Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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This is part two of a two-part miniseries, where I look at chapters 27, 28, 29, and 32. Because there are so many overlapping themes, I decided to weave them together, but the amount of content was too much for a single episode. In the first part, I talked about the nature of the Tao as the “uncarved block” or primal reality, then the ways in which we lose touch with it through the phenomenon of “naming” or carving the block. Today, we will use the yin yang as a picture of a philosophical and spiritual outlook that can lead us back to the way things were meant to be, hence the title, “Coming Full Circle”. To put it differently, last week we journeyed out, and this week we are journeying back, ultimately making our way full circle back to wholeness.
Know the male,
yet keep to the female:
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.
Know the white,
yet keep to the black:
be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
the Tao will be strong inside you
and there will be nothing you can’t do.
Know the personal,
yet keep to the impersonal:
accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self.
The world is formed from the void,
like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
yet keeps to the the block:
thus she can use all things.
-Chapter 28, Translator: Stephen Mitchell
The yin-yang and the road home
The most famous symbol of Taoism is the yin-yang. We’ve all seen it, although we may not always understand what it means. Some people think it’s a religious symbol, which is implied on things like the “coexist” bumper stickers or other interfaith artwork. Others seem to think it’s just a cool tattoo design. But really, the yin yang is simply a philosophical symbol. This is why there are hundreds of ways to interpret and apply it, because it represents more than any one particular doctrine, but a whole philosophy of life.
The basic idea of the symbol is to challenge dualistic thinking. Any perceived opposites in this world must coexist in harmony in order to make up all of existence. If you look at a picture of a yin-yang, it could be described as an embrace between the black and the white - an embrace that brings them into full harmony and union. This union goes beyond just coexistence, where they simply exist in the same space but leave each other alone, because there is actually a drop of each color in the heart of the other half; but it also goes beyond simply blending the two together into a single shade of grey - because that is just boring and ends up removing the unique identity of each one.
In last week’s episode, we saw that the road away from the primal reality, the uncarved block, or the original Eden was that idea of what Lao Tzu calls “naming” - that is, setting up distinctions and boundaries and borders and carving and dividing up reality in the way we see best. The yin yang encourages us not necessarily to undo that process, but to overcome it by bringing our divisions back together in harmony.
Chapter 28: Holding opposites in tension
Chapter 28 is more than just an obscure meditation on the nature of opposites. This chapter of the Tao te Ching takes three of the most obvious opposites in life and gives us a call to hold them in tension, while also encouraging us to have a special preference for the sides that have traditionally been seen as “weaker” or less desirable.
1, Male and female
The first pair of opposites is usually one of the first ones to come up when discussing yin yang thought: male and female. The yang is masculine, and the yin is feminine. In Lao Tzu’s historical context, masculinity was perceived as the source of authority and strength; femininity represented that of nurture, softness, and even weakness.
In this chapter, we are called to hold the two in tension. Everyone has both masculinity and femininity within them, and an overemphasis on one or the other is never a good thing. The so-called “real men” or “tough guys” of this world who do everything they can to close themselves off to emotions, tears, or any deep show of affections at all - in other words, to their yin/feminine side - can never find real wholeness and are often destructive to those around them. Similarly, overemphasizing traditional “feminine” language used to “put women in their place” has often silenced voices that need to be heard and stripped away power and agency from half of the population.
This balance especially requires being in touch with yin - the receptive, feminine, and (so-called) weak side. A posture of pure yang (assertion, forcefulness, and even aggression) will never get you there. I think this is why Lao Tzu says “know the masculine, but keep to the feminine.” I don’t think he’s urging us to dismiss what he calls the masculine, but it’s so easy to dismiss the so-called feminine that we need a special reminder. In other words, we need balance between the two - but if one of them tends to be overly emphasized in our world, we need an extra focus on the one that is frequently left out.
2. White and black
The second set of opposites is the white and black, or the light and the dark. The yang or the white side of the yin yang has traditionally been associated with many things, including the sun, light, fire, and as we just saw, masculinity. However, there are a number of character traits it is associated with as well. To give just a few examples, it is vibrant, direct, hard, solid, active, energetic, fast, and lively. On the other hand, the yin, or black side, always represents the counterpart or balance (which is a more Taoist way of saying “opposite”). So in the examples I just gave, the black side is discreet, indirect, soft, flexible, calm, still, and even tired.
