Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Yin and the Yang...

In my Eastern Religion and Philosophy course (the one I'm doing my Blogging Buddhism project for, which should be done this weekend), we've been discussing Taoism this week. On Monday, we discussed the yin-yang, which is a very interesting concept. Essentially, there are diametric dualities in the world (light and dark, male and female, hot and cold, etc) but none of them exist independently of each other. More importantly, none of them are purely one thing. They are dependent upon each other and circle around to meet each other through the natural Tao of things. This is just the concept as far as I understand it, which obviously isn't that sophisticated for only having studied it for less than a week.

In class, I asked the question about whether or not these terms are value laden. Is one side inherently good and the other bad? Is anything inherently good or bad in Taoism? I believe that the answer is "no," and I think there are some evidences to support that.

Firstly, there is the old Taoist story of the farmer who's horse ran away. "His neighbor commiserated, only to be told, 'Who knows what's good or bad?' It was true, for the next day the horse returned, bringing with it a drove of wild horses it had befriended. The neighbor reappeared, this time with congratulations for the windfall. He received the same response: 'Who knows what is good or bad?' Again this proved true, for the next day the farmer's son tried to mount one of the wild horses and fell, breaking his leg. More commiserations from the neighbor, which elicited the question: 'Who knows what is good or bad?' And for a fourth time the farmer's point prevailed, for the following day soldiers came by commandeering for the army, and the son was exempted because of his injury." I quoted Houston Smith's version of the story there because I knew I couldn't have put it better.

Who knows what is good or bad? I think that the Taoist approach is very existentialist in that it is up to the person experiencing to decide whether something is good or bad, and ultimately "good" and "bad" circle around to meet each other. There is nothing that is purely good and nothing purely bad. Everything is part of a process.

This was all fine with me until my friend Max (a solid utilitarian) said to me, "What about suffering?" I have to admit that I was a bit caught off guard. Is suffering value neutral? I tend to think that it is not a good thing on its own, but that's just the thing. Nothing is ever on its own. Everything is part of something else and fits into a context. Perhaps suffering seems bad at the time, but in the end who knows what is good or bad? What looks like a broken leg today could turn out to be a ticket out of the draft tomorrow.

Is Max right? Is suffering inherently evil? Is everything value neutral? I think that detachment and wu-wei certainly play a role here, but I suppose that is another post for another day.

Now playing: Phil Keaggy - O Come O Come Emmanuel
via FoxyTunes


Anonymous said...

This topic is pretty interesting for me. As I read about the interrelatedness of everything in terms of yin and yang, I keep thinking "yeah, this is really intuitive." I feel that it's intuitiveness is genuine, but then I look at my own life and I see myself applying a lot of these ideas, whereas a lot of other people don't seem to. I wonder if that may be because I've been a casual enthusiast of eastern tradition since an early age, so some of the core teaching has begun to become natural? It's an interesting question for me.

To respond to your question, I agree with you that suffering seems to be relative. The poignancy of the farmer's story says it better than I ever could.

It also makes me think about you and I talked about, though. yin and yang are representative of good and evil, hard and soft, male and female, etc. However, I think those are just examples used to convey the truth behind the symbol of yin yang, and shouldn't be correlated with each other (lest we assume, for example, that one gender be associated with "good" and the other "evil"... yeesh). Also, I wonder is "good" and "evil" carry different, much more value-neutral connotations in eastern society, given their spiritual history?

Paul said...

Good and bad, as you describe in the story of the horse, are relative terms. In Buddhism these are categorized is what are known as the vicissitudes or the eight mundane concerns:

• Gain and loss
• Praise and blame
• Fame and disrepute
• Joy and sorrow

These fit neatly into the discussion of yin and yang and are part of everyone's life. Each one is a form of suffering. Gain, for example, inevitably leads to loss. The challenge is to avoid being blown about by them.

You ask if suffering is evil. I don't think evil is the right word here, at least in the way I think of the word. Suffering is just suffering and is a condition of life.

Much suffering in life can be avoided, but life itself inevitably leads to old age, sickness and death.

And I agree - detachment plays a big role in mitigating suffering.

rob g. winger said...

i wouldn't say max is wrong--i've seen some suffering that is really evil, where no good comes from it. think of children who are just born at the wrong time in the wrong place--how could their suffering produce anything good?

however, i know that as a human being, i learn much more in times of brokeness and suffering than when everything is going well. as the old poem goes:

"i walked a mile with pleasure-she chattered all the way, leaving me none the wiser with all she had to say.
"i walked a mile with sorrow-never a word said she, but oh, the things i learned from her, when sorrow walked with me."


Manyul Im said...

Interesting question. "Suffering," in the sense that your friend Max (if you are named "Max" are you destined to be a consequentialist?) intends, is a value-loaded term already, so the question of whether it is evil or bad sounds like asking whether injustice is bad. There's the neutral sense of suffering--"being the recipient of some action"--but that's clearly not what any utilitarian means. There's also the neutral, different term "pain." I think if you ask whether pain is *inherently* evil or bad, the answer is less obvious, isn't it?