Polarization, Recursion, and Transcendence in Daoism and Tantra



By Leonardo Gonzalez



      The Yin-Yang symbol presents some of the most fundamental concepts in Daoist and Tantric logic, philosophy, and spirituality. The most prominent concept is polarization: the division and union of two halves. Each half can in turn be polarized, giving some insight into recursion and forming the base for synthesis. The Yin-Yang is not a symbol of dualism but a statement of transcendence into monism, a snapshot of change.

      The most obvious concept presented by the Yin-Yang is the polarization and union of two halves. This sets up a framework with which the world can be seen as the interplay between two forces:

In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), and their conventional signs are respectively — and - - . The ideograms indicate the sunny and shady sides of a hill, fou, and they are associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland (Watts 21).

Thus it is shown that everything has its counterpart; one half of anything is meaningless without the other. There is an active and passive element to every principle, as can be experienced with sight and sound. Seeing only pure light and hearing only constant sound serve us no better than being blind or deaf. It is the darkness from which we discern the light, the silence from which arise the sounds, that allow us to give those sensory experiences their shape and meaning.

      The two poles are seen as lovers, coexisting in harmony and depending on each other. This contrasts greatly with the traditional views of righteous dualism that seeks to embrace all light and banish all darkness, setting the forces against each other and making a battle out of life. It is clear from an objective viewpoint that anything that is good for one is evil for another. This is why Daoists put themselves in accord with the cyclic nature of the world instead of seeking to linearly advance it.

      There is a striking parallel of thought in Tantric philosophy. Swami Rama explains:

According to this ancient philosophy, the entire universe is a manifestation of pure consciousness. In manifesting the universe, this pure consciousness seems to become divided into two poles or aspects, neither of which can exist without the other. One aspect retains a static quality and remains identified with unmanifest consciousness. In Tantra this quality is called Shiva, and is conceptualized as masculine… The other part of this polarity is a dynamic, energetic, or creative aspect that is called Shakti, the great mother of the universe, for it is from her that all is born (Rama 27).

Kundalini, the latent consciousness of Shakti, manifests itself by transforming into energy. This energy of consciousness regulates our metabolism, working mostly at the unconscious level. Gaining awareness and control of this energy allows us to understand and guide the forces that drive us. The aim in Tantric yoga is not to cast kundalini in a mysterious light, but to study it scientifically and guide its experience systematically.

      Although all Tantric scriptures share the fundamental polarity of Shiva and Shakti, they are divided into three groups: kaula, mishra, and samaya. The kaula group is concerned with meditation on kundalini at the base of the spine (Muladhara chakra), resulting in a practical doctrine governed by primal forces and confined to the gross physical level. The mishra group raises consciousness to the emotional level, transforming lust into love and compassion. They seek to elevate the manifest energy from the base of the spine to Anahata, the heart chakra. The evolved group of samaya aspire to direct kundalini to the Sahasrara chakra, the lotus of one thousand petals at the crown of the head, achieving full realization though a cosmic junction of consciousness. Shakti and Shiva are reunited, and the transcendental realm is entered (Ajaya 101).

      Male-female union at various levels is an important element in Tantric principles. In sexual union, the man and woman are seen as embodiments of Shiva and Shakti. Their union is at the cosmic level, not just the physical. It is the spiritual culmination of the deepest instinctual drive: the procreation of life.More emphasis is placed, however, on an internal union of male and female principles within oneself to achieve the sexually balanced state of the androgyne. Coming to terms with the male and the female within oneself, feeling the father and the mother, is what lies at the root of androgynous Tantric and Daoist idealism. Through androgyny, it is possible to return to the non-dualistic state that existed before "the fall" of paradise common to numerous religions. Alex Wayman describes the process of the return:

When the fire-nature is changed into a love nature, this brings the fire-tincture (proper to the male) back into the Paradise where there was the division into fire-tincture and light-tincture… In order to recombine the two tinctures, the power of the light must also eat of the water. This restores the ‘love desire’ of the original androgyne… (Wayman 620).

