Monday, November 3, 2014

Yin, Yang, and breath as harmony between the two

The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to two;
Two gave birth to three [these three are yin, yang, and chi or life energy];
The three gave birth to the myriad creatures.
These myriad creatures, in turning away from the yin, embrace the yang;
Infusing themselves with breath (chi), they achieve harmony between yin and yang.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, trans. Nobel Ang (the letters in the square brackets are my own annotations)

Earlier today, I sat in on my colleague's Asian Philosophy class. He is covering Taoism this week. During class today, we were reading Arthur Waley's translation of the Tao Te Ching (TTC), and I couldn't help feeling that Waley's particular translation was too... verbose, and too... English.

This is just me, of course. Waley is a remarkable person who taught himself classical Chinese and classical Japanese while working at the British Museum in the early part of the last century. Using his self-taught knowledge of these languages, he then went on to translate a large number of Chinese and Japanese classics, including the Tao Te Ching.

But Waley never visited either China or Japan, and never learned modern Chinese or Japanese. Which may be why I couldn't help feeling that his translation had a certain detached scholarly tone to it; a tone which somehow failed to convey the vibrancy and flowing immediacy of the Chinese language, as it would be felt and understood by somebody who has a more immediate immersion in the culture.

Which is what prompted me to do my own translation of the above passage from the TTC. I actually know quite little about Chinese philosophy, and certainly have less scholarly depth in this area than Waley. But I feel that maybe, in my own small way, I can make up for the lack of scholarly background with a more immediate and intuitive love of the language and how it speaks to me. Hence my translation above.


But I didn't write this post just to talk about translation. The above passage is one of my favorite passages from the TTC, and I feel it to be very relevant to what I was talking about in my previous post. The light and dark sides of ourselves (yin and yang) exist in a symbiotic and mutually dependent relationship. We cannot fully experience one without experiencing the other. In turning away from the dark (yin), we embrace the light (yang). But in order to turn away from the dark, one has to first be in the dark. In order to embrace the light, one has to first embrace, and then turn away from the dark. There cannot be one without the other.

What's also interesting is that we harmonize the two by infusing ourselves with chi or breath or life energy. Chi, as many of us know, is pretty much the same thing as prana. And since the yoga practice is a process of infusing our lives with prana, this also means that the yoga practice is ultimately a practice of harmonizing the yin and the yang, a practice of getting in touch with and harmonizing our dark and light sides.

Isn't this interesting? But as I said, I'm no expert on these things. I'm just musing aloud here, because this is what a blog is for. If you have any thoughts, I'll love to hear them.      


  1. So glad to be enjoying what you write here again. I am don't know why this post prompted me to ask if you have read anything else by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). I just finished reading his new novel The Bone Clocks and am now in the middle of his first one: Ghostwritten. I hope you have opportunities to write here frequently.

    1. Great to hear from you. Sorry to hear about everything you have been going through lately; I am confident that everything that happens will turn you into a bigger and deeper and more compassionate person (which you already are, actually).

      But regarding your question: No, I have not read anything else by David Mitchell besides Cloud Atlas. Maybe I'll check out those works you mention in the near future.

    2. Thank you Nobel. My mom and law and I were good pals, plus she raised my sweetheart to be such a great person along with his 9 other siblings! Like those with HBO/Netfilx like to say: Winter is coming, I think his writing is ideal for time spent indoors.

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