Meaning of Taoism

Taoism and Nature

Simple observation of nature shows us an abundant display of forces in opposition. It is difficult to find more convincing examples of dual­ity than those offered by the natural world. Winter and summer, spring and fall, life and death, hard and soft, high and low tide are all signs that clearly point to the hidden processes of nature.

Even if we cannot actually see duality and opposition as fundamental forces, our observations reveal their dramatic consequences. We see that beyond any doubt the yang and the yin, far from being simply abstract concepts, actually represent a dynamic force central to both the animate and inanimate worlds. As the myth of Pan Ku tells us, this universe and everything in it is created, through the grace of the organizing principle, from the interaction of the forces of the yang and the yin.


With deeper study it becomes apparent that, as part of nature, human beings are subject to these basic laws as well. In each of our lives there is a steady rhythmic swing, and we continuously move from one pole to the other. Like a pendulum in its inexorable movement from side to side, the central events in our lives come and go and then return again. Just as certainly as the tide rises and falls, the vigor of youth will turn to the weakness of age. We also know that all things pass; in time, sorrow fades, making room for joy. Ignorance, with effort and persistence, can be transformed into wisdom.

The forces at play in the world take from the one side and give to the other. As we observe the endless ebb and flow of the tides, the constant cycle of day and night, and the movement through life from youth to old age, life displays for us the world and all of its interactions in terms of these relationships.

Understanding this basic concept, we can search out clues to help us to make accurate judgments about ourselves and others, about relationships, and about possibilities and limitations. The sign of health and prosperity, for example, is a well-balanced life. In a similar way, the sign of wisdom is the ability to balance both the pleasures and demands of life. There is a wise saying, "you cannot take blood from a stone," which suggests that before every attempt, it would be advantageous to consider the inherent limitations of every act as well as its possibilities.

Tai Chi: Symbol of The Great Ultimate

This theme of opposing forces became particularly important in Taoist thought, where it is represented in symbolic form. The illustration on the facing page depicts the creation myth just described. Pan Ku is shown holding an egg-shaped shield representing the universe before creation. Engraved on the shield is a symbol often used in Taoism. It is that of the Tai Chi, The Great Ultimate, which represents the primal, creative forces of yin and yang in a state of perfect balance. The forces are represented by the black (yin) and the white (yang) halves. But the line that separates the two halves is not straight.

Instead, it is curved, symbolizing the potential for dynamic interaction between the polarized forces. In the center of each half is a small, empty circle. In the dark half, the circle is light, and in the light half, it is dark. These small dots denote the seeds of change impregnating the wombs. Mastering these forces, the giant is able to create the world and everything in it. Symbolically, Pan Ku represents the giant in each of us who is capable of mastering the powerful, natural forces of which we are made.

Learn more about Taoist symbols on the next page.

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