Yin-Yang: The Symbol of the Tao
by Paul O’Brien
The symbol of the Tao — a circle enclosing two equal interlocking paisleys — is referred to as the “tai chi” symbol, or sometimes as the “yin-yang.” The outside circle represents the universal Tao, the “way” or “path” associated with a life lived in harmony with the cycles of change. It is also the closest thing in Chinese metaphysics to western concepts like ‘God,’ because the Tao also implies infinite potentiality. The dark paisley within the circle is the yin energy, which contains a white dot in the middle representing a yang aspect, to remind us that nothing is all yin or all yang. The same but opposite is true about the white paisley with its black dot. The circle is shaped like a wheel to convey cyclical movements, such as seasons and orbits, but also karmic returns.
Yin is conceived of as the feminine principle, (soft, tranquil, dark, receptive, flowing and containing) while yang is the masculine principle (hard, agressive, light, focused and solid). Everything, including every individual personality, contains elements of both. The world, or the ‘Tao,’ is a mixing of black and white into myriad shades of gray.
The Chinese call the world’s oldest book “I Ching”, which translates as “Book of Changes.” This greatest of the surviving Taoist classical works was designed to serve as a divination system — for reading and interpreting life changes wrought by the constant interplay of the yin and yang universal energies. (Incidentally, I composed a modern version of the I Ching text in 1989. It has been improved — and illustrated — and is now available at tarot.com/i-ching. I will be publishing it in book form in 2010.)
The Taoist/Confucian tradition posits that juxtaposing a set of the possible permutations of yin and yang with elements of Chinese creation mythology produced the foundation of the I Ching. Pairing up the various combinations of yin (the literal ancient meaning of which is the shady north side of the hill) and yang (meaning the sunny south side of the hill) gives you four primary symbols. With the addition of another yin or yang line, the eight trigrams emerge.
The earliest composition of I Ching interpretations is attributed to King Wen. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the unjust emperor Zhou Wang imprisoned Wen, he reportedly used his confinement to meditate on the trigrams, pairing them up to produce sixty-four possible hexagrams. Each pair of trigrams took on a meaning specific to their combination. In what we might assume was an enlightened state of mind, King Wen assigned each of the sixty-four hexagrams a name, adding a few sentences to explain its meaning. It is said that his son, King Wu, added additional interpretative text, bringing the I Ching closer to its current form.
In every chapter of the I Ching, we have six lines consisting of a unique mix of yin lines and yang lines, making up 64 patterns. Each of these 64 hexagrams is an archetype of the human condition or human situations, based on the placement of yin and yang lines within it. The I Ching has for thousands of years been considered a sacred tool, a system that was originally only used by the nobility and sages to coordinate human activity with the natural rhythms of the Tao, the cycles of change. When I first incorporated Visionary Software in 1989 to publish Synchronicity, the first ever I Ching software, we developed a company logo that incorporated the Tao symbol, knowing that our business had to be about balance and integrity if it were to be of real service. The pioneering subatomic physicist Neils Bohr also used it when he was knighted in 1947. His family had no coat of arms, so he created one. He chose the yin-yang symbol and inscribed it Contraria sunt complementa (opposites are complementary).
The yin-yang symbol of the Tao is always good to have around, for it provides a clear visual reminder of how change, which is the only constant, operates in the world. As human beings have a special role to play in this world, the I Ching was encoded to help us interpret the patterns of change in society as well as our individual human lives, giving us a greater ability to anticipate and, indeed, play a co-creative role in positive or ‘lucky’ changes that sometimes just seem to happen. It is said that the symbol of the Tao and the use of the I Ching support within us the “Three Jewels of the Tao” — love, humility and moderation. Here’s to the emotional intelligence of Taoism, one of the most uplifting and practical philosophies of all time!