Tao te Ching – The Nature of Polarity

Alan Watts
Divine Tao

AT THE VERY ROOTS of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world.

To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric, current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that + and north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system.

People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness. But, as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT, penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone, by law, to be superficially “good and healthy” are creating more problems than they solve. We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes -us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away -from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself. Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves-that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated. Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.” This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them. In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang-tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of “going with the grain.” The point is therefore that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe. Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.

  • In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), and their conventional signs are — respectively — and The ideograms indicate the sunny and shady sides of a hill, fou, and they are associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland. Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other. When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes. Obviously, the male has the convex penis and the female the concave vagina; and though people have regarded the former as a possession and the latter as a deprivation (Freud’s “penis envy”), any fool should be able to recognize that one cannot have the outstanding without the instanding, and that a rampant membrum virile is no good without somewhere, to put it, and vice versa. But the male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male. Thus Lao-tzu says:

    Knowing the male but keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.

    The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male and the affectedly flimsy female.

    The key to the relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:

    When everyone knows beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness;

    When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil.

    “To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;

    Difficult and easy are mutually realized;

    Long and short are mutually contrasted;

    High and low are mutually posited; …

    Before and after are in mutual sequence.

    They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet, or pulse and interval in any vibration. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting. It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the permanent universe. We do not easily grasp the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from nonbeing as sound from silence and and light from space.

    Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;

    It is the center hole [literally, “from their not being”]

    that makes it useful.

    Shape clay into a vessel;

    It is the space within that makes it useful.

    Cut out doors and windows for a room;

    It is the holes which make it useful.

    Therefore profit comes from what is there;

    Usefulness from what is not there.

    I do not know if this point can really be argued in our logic, but I find it impossible to conceive any form whatsoever without relatively empty space. We ignore space just because it is uniform, as water to fish and air to birds. It is almost impossible to give intelligible descriptions of elements or dimensions which are constant in all experiences-such as consciousness, time, motion, or electricity. Yet electricity is very much here, having measurable and controllable properties. But Professor Harold A. Wilson, writing on “Electricity” in the 1947 Encyclopaedia Britannica, says:

    The study of electricity to-day comprehends a vast range of phenomena, in all of which we are brought back ultimately to the fundamental conceptions of electric charge and of electric and magnetic fields. These conceptions are at present ultimates, not explained in terms of others. In the past there have been various attempts to explain them in terms of electric fluids and ethers having the properties of material bodies known to us by the study of mechanics. To-day, however, we find that the phenomena of electricity cannot be so explained, and the tendency is to explain all other phenomena in terms of electricity, taken as a fundamental thing. The question, “What is electricity?” is therefore essentially unanswerable, if by it is sought an explanation of the nature of electricity in terms of material bodies.

    That, from a scientist, is pure metaphysics. Change a few words, and it would be Saint Thomas Aquinas writing about God.

    Yet, as I feel it intuitively, “space” and “void” (k’ung) are very much here, and every child teases itself out of thought by trying to imagine space expanding out and out with no limit. This space is not “just nothing” as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch Hui-neng, writing eleven centuries after Lao-tzu:

    The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this.

    Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary. How, one might ask, would you know that you are alive unless you had once been dead? How can one speak of reality or is-ness except in the context of the polar apprehension of void?

    Yang and yin are in some ways parallel to the (later) Buddhist view of form, se, and emptiness, k’ung-of which the Hridaya Sutra says, “That which is form is just that which is emptiness and that which is emptiness is just that which is form.” This seeming paradox is at once intelligible in terms of the idea of clarity, ch’ing, for we think of clarity at once as translucent and unobstructed space, and as form articulate in every detail-as what photographers, using finely polished lenses, call “high resolution”~-and this takes us back to what Lao-tzu said of the usefulness of doors and windows. Through perfect nothing we see perfect something. In much the same way, philosophers of the Yin-Yang School (-3rd century) saw the positive – and negative – – as aspects of fai chi, the Great Ultimate, initially represented as an empty circle, as wu chi, although chi seems to have had the original meaning of a ridgepole upon which, of course, the two sides of a roof, yang and yin, would lean.

    The yin-yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity. The two principles are, as I have suggested, not opposed like the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, but in love, and it is curious that their traditional emblem is that double helix which is at once the pattern of sexual communication and of the spiral galaxies.

    One yin and one yang is called the Tao-. The passionate union of yin and yang and the copulation of husband and wife is the eternal pattern of the universe. If heaven and earth did not mingle, whence would everything receive life?

    The practical problem of life was not to let their wrestling match get out of hand. Only recently have the Chinese set their hearts upon some kind of utopia, but this must be understood as the necessary react-ion -to years and years of foreign exploitation, anarchy, and extreme poverty. But in the -4th -century Chuang-tzu wrote:

    Thus, those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong, or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of Heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle without the – positive, which is clearly impossible. Yet people keep on discussing it without stop; such people must be either fools or knaves.

