UNDERSTANDING EASTERN PHILOSOPHY

Ray Billington

Routledge, London, 1997


Although there is much to learn from this introductory study, readers seeking enlightment about that old favourite, yin and yang, may be left none the wiser. Or perhaps they will, if they begin to be less accommodating to this popular notion.

I think we can take it that Billington assents to this doctrine, judging by this passage (my italics):

"within the yang is the kernel of the yin, and vice versa. This truth can be exemplified in nature: as winter moves into the darkness of yin, simultaneously the yang forces are preparing for the summer." (p.111)

So where does this all start?

"T'ai-chi [is] the ground of being from which all else arises. It is the primal manifestation of the Tao, which cannot be named. T'ai-chi in its turn produces the two original energies of yin and yang." (p.107)

However:

"The Tao [according to the I Ching] arises from the interaction of yin and yang: so the unknowable, unnameable is manifested through these twin agents." (p.108)

So the first quote seems to make Tao more fundamental than T'ai-chi, in that the latter is but a manifestation of the former. Whichever is prior, one of them, T'ai-chi, produces yin and yang. But then the second quote has the Tao arising from the interaction of yin and yang. No doubt circles are sacred, in some way.

Here's some more clarity:

"We could say that, in Taoist terms, when the yang is in the ascendant, yang-like qualities will be required; and when the yin is in the ascendant, yin-like qualities (or, to make the matter more confusing, yin may be needed in a yang situation, and yang in a yin). Whichever is required, a person will, if behaving naturally, act accordingly." (p.158)

Now you know. Noting, in passing, the circular definition lurking in that final sentence, let's see the power of this philosophy in practice. Discussing Confucianism's notions of kindness and propriety, Billington writes:

"They may be described as the yin and yang of relationships, in the sense that each, while apparently poles apart (like justice and mercy), needs to be tempered by the other." (p.120)

Why would we need to say that justice and mercy are poles apart? Obviously they are distinct values, and there can be conflicts between values, but clearly a punishment may be both just and merciful. The yin/yang routine flops again when Billington suggests that,

"we know we are alive only because we have once been dead." (p.112)

Although I inevitably will be dead one day, I have not been dead yet at all. A spurious polarity has been concocted here, oblivious of a third category, viz. the inanimate. Things can be living, dead, or never-living. We can contrast life with inanimate matter like rocks and so on. While we're on the subject, let us note this strange expression:

"each of us will experience the act of dying, although not death itself." (p.113)

The act of dying? Surely only suicide would qualify. People die in their sleep, after all.

The old yin/yang routine also produces this winner:

"Nobody conversant with the yin and the yang will express surprise at the violence in the USA after witnessing the enormous steaks consumed there on a daily basis." (p.113)

Finally, on this subject, a clanger in the time-honoured style of invoking bits and bobs from physics:

"as Fritjof Capra explains in the Tao of Physics, from studying the physical world we learn that all matter contains positive and negative charges, protons and neutrons; and this dichotomy epitomises the yang and the yin." (p.109)

Yes, I'm afraid it does, given that it is uselessly inept. Unfortunately for Billington's polarities, there are things without any charge, and they are called neutrons (guess why). The poor old electron got squeezed out of the picture.

Let's at least end on a bright note, and highlight a bit where the author is usefully critical:

"If we seek a hint of the equality of the sexes in the Buddhist way, we seek in vain. Buddha himself was reportedly opposed to the creation of an order of nuns on the grounds that they would create moral disorder. Whether as a consequence of this fear, or as a reflection on later developments in Buddhism generally, the number of nuns, compared with monks, has always been extemely small, and their orders have played only a minor role in comparison with other monks. The ordination of nuns has to be repeated in the presence of monks, punishments are stricter and more numerous, and nuns, no matter how much older they may be than their male counterparts, must treat all monks with deference and never reprimand them. On the rights of women, it seems, Buddhism has little to teach other cultures." (p.70)


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