      Such are the paths to Paradise: one through the fire-tincture of the male, and another through the light-tincture of the female. After reaching Paradise, the two tinctures must be combined to recreate the immortal embryonic androgyne.This immersion in paradise comprises of non-duality; desire and fear are transcended so that there is only bliss. Emphasis is placed on learning the cause of the downfall so as to avoid the androgyne’s tendency to fall back to lower states. This is characterized by the yogic principle of inheriting a guru’s virtues but not his faults. Thus the return to the source is not a regression but an evolution of consciousness.

      Upon exploring the apparent duality the Yin-Yang initially portrays, we find that it is recursive in nature and thus not absolute. Each separate half seems to be polarized into two aspects, as are those in turn. The key here is that each polarization, Yin and Yang, has in its heart the seed of the other. We can find no absolute purity in either. At the root of Yin’s existence is Yang; at the root of Yang’s is Yin. If the two poles are not absolute, neither can their seeds in each other be. This is how we can arrive at an introspective recursion: seeing the Yin within the Yang within the Yin, etc., and vice-versa. An alchemical version of the Yin-Yang symbol clearly illustrates:

"Yin Yang: The oriental symbol of the Laws of Polarity and Synthesis."
Bonewits, P.E.I. Real Magic.(Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1958) 94.

      Recursion is also used for the purpose of synthesis, using yin and yang as the basic building blocks of the universe. The legendary Laozi is said to have poetized the essence of Daoism in the ancient book of the Dao de Jing. Chapter forty-two captures the essence of polarity and synthesis:

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces...

      In this conception of creation we start at the most abstract level, the unintelligible Dao, from which cosmic unity arises. This "One" is polarized into the two forces, yin and yang. The interplay between the two forces is the third element, which is what gives birth to the "ten thousand things" that represent all objects of existence. Cengzi reinforces further:

One yin and one yang is called the Tao. The passionate union of yin and yang and the copulation of husband and wife is the eternal pattern of the universe. If heaven and earth did not mingle, whence would everything receive life? (Forke 68).

      The I Ching, or Book of Changes, dates back 5,000 years and is reputed to be the oldest book in existence. The wisdom in this book is centered around yin and yang, raising the polarity to the sixth exponential level to obtain sixty-four hexagrams. A deceivingly simple duality, transformed through exponential recursion, yields a complex system of organization and manipulation of the unconscious. There is also a case of recursion in Tantric ideology. First there is the unmanifest/manifest duality of consciousness, Shiva and Shakti. Within the static consciousness of Shiva, we find the power to be balancing the inability to become. Shakti spawns yet another duality by concealing the pure consciousness she was manifested from, creating an illusion of separation between consciousness and its manifestations. Her manifest energy, in turn, is separated into the static energy (untapped potential) and the dynamic energy (that which facilitates our conscious and unconscious body processes).

      Instead of delving into the depths of differentiation, it is possible to take a step back and integrate everything. As Alan Watts put it, "The yin-yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity" (26). The unity between the two poles gives rise to a greater appreciation of the One, of the transcendental state. The Yin-Yang symbol servers as a snapshot of change, a glimpse into transcendence.In order to comprehend the all-encompassing nature of Oneness, a duality must be proposed and transcended. The transcendental state is such that in our normal way of reasoning it cannot be defined. It is more effective to show what it is not (a duality) so that one may transcend beyond that and experience it first-hand.

      Paradoxes abound in Daoist scripture and in the Daoist-influenced form of Buddhism that came to be known as Zen. These were meant to illustrate a condition based not upon logical illumination, but transcendental transformation. The following passage from chapter thirty-eight of the Dao de Jing is a good example of what seems illogical at first glance, yet rings with a truth that lies deeper within:

A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.