    Both Lao-tzu (once, in ch. 42) and Chuang-tzu (many times) mention the yin-yang polarity, but there is no reference to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, in which the permutations and combinations of the two forces (liang yi) are worked out in detail, in terms of the sixty-four hexagrams of yin and yang lines. Yet the I Ching is supposed to have been the most ancient of all the Chinese classics, dating from as far back as the -2nd or even -3rd millennium, and thus to exhibit the basic patterns of Chinese thought and culture. But in that neither Lao-tzu nor Chuang-tzu mentions it, quotes it, nor uses its characteristic terminology, the.hoary antiquity and authority of this text must be called in question.10 On the other hand, since at least the -3rd century Chinese savants have commented on this work in such a way as to perfume it with their thoughts and thus to give it a philosophical profundity. Readers of the great Wilhelm translation, and especially those who use it for divination, should be aware that he has interspersed the earliest forms of the text with passages from the “Wings,” or Appendices, most of which are certainly later than -250. In other words, the Wilhelm translation gives us a true picture of the I Ching as used and understood in China in relatively modem times. But my guess is that in the -5th and -4th centuries it was circulating as an orally transmitted folk wisdom, of indeterminable antiquity, comparable to the art of reading tea-leaves or the lines on the palm of the hand. There might have been written versions of it, but they would have been of the status of the Farmer’s Almanac or popular guides to the meaning of dreams.

    Thus the I Ching, as a specific text, does not appear to have influenced Taoism until after the days of Lao-tzu and Chuang tzu. Nevertheless, there is a common element in the rationale of the I Ching and early Taoist philosophy. Briefly, this element is the recognition that opposites are polar, or interdependent, and that there is something in us-which Groddeck, Freud, and Jung called “the Unconscious” – Which may be called upon for a higher wisdom than can be figured out by logic. In more up-to-date terms one might say that the labyrinth of the nervous system can integrate more variables than the scanning process of conscious attention, though this way of putting it is still a concession to the mechanistic assumptions of +19th-century science. But one uses such language mainly to stay in communication with colleagues who have not outgrown it.

    The I Ching involves a method for the random sorting of milfoil twigs or coins. The twigs or the coins are thus sorted or thrown six times, with a question seriously held-in mind. Each casting results in a yin – – or yang – line, so that one builds up, from the bottom, a hexagram such as:

    The hexagram is composed of two trigrams–in this case, the upper signifies fire and the lower water-and is the last of the sixty-four hexagrams. Turning to the text, one reads:


    Before completion. Success.

    ‘But if the little fox, after nearly completing the crossing,

    Gets his tail in the water,

    There is nothing that would further.


    Fire over water:

    The image of the condition before transition.

    Thus the superior man is careful In the differentiation of things,

    So that each finds its place.”

    The comment is invariably oracular, vague, and ambivalent, but a person taking it seriously will use it. like a Rorschach blot and project into it, from his “unconscious,” whatever there is in him to find in it. This is surely a way of allowing oneself to think without keeping a tight guard on one’s thoughts, whether logical or moral. The same sort of process is at work in the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams and in eidetic vision, whereby we descry faces, forms, and pictures in the grain of wood or marble, or in the shapes of clouds. In this connection I must quote some anecdotes about Ch’an (Zen) painters of the +13th century.

    About the year 1215, a Zen priest called MU Ch’i came to Hangchow, where he rebuilt a ruined monastery. By rapid swirls of ink he attempted, with undeniable success, to capture the moments of exaltation and set down the fleeting visions which he obtained from the frenzy of wine, the stupor of tea, or the vacancy of inanition. Ch’en J~Mg, about the same time, was noted for the simplicity of his life and the competence with which he fulfilled his duties as a magistrate…. Finally, he was admired for his habits of a confirmed drunkard. “He made clouds by splashing ink on his pictures. For mists he spat out water. When wrought up by wine he uttered a great shout and, seizing his hat, used it as a brush, roughly smearing his drawing; after which he finished his work with a ~ proper brush.” One of the first painters of the sect, Wang Hsia, who lived in the’ early ninth century, would perform when he was drunk real tours de force, going so far as to plunge his head into a bucket of ink and flop it over a piece of silk on which there appeared, as if by magic, lakes, trees, enchanted mountains. But none seems to have carried emancipation further, among these priests, than Ying Yu-Chien, secretary of the famous temple Ching-Tzu Si, who would take a cat-like pleasure in spattering and lacerating the sheet.

    The remarks about Ch’en Jung, in particular, suggest thai these gentlemen, having spattered the silk with ink, would contemplate the mess until they could project the shapes and outlines of landscape. Thereafter they would take “the proper brush” and with a few touches bring it out for all to see.

    Cases of this use of the creative un-, sub-, or superconscious are so numerous among painters (including Leonardo), physicists, mathematicians, writers, and musicians that we need not go into further examples. I am sure that the I Ching oracles are used in the same way as these painters used splashes of ink-as forms to be contemplated empty-mindedly until the hidden meaning reveals itself, in accordance with one’s own unconscious tendencies. As with astrology, the rituals and calculations of consulting the I Ching are a kind of doodling which quiets the repressive anxieties of consciousness and, with luck, allows useful insights to emerge from one’s deeper centers.

    The book, therefore, is not entirely superstitious. Consider that when we are about to make decisions we usually collect as much information as we can; but often it is so ambivalent that we are reduced to tossing a coin which can say either “Yes” or “No,” “Do” or “Don’t.” Would there be some advantage to having, as it were, a coin with sixty-four sides? The hexagram, drawn above might be saying, “No, yes, no; yes, no, yes.” Also it should be noted as a curious characteristic of the I Ching that there are no absolutely good or bad hexagrams in its cyclic series.

    This may be illustrated by the Taoist story of a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “May be.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “May be.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”

    The yin-yang view of the world is serenely cyclic. Fortune and misfortune, life and death, whether on small scale or vast, come and go everlastingly without beginning or end, and the whole system is protected from monotony by the by the fact that, in just the same way, remembering alternates with forgetting. This is the Good of good-and-bad.

    No, thanks!