What Does the Yin-Yang Symbol Mean?

Yin-Yang Symbol

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The most well-known of Taoist visual symbols is the Yin-Yang, also known as the Taiji symbol. The image consists of a circle divided into two teardrop-shaped halves—one white and the other black. Within each half is contained a smaller circle of the opposite color. 

The Yin-Yang Symbol and Taoist Cosmology

In terms of Taoist cosmology, the circle represents Tao—the undifferentiated unity out of which all existence arises. The black and white halves within the circle represent Yin-qi and Yang-qi—the primordial feminine and masculine energies whose interplay gives birth to the manifest world: to the Five Elements and Ten-Thousand Things.​

Yin and Yang Are Co-Arising and Interdependent

The curves and circles of the Yin-Yang symbol imply a kaleidoscope-like movement. This implied movement represents how Yin and Yang are mutually-arising, interdependent, and continuously transforming, one into the other. One could not exist without the other, for each contains the essence of the other. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Birth becomes death, and death becomes birth. Friends become enemies, and enemies become friends. As Taoism teaches, such is the nature of everything in the relative world.

Heads and Tails

Here's another way of looking at the Yin-Yang symbol: The black and white halves are similar to the two sides of a coin. They are different and distinct, yet one could not exist without the other. The circle itself, which contains these two halves, is like the metal (silver, gold, or copper) of the coin. The metal of the coin represents the Tao—what the two sides have in common and what makes them "the same."

When we flip a coin, we will always get either heads or tails, one answer or the other. In terms of the essence of the coin (the metal upon which the heads and tails symbols are imprinted), the answer will always be the same.

Smaller Circles Within the Larger Circle

Significantly, the Yin-Yang contains smaller circles nested within each half of the symbol to serve as a constant reminder of the interdependent nature of the black/white opposites. It reminds the Taoist practitioner that all of relative existence is in constant flux and change. And while the creation of pairs-of-opposites would seem to be an aspect of our human software, we can maintain a relaxed attitude around this, knowing that each side always contains the other, as night contains day, or as a mother contains the infant that she will give birth to in time.​

The Identity of Relative and Absolute

We see this same idea illustrated in this passage from Shih-tou's poem:

Within light there is darkness,
but do not try to understand that darkness.
Within darkness there is light,
but do not look for that light.
Light and darkness are a pair,
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.
Each thing has its own intrinsic value
and is related to everything else in function and position.
Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute works together with the relative,
like two arrows meeting in mid-air.

Existence and Non-Existence in the Yin-Yang Symbol

Existence and non-existence is a polarity which we can understand in the way suggested by the Yin-Yang symbol, as mutually-arising and interdependent opposites which are in constant motion, transforming one into the other. The things of the world are appearing and dissolving continuously, as the elements of which they are composed go through their birth-and-death cycles.

In Taoism, the appearance of “things" is considered to be Yin, and their resolution back into their more subtle ("no-thing") components is considered to be Yang. To understand the transit from "thing" to "no-thing" is to access a profound level of wisdom.