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Taoism as ''The Way'': Yin and Yang & the Wu-wei Concept

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  • 0:01 Background
  • 1:05 First Principle
  • 1:53 Yin-Yang
  • 3:49 Wu Wei
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on several tenets of Taoism. It will explore the First Principle, the yin-yang classification, and the wu wei concept. It will also highlight the Tao Te Ching as one of the most prominent Taoist texts.

Background of Taoism

Today's lesson will focus on three of the most important Taoist tenets. They are the First Principle, the yin-yang classification, and the wu wei concept. However, before we get to these very Eastern concepts, let's first take a look at Taoism itself. Spelled also as Daoism, Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-Tzu that stresses living simply and honestly and in harmony with nature. Due to its focus on harmony and the proper way to live, Taoism is often referred to as simply the Way.

However, because there is very little historical evidence to support exactly when and how Taoism, or the Way, was founded, much of the information and even the beliefs of Taoism are a bit up for grabs. In other words, there are varying definitions for many of the Taoist terms. With this in mind, we'll try to keep today's lesson as general as possible, sticking to the most agreed upon definition for our three terms. Now, onto our tenets.

First Principle

For sake of ease, and in deference to its name, we'll start with the First Principle. Sometimes translated as 'Oneness,' the First Principle simply states that everything in nature is all part of the same whole. With this in mind, it's easy to see why we in the West have taken to defining Taoism as a philosophy that teaches harmony with nature.

However, the First Principle goes far beyond our Western paradigm of one with nature. We tend to think of camping or recycling as being one with nature. However, this doesn't even come close to Taoism's idea of Oneness. To Taoists, we humans are nature. We are intricately linked to it and created by it through a sort of existential and ever-unchanging cosmic force.

Yin-Yang

Adding to the First Principle, Taoism also teaches the yin-yang concept, or classification. Due to its uber-popular black and white circular symbol, many of us are already a bit familiar with the concepts of the yin and the yang. However, I'm guessing most of us couldn't link it to Taoism. To remedy this, let's get to its real definition.

In Taoism, the yin-yang classification suggests the idea that opposites are needed in order for harmony to exist. To put it simply, we all need balance in our lives. To explain this further, let's take a closer look at the yin-yang symbol. As we do, notice that the black and white portions of the symbol are equal to one another. The black doesn't get more space than the white. The white doesn't get more space than the black. They are equally important. Yes, they are opposites, but they are both equal and needed.

Yin Yang Black and White Symbol
Yin Yang

To explain this in more Western terms, many scholars choose to use the analogy of day and night. Yes, day and night are seen as opposites, just as are black and white, but both are extremely necessary for the survival of the world. For instance, without day, there would be no light to grow our natural world and all the world would starve. In the same manner, without dark there would be no rest from the beating sun and all the world would sort of wilt away.

Fortunately for us, and fitting very nicely with the concept of the yin and the yang, the opposites dark and light exist together in a perfect balance that keeps our world nicely humming along. In the same way, we as humans should seek balance in our own lives. We should not lean toward extremes, nor should we live a life of avoidance. We should be moderate in our approach. To put it in Western terms, too much of even a good thing, is a bad thing! Life takes both sugar and spice!

Wu Wei

This brings us to our last Taoism tenet of the day, the wu wei concept. Found all throughout the Taoist texts, known as the Tao Te Ching, wu wei is often considered the most important of all the Taoist beliefs. Unfortunately for those of us in the West, it's also seen as one of the hardest to understand. Often translated as 'non-action,' wu wei is the idea that one should never overreact or over-plan in any situation. It's the idea that all actions should come naturally, that we should be spontaneous and loose, just taking life as it comes to us, doing only what is necessary in the moment.

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