Thursday, August 16, 2012

Yin and yan - the farmer and the runaway horse

Taoist yin yan symbol

Long ago in China a farmer’s only horse ran away. The neighbours commiserated with him: “What terrible news about your horse. What will you do?” But the all the farmer said was, “Bad news, good news … who knows?”

A few days later, the animal returned together with a wild horse it had befriended. The neighbours exclaimed: “What wonderful news!” The farmer replied, “Good news, bad news … who knows?”

The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride the new horse, which threw him, breaking his leg. The neighbours said: “What a misfortune! Your son won’t be able to work on the farm.” The farmer replied, “Bad news, good news … who knows?”

The following week the emperor’s soldiers arrived in the village, and conscripted all able bodied young men to fight in the army.  But the farmer’s son was no use to them with his broken leg, so they let him go.

“How lucky for you and your son” said the neighbours.  “Good news, bad news … who knows?” said the farmer.

According to Taoists, being useful may be good, but being useless is good too. This Taoist parable shows how easily such opposites may change places.

A Taoist website explains: yan and yin, light and shadow, useful and useless are all different aspects of the whole, and if we choose one side and block out the other, we upset nature's balance. No single concept or value can be considered absolute or superior. If we are to be whole and follow the way of nature, we must take the hard path of embracing opposites.

For more, try this 45-minute radio programme about Taoism: it's an episode of BBC’s In Our Time. Listen to the episode and find the blurb and studio guests here.  Or to download it as an mp3 file, search for Daoism (with a D) on this page.

Or try this Australian programme. The Philosopher’s Zone, presented by the recently deceased Alan Saunders, interviewing two Chinese academics.

We learn that Taoism first appeared more than two thousand years ago, and for centuries was China’s most popular religion. Based on a book whose author is not known and whose title does not easily translate into English. The goal is to follow the Tao, a word which roughly translates as “The Way”, following life in its natural flow. Taoism has exchanged ideas with Buddhism, and is closely related to the religion of the Chinese imperial court, Confucianism, but has also at times conflicted with it.

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