Lao Tsu, the Tao and Balance

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Even though our focus here is primarily Buddhist, no exploration of the subject of balance would be complete without looking at the Tao de Ching. Two weeks ago we looked at the gyroscope as an example of how we can find balance even amidst seeming chaos, by staying centered in the moment, sensing our connection through the paired intentions of being present and being compassionate. Then last week we looked at the Buddha’s Middle Way and the Eightfold Path to see that not only can we be balanced in the midst of whatever arises, but we can actively create through our conscious choices a more balanced life. The Tao looks at both of these aspects, using different language for the same concepts.

I am no expert on the Tao but I did study it quite intensely at one period in my life and I have a number of translations of the Tao de Ching to work with. I remember answering the perennial question about what book would you have with you on a desert island with ‘Tao de Ching.’ Why? Because in 81 succinct verses it encompasses so much wisdom, and each time I read a verse it is fresh for me. I learn something new from it because I am in a different place. 


If you are unfamiliar with Taoism or the Tao de Ching, there is plenty of information online to explore, so I will give a very brief introduction here:
About the same time the Buddha was teaching in 500 BC, legend has it that an archive keeper in a kingdom in China named Lao Tsu, which translates ‘old master,’ saw that the kingdom was decaying and decided it was time for him to hit the road. On his way out the western gate of town on his oxcart, he was stopped by the gatekeeper who implored him not to leave without at least writing down some words of wisdom, for he was known as a sage. So Lao Tsu got down off his cart and spent a couple hours writing down these verses, then went on his way and was never seen again. This may be a true story or it may be a legend with symbolic seeds of wisdom in the story itself, and the Tao may be the compilation of many sages over the centuries.

The word ‘Tao’ means the whole or supreme reality, and ‘te’ is the way we put our understanding of the Tao into action for the benefit of all beings. Ching means book, so the Tao de Ching could be translated ‘the book of the Supreme Reality and its Skillful Manifestation.’ So you can see that this is indeed very much what we were talking about in our previous discussions of balance: We align with the oneness, and put that awareness to use in our interactions with the world.

There are many translations of the title and of the verses themselves, and it is very interesting to have a few translations available to explore the verses. Why so many? If you look at a verbatim translation with each Chinese symbol of each verse given all its possible meanings, you can see it would be impossible for any two translators to come up with identical wording. I have no need to choose one translator over another. I like to draw from them all to get a well-rounded feeling of each verse. But if you plan to only purchase one book and you have several to choose from, you might take the time to compare how each translator approaches a particular verse, and then choose the one that resonates with you. 

CLICK HERE to see animated version


In class I began our exploration of balance and the Tao by showing the Yin/Yang symbol. Most of us are at least familiar with the sight of this symbol in all its various decorative uses, but what does it really mean? As a teacher I believe that the symbol was developed as a teaching tool to demonstrate balance in nature. Looking at it you can see that the black swirl and the white swirl are perfectly balanced, and that within the black swirl is a white dot and within the white swirl there is a black dot.

If you were able to click on the symbol and see the animated loop, then you can see how this static image represents a singular point in time that is ongoing ever-changing. The black and white dots started as mere specks, almost invisible, and are continuing to grow so that at some point the white swirl has turned black and the black swirl has turned white, and then specks of the opposite begin to grow within them. Studying this symbol, especially in its animated form, gives us insight into the way of the universe. Isn’t this our experience of nature as we traverse the seasons, from dark to light, from cold to hot, and from wet to dry?  In this season of the ending of summer, isn’t the hint of fall here, making itself known more and more each day, like the growing speck of black or white in the Yin Yang symbol? Noticing the ongoing changes in nature and in ourselves with loving curiosity and appreciation for being present to experience this fleeting gift of life and frees us from clinging to one over the other. 

One student in class said she felt that the animated gyroscope from last week was more helpful than looking at the Yin Yang symbol because it offered a stable place to be, and the Yin Yang is in a constant state of flux. But when we look at the Yin Yang we are observing it from a whole view, not getting caught up in any place within the circle but holding a sufficiently expansive view that we see the way of the 10,000 things. Understanding the constancy of change and the nature of impermanence is key to liberating ourselves from being dependent on specific causes and conditions to stay the same for us to find joy in living.
Yin and Yang are opposite energies that together form a whole. As you read the following list of yin and yang opposites, feel it like a poem rather than simple information to be understood. Yin is dark, yang is light; yin is moon, yang is sun; yin is night, yang is day; yin is winter, yang is summer; yin is soft, yang is hard; yin is interior, yang is exterior; yin is passive, yang is aggressive; yin is contracting, yang is expanding; yin is water, yang is stone; yin is valley, yang is mountain; yin is estrogen, yang is testosterone; yin is contemplative, yang is active; yin is feeling, yang is thinking; yin is subconscious, yang is conscious; yin is listening, yang is speaking; yin is nurturing, yang is achieving; yin is intuitive, yang is reasoning.  
(If you are familiar with yin and yang, you may have noticed that I chose to use the hormones testosterone and estrogen rather than gender, which is traditional.  All of us, men and women, know what it feels like to have testosterone coursing through us. We feel strong and able, ready to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. And maybe sometimes we feel it as anger, frustration, even an urge to be violent.

Likewise, we all know what it feels like when estrogen flows through us. Perhaps we tear up with empathy at a movie. We feel a sense of connection with others and the world around us, we feel open and curious. But perhaps at times we might feel vulnerable, sad and weepy.

So we understand that women are not all Yin and men are not all Yang, that we all feel the effects of both these hormones to varying degrees throughout our lives.)  

Our awareness of yin and yang helps us to bring them into balance and become more skillful. Chinese medicine and martial arts are all about this balancing of the yin and yang within us, and skillfully using them in our interactions.  
I hope that reading the above list of yin and yang qualities gives you a feeling of the difference between the two, and how they work together to create the whole of our experience of life. It is less important to be able to name them yin and yang, and more important to notice this ongoing play of opposites that together form a whole balanced system. Understanding this, there is nothing we want to eliminate. All aspects have their place in the scheme of things. Developing an awareness of the Tao, of the wholeness of life, brings us into balance.  
Here are a few verses from the Tao te Ching just to give you a taste. I hope it will inspire you to peruse your bookshelf for that copy you’ve had since the sixties but never really bothered to read, or to enjoy discovering it for the very first time. 

Be still
And discover your center of peace.
Throughout nature
Then ten thousand things move along,
But each returns to its source.
Returning the center is peace.
Find Tao by returning to source.
Tao 16 Trans. Diane Dreher

All beings support yin and embrace yang
and the interplay of these two forces
fills the universe
Yet only at the still-point,
between the breathing in and the breathing out.
can one capture these two in perfect harmony.
Excerpt from Tao 42, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
Thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.
The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.
Tao 7, trans Stephen Mitchell  


Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
This nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
This loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
Tao 67, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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