cling rigidly to those labels, creating more conflict. This imbues objects or ideas with an inflexibility which works against reconciliation, against “untangling the knot”.
In our world yin and yang express themselves as opposites – up and down, hot and cold, and, of course, right and wrong. These distinctions are necessary and help us navigate our daily lives. “Taking both sides at once” does not mean there is no “right” or “wrong”. It means recognizing their common source and not getting caught in moral judgment. Being able to “go beyond right and wrong” allows us to act wisely and effectively, helping these opposing sides to transform, reconcile, and flow smoothly.
In nature opposites exist as part of the natural order and there are no value distinctions or moral judgments, unlike our human realm. We accept the fact that there are natural disasters which can cause untold damage, and can lead to great distress and loss. “Bad” things happen but we do not pass moral judgment, or call nature bad, wrong, or evil. Rather, we try to learn from these misfortunes and to live more harmoniously with our surroundings.
This type of understanding is more difficult to apply to human affairs. People exploit, torture, and kill one another. We conduct wars, causing unimaginable suffering. These are “evil” deeds, the antithesis of the balance and harmony of the Tao. Yet, Lao Tzu writes: “I am good to the person who is good, and I am good to the person who is not good because our essence is goodness”. This is looking beyond right and wrong, good and bad, to bring about reconciliation and the greater good of balance and harmony.
Lest you think this is an idealistic or unrealistic approach to conflict, we have in our very recent history striking examples where extreme opposites have been harmonized and reconciled in a “tao-inspired” manner. Colonialism in India, racial segregation in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa, were all systems that were out of balance, did not function in a harmonious or life-affirming manner, and did not serve the greater good. These systems were eventually overturned through non-violent methods because people and their leaders were able to look beyond “right” and “wrong” and conduct themselves in a way that was inclusive and reconciling of both sides. People confronted the “evils” of these systems while not labeling the supporters as “evil”, paving the way to reconciliation and deep understanding. “Beyond right and wrong” does not deny imbalance or injustice. It looks to a shared humanity and an ability to grow and change as a means of reconciliation.
“The true person of Tao is not always looking for right and wrong,
not always deciding ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The true person has no mind to
fight Tao and does not try by her own contriving to help Tao along.
All that comes out of her comes quiet, like the four seasons.”
We do live in a world of “yes” and “no”, “light” and “dark”, and “good” and “evil”. We can see disharmony and imbalance as “wrong” and expend our efforts to make things “right”. Yet, even then, if we can remember our connection to the whole, remembering that we are, in some way, part of “the other side”, resolution will be more harmonious and will lead to a true balance, an outcome that benefits all. That is our compass – to go beyond a conventional understanding of morality and to support and cultivate the essential goodness that transcends “good” and “bad”.
A skilled mediator enacts this principle by looking beyond “right and wrong” and seeking what is common and beneficial to all sides in a dispute. This is reconciling opposites, finding the common ground of the Tao. We can apply these principles to global crises, workplace conflicts, family issues, and certainly to our own internal challenges.
“What goes up must come down.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin and yang and encourages us to embrace these opposites, to see them as relative and changing, and to remember that ultimately all is Tao. By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can be part of the process of reconciliation and become, in the words of Chuang Tzu, true women and men of Tao.
- There are “two sides to every story”. Can you listen to both sides and understand another’s experience? Can you see that while there are two “sides”, yin and yang, there is one “story” – Tao?
- Are there areas of imbalance in your life? Do you work too much? Do you have enough quiet time or enough exercise? Do you feel emotionally balanced?
- By flowing with the ongoing patterns of change we harmonize with them. How strongly do you cling to our own habits, values, and interpretations?
- Lao Tzu writes that “evil” will change through the influence of its opposite. What is your relationship to evil? Do you help create it by standing in direct opposition to it? Can you see it as part of the whole?
- Have you ever had an “evil” thought? What might you learn from that?
This is the fourth article in Ted’s series which explores the nature of Tao as presented in the writings of legendary sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and investigates how we might understand and apply these ideas in our daily lives.
Also in this series:
- The Circle of Tao
- Mystery – The Gateway To The Tao
- The Glass Is Empty
- Beyond Right And Wrong
- Purposeless Wandering
About The Author
Ted has been a practitioner of Tai Ji and Qi Gong for over 30 years. In 1983 he was ordained as a Taoist Priest after completing a two-year program of studies at the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego under the auspices of Master Share K. Lew, a Taoist Priest from the Yellow Dragon Monastery in China.
Following Ted’s ordination, he taught classes in Tai Ji, and Qi Gong at the Sanctuary for 20 years. He also created and taught a popular 28-week course in Taoist Philosophy.
In 2004, after several years of practicing Vipassana meditation, Ted completed the Dedicated Practitioners Program offered through the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
For the past 20 years Ted has been a faculty member at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego. He is the director of the College’s Clinical Counseling program and also teaches classes in Tai Ji.
Ted’s advanced degree is in Clinical Psychology. He is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist in practice since 1989. He brings a blend of Taoist and Buddhist spiritual principles, combined with contemporary Western psychological concepts, to his work with his clients.
Ted feels most fortunate and grateful to have been introduced to the writings of the Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Their ideas and principles continue to be a guiding force in his life to this day.