Chapter 28 says that the result of embracing these characteristics is that we become an example or a pattern or a model for the whole world. Truly balanced people may be misunderstood by many, as Lao Tzu explained in chapter 20, but there is still a sense in which they provide a model of humanity that cannot be ignored - at least by those who have eyes to see it. We can see this clearly in the life of Jesus. The text also says that the end result is that we return to the infinite or the eternal beginning. The road home comes from embracing and balancing the characteristics that seem to be opposite in our lives, but actually can and should coexist in harmony and create a healthy equilibrium.
3. The high and the low
The third and final set of opposites is the high and the low, or what some translations call honor and humility. This should have deep resonance for Christians, although we often miss the fact that throughout Scripture we see God working with and calling those on the margins, the underprivileged, and the disinherited. The poor and marginalized hold a special place in God’s heart, and it is absolutely vital that they hold a special place in the heart of Jesus’ followers.
It’s interesting, then, that Lao Tzu’s words also indicate that we give preference to the poor and weaker sides of life, not because they are inherently better but because they are repeatedly silenced, forced out, or pushed down because they are too embarrassing or unworthy to merit serious attention. The “preference” that Lao Tzu encourages us to have is really just a quest for balance. Nature should be inherently balanced, but humanity always seems to operate on unbalanced systems. Both the Gospels and the Tao te Ching offer the solution, which is to do everything we can to restore our relationship with the weak, poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized.
Finally, chapter 28 says that the result of holding the balance between male and female, white and black, and high and low is that we find the ultimate road home by returning to the uncarved block, which is where we began this whole journey last week.
Returning to the uncarved block is about regaining a place of organic simplicity and open possibility, a place where all of the naming and dividing and carving and categorizing we talked about last week can be undone and allow all things and all people to find rest in their proper place. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of chapter 32 is a bit idealistic, but it’s interesting to notice some of the parallels with the words of the Old Testament prophets:
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
It’s a wonderful, beautiful, and exciting vision that Lao Tzu sets, but if our heart isn’t in the right place, it can get us dreaming that if we can just be centered enough, we can improve the world to the point of paradise and peace. The Tao te Ching makes it clear that that is not the case. Chapter 29 begins with this warning:
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.
-Translator: Gia-fu Feng
So despite everything we have said, returning to the uncarved block, primal reality, or original Eden is not something we can force or control. It must happen naturally, and it is not an attempt to take control and make changes or to undo changes that have already happened. Stefan Stenudd has some really interesting insights on this section:
What makes the world difficult to change in a lasting way is not its reluctance to change, but because it's so familiar with it. The world itself is a master of change. That's how it was made in the first place, and that's how it continues to remake itself.
From the smallest to the biggest part of the world, everything changes. Water evaporates, rising to the sky, and falls back on the ground as rain. Forests grow, burn down, and grow back up again. Even the vast continents move across the surface of the planet, as if playing their own Rubik's Cube.
Our whole planet is spinning around its axis, and around the sun, in a remarkable race which is still insignificant compared to the movements of galaxies and the expansion of the whole universe. Everything is changing, and most of those changes are far superior to anything the human being can accomplish.
We don't fail because we try to change things, but because we want to stop them from changing. What little adjustments we do to the world, we don't want undone. We build our houses and want them to remain exactly as they were immediately after the roofing.
That's futile. Decay starts already at the beginning of growth. Change has neither beginning nor end. We can never fully control it, since we are mere parts of it.
So, what Lao Tzu states about the consequences would be true, if change and seizure of the world were at all possible. If the world could be changed into a fixed state, which is what we would try, it could only lead to destruction. We would have to stop time, and where would that leave us?
The Tao te Ching is deeply rooted in love and respect for the natural world. It is “sacred”, which isn’t too much different from God saying it is “very good.” The never-ending pursuit of progress and domination over the planet began with the attempt to seize the knowledge of good and evil; remember that immediately after it, Adam was told he would have to wrestle with the earth rather than living harmoniously with it in the garden.
Our goal doesn’t have to be giving up all desire for progress and growth; but we have to redefine what these words even mean. Much of human history, but especially modernity along with the industrial revolution, has been about fighting to subdue creation and make it work for us. Abusing it and taking advantage of it. Milking it for any resources it can provide to improve our ever-increasing standards of prosperity. And even though the Tao te Ching was written more than 2500 years ago, it sends a message that more and more voices have been proclaiming since the countercultural movement of the 1960s: enough is enough. We have to find a better way to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world, and the first place to start is in our own minds.
The world was created ‘good,’
so why do you want to improve it?
Progress is a fairy tale.
The world has a rhythm.
Walk in cadence.
Move in time with the music. The world is alive, live in it.
Misuse the earth like an object,
you’ll die prematurely.
The world is sacred space, holy ground,
take off your shoes,