Yin and Yang

On the Winter Solstice in 1245 C.E. Zen Master Dogen wrote the following:

Today’s first [arising of] yang [and the daylight’s increase] is an auspicious occasion; a noble person reaches maturity.  Although this is an auspicious occasion for laypeople, it is truly a delight and support for buddha ancestors.  Yesterday, the short length [of day] departed, yin reached its fullness, and the sound of cold wind ceased.  This morning the growing length [of day] arrived, and yang arises with a boisterous clamor.[1]

Many are familiar with the yin-yang symbol, but few of us know what it means or how it is applied to real life.  In Zen Master Dogen’s time this symbol was taken for granted.  Not just Dogen Zenji, but all of Japanese culture connects the solstice with the yin-yang energy that fluctuates depending on the time of year.

Understanding Dogen’s passage and how it applies to us in modern America requires that we investigate more deeply yin and yang.  Many of us today associate yin-yang with Daoism and martial arts or acupuncture, however, it’s an ancient Chinese symbol that is used in both Daoist and Confucian modes of understanding the world, and it predates both Daoist, Confucian and Zen philosophies.  Yin is the feminine principle and is associated with soft, dark, yielding, contracting, cold etc.  Yang is the opposite – masculine, hard, light, penetrating, expanding, hot etc.  These two forces are in dynamic tension with each other.  They represent duality.  In a previous post on “gassho” I explained how these two forces come together when we bring our palms into “gassho,” or joined palms.

In western thought we talk about good overcoming evil, but this is not the case for Asian thinking, it’s more about the balance of these two opposing forces.  When in balance, there is harmony.

Dai-En Roshi saw the world in terms of yin-yang.  She referred to a certain part of our Zen temple property as yin, and another part as yang, and she was keen on keeping the two in balance.  The forested area that was dark and cold (yin), needed to remain in contrast with the open spaces where it was lighter (yang).  She also saw the seasons as having yin and yang elements, referring to the point just after summer solstice as “having begun its exhale,” which would correlate, in this case, with the growing of yin.  When asked about how to calm the mind she would sometimes say, “Zazen is just like the weather.  Some days are peaceful, other days are stormy.”

Dogen Zenji does something similar on the winter solstice.  He exclaims that the energy of winter is shifting at the solstice point.  Yin is at its highest and yang is at its lowest point in the natural world on the winter solstice.  This yin and yang ratio he connects with the “Noble Person.”  The Noble Person – the junzi – is a Confucian concept, and it refers to the person who commits to ongoing cultivation of their heart of ren, or benevolence, and that this heart can only be manifested within relationships in the family, community, government, and natural world.  But Dogen Zenji also connects it back to the Buddhist practitioner.  Our bodies reflect yin-yang of the natural world.  The outside is a mirror of the inside and vice versa.  Our work is to align ourselves with the outside energy or to recognize that what’s happening with the yin-yang ratio outside is also happening to us within our own body and mind.

How this plays out in our day-to-day life is that if we know, for example that there is a high quantity of yin energy in the external world, then we reflect that by being in alignment with, rather than fighting, the yin energy.  It could mean we are at our peak of receptivity (yin) in being able to absorb the Dharma.  So, we take more time to study or to sit in stillness, quietly.  In winter when things slow down and are frozen, animals go into hibernation, humans follow suit by staying inside where it’s warm, and moving around less.  Our activities slow down and we can perhaps become more contemplative.

Summer is just the opposite.  The natural world speeds up, as do we.  If we are slow and lethargic at this time, we may be out of alignment with the world around us.  Summer is time for grand festivities and celebration.  We can move around to a greater degree.

The question we can ask ourselves now, then, is what season are we in and to what degree are our own activities in alignment with or reflecting the energies of the natural world?  If we are honest, most of us are probably out of alignment.  So, this can be a reminder to pay attention to the energy that’s around us and its relative degree of yin and yang, and to consider finding ways to synchronize our body-mind with the bigger body-mind of the natural world.

We can also consider ways to synchronize with the energies of our family and our partner.  What is their yin/yang balance like?  Are they more yin?  Maybe we need to take a “yang” stance?  Are they more yang?  Maybe we need to be more “yin.”  Or how about balancing these two forces within our self?  Maybe we have too much yang energy and we need to be more receptive to others or the natural world to balance ourselves out.  In any case, there are multiple levels we can consider balance and how to engage with these positive and negative forces that pervade the universe and our own body/mind.

Soto Zen meditation, the way Dai-En Roshi taught, is generally a very yin activity.  We are not forcing anything.  We try to become as receptive as possible while sitting, listening deeply, not inserting ourselves, and letting go.  Dai-En Roshi would say, “Let yourself be babysat by zazen.”  The following verse in the Dao De Jing is compatible with this kind of meditation:

Can you concentrate your vital force and achieve the highest degree of weakness like an infant?

Verse 10[2]

[1] Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, translators.  Dogen’s Extensive Record:  A Translation of the Eihei Koroku.  Boston:  Wisdom Publications, 2010, page 163.

[2] Chan, Wing-Tsit, translator.  The Way of Lao Tzu.  Indianapolis:  The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1963, page 116.

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