      In a world where change is the norm, the essence one is often trying to grasp is
transient in nature. By stilling the mind, one finds harmony with the subtle flow of
nature. In the state of eternal tranquillity, one has the momentum of the universe. This
is the ultimate existential paradox; nothing is done and nothing is left undone.
Fundamental embrace is achieved through apparent detachment. Clearly stated in
chapter six of the Dao de Jing:

The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

      The Dao could be described as having no attribute, name, or tangibility.. but because these negations are in themselves attributes, not even this statement can be made in absolute. Hence the first sentence in the Dao de Jing: "The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao." From chapter fourteen of the Dao de Jing:

Look, it cannot be seen — it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard — it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held — it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Therefore they are joined in one…

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

      Tantra also pursues transcendence, through a unity of the personal consciousness with the cosmic consciousness. The transcendental experience is paralleled with universal consciousness. Sir John Woodroffe comments:

When Kundalini Shakti sleeps in the Muladhara, man is awake to the world; when she awakes to unite, and does unite, with the supreme static Consciousness which is Shiva, then consciousness is asleep to the world and is one with the Light of all things" (White 33).

This view is analogous to the Daoist embrace through detachment. The Muladhara refers to the first chakra, which associates with our primal drives and physical level of action. Kundalini energy lies dormant at the base of the spine in our normal state of functioning. Once this latent energy is guided upwards and united with the cosmic consciousness of the universe, one has tapped into an infinite reservoir of energy and feels connected to all. The macrocosm is united and reconciled with the microcosm.The sixth chakra or energy center, √jnacakra, is symbolized with two petals; the seventh culminating center that transcends into superconsciousness, Sahasrara, is symbolized with one thousand. √jnacakra, being the "third eye", appears to examine the duality of its two petals. Sahasrara, facilitating cosmic consciousness and the union of Shakti and Shiva, possesses one thousand petals that parallel the "ten thousand things." But whereas the ten thousand things represent the vast material manifestations, the infinitely-expanding lotus petals of Sahasrara are in the transcendental realm of consciousness.

      The fundamental ideas behind Daoism and Tantra are eloquently illustrated by the deceivingly simple Yin-Yang. The wholeness of the universe is polarized into two forces, whose interplay is the base of existence itself. Further examination reveals complexities in the system as recursion eliminates the absolute nature of duality. Transcendence is attained through the union of the two forces whose separation was not absolute in the first place. There is a very cyclical feel to this: there is creation, involution, evolution, and finally a return to the source.


Works Cited

Ajaya, Swami. "Kundalini and the Tantric Tradition." Kundalini: Evolution and Enlightenment. Ed. John White.St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1990. 98-105.

Colegrave, Sukie. The Spirit of the Valley: Androgyny and Chinese Thought. London: Virago, 1979.

Forke, Alfred. The World-Conception of the Chinese. London: Arthur Probsthain & Co., 1925.

Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Rama, Swami. "The Awakening of Kundalini." Kundalini: Evolution and Enlightenment. Ed. John White.St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1990. 27-47.

Watts, Allan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.

Wayman, Alex. "Male, Female, and Androgyne: per Buddhist Tantra, Jacob Boehme, and the Greek and Taoist Mysteries" Tantric and Taoist Studies in Hounour of R.A. Stein.
Ed. Michel Strickmann. Vol. 2
Bruxelles, Belgium: Institut Belge Des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, 1983. 592-631. 2 vols.


Additional Sources

The I Ching or Book of Changes. Trans. Richard Wilhelm. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979

Dasgupta, Shashi Bhushan. An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1974.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation; or, The Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Govinda, Anagarika Brahmacari. Creative Meditation and Multi-dimensional Consciousness. Wheaton: Theosophical Pub. House, 1976.
—. The Inner Structure of the I Ching, the Book of Transformations. Tokyo; New York: Weatherill, 1981.

Merton, Thomas. The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Murphy, Joseph. Secrets of the I Ching. New York: Tower Publications, 1970.

Peacock, James L. Consciousness and Change; Symbolic Anthropology in Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Wiley, 1975.

Rawson, Philip. The Art of Tantra. Greenwich, CN: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973.

Wei, Tat. An exposition of the I-Ching, or Book of Changes. Hong Kong: Dai Nippon, 1977

Zhuangzi. Inner Chapters. Trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.