Antony Cummins is the author of The Ultimate Art of War and many other books on Eastern martial culture. He is the founder of the Historical Ninjutsu Research Team, which has previously published The Book of Ninja and The Book of Samurai series (Watkins), and is spearheading a project to resurrect the authentic 17th-century samurai school Natori-Ryu. He has been recognized by peers as a leading expert in the discovery of military arts of medieval Japan.
Q: What inspired you to write The Ultimate Guide to Yinyang?
A: When I started my research into the samurai and shinobi of Japan, two issues became apparent. The first was that it is almost impossible to identify where Chinese and Japanese cultures separate—to identify which parts of Japanese culture are solely Japanese without Chinese influence. The second was the absolute saturation of samurai culture with yinyang. It is commonly understood that Japan inherited Buddhism and Confucianism from China, but what often remains unknown is the level in which Daoism founded yinyang. Time after time I read about yin and yang in samurai writings—in-yo in Japanese. One day, while working on another project, the number of yinyang references became so high that I closed the work I was doing, opened a new notebook, titled it “yinyang” and set to work understanding this Chinese idea. In fact, digging deep, I came to realize that very few people truly understood what yinyang was. Rarely did any book I read on the topic touch on historical yinyang, and the ones that did were high-end academic books. So, I decided it was time to write an easy, accessible introduction to this mysterious idea, opening the topic up to anyone interested in Chinese culture.
Q: Please explain the concept of yinyang.
A: Most people would say that yin and yang are opposites. But that is not the case, or at least it is only a partial truth. Yin and yang are two halves of the single idea of yinyang. In the simplest definition they are categories, not opposites. Dark might be the opposite of light and heat might the opposite of cold, but yin and yang are the categories which they fall into. Yin is not female, and yang is not male; they have no sex, yet a female is yin, and a male is yang because biological sex fits into either yin or yang—it is not the other way around.
Looking at the term historically, when the ancient Chinese started to label the world around them, they noticed a distinction between the areas of shadow and light. They looked at the landscape as a collection of contrasts—dark and light, high and low, sharp and smooth—and started to divide their world up into these two main sections. The sky was soon labelled as yang and the earth as yin. But yinyang is also used as a contrast. A glass of hot water is yang in comparison to a glass of warm water, which in this case is yin. But that same warm water becomes yang when ice water is the yin. In fact, both warm water and ice water can be yin when hot water is yang. However, when that same hot water is put next to a hot gas it becomes yin because it is cooler. The motion of the world is mapped in the same way. Through both categorization and contrast the ancient Chinese started to understand their world, and from there, the idea of yinyang exploded into a very complex system of metaphysics and philosophy. In simple terms, though, it remains rooted in this idea of category and contrast and is a way to understand not just the world, but also our position and meaning within it.
Q: What is chi and how does it relate to yinyang?
A: The question of what chi means rages on in the world—is it real, can we see it, can we measure it, where does it reside? To truly understand chi we have to look back to our creation story. According to yinyang theory, in the beginning there was nothing. Before the laws of physics were invented and the universe came into being, there was only potential—the possibility of the universe sprouting on the branch of divinity.
At some point, the potential of our universe gave way to the divine spark, whatever that is or was. No one knows. But as this first movement occurred, “friction”—for want of a better word—brought into life the first contrast, the first case of opposites: yang-chi and yin-chi. They began to move, mixing, separating, swirling and colliding. Yang-chi was bright and light while yin-chi became heavy and dense; yang radiated while yin condensed. The universe was born. There is no yin or yang without chi because they are forms of chi; they are the building blocks of the universe. From light waves to darkness, from a table to a computer, everything and anything is its own mixture of yin- and yang-chi. Each shape, each construct, each aspect of reality is a mixture, individual to itself, and when that life or object dies its essence is absorbed and its chi is reused. Chi and yinyang are part of the same story that moved creation into existence. Q: How is the human body divided into yin and yang? A: The first step is to stop viewing yin and yang as static, rigid categories that the body can be divided into. The body is divided into yin and yang, but likewise it is not. Context and contrast are the key.
A tree above ground is yang but its roots are yin; the trunk of the tree is yang while the branches yin; the branches are yang to the yin of the leaves; the top of the leaf is yang while the bottom of the leaf is yin. Each time we look in a different way, the position of yin and yang moves. You will find tables and charts about that which is yin and that which is yang, and these are correct, but always remember that yin and yang change depending on your perspective.
Life is in movement and so is yinyang. Come away from the static idea and instead see yin and yang in the human body as different states and contrasts. As illness progresses and humans move, so does yin and yang. It is the job of the TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner to observe and track the changes of yinyang across the body as an illness develops or subsides.
Q: What is the principle of yinyang in TCM?
A: The body originates out of potential. You and I didn’t exist at one time and in the future we will not exist again. In essence, we are living through borrowed yin- and yang-chi. We are made from our individual collection of yinyang-chi and within our life, we have chi that powers us.
There are thus only four basic states we can be in if we are ill:
1. We have too much yang
2. We have too much yin
3. We do not have enough yang
4. We do not have enough yin
Having too much of one type is different from not having enough of the other. A practitioner of TCM is always on one simple quest: to identify the imbalance of yin and yang chi in the body. Everything else stems from this problem. As the human body was cosmically created as a mix of both yin and yang, it is their task to find out what has upset this balance.
Q: In a TCM consultation, what steps does a practitioner take when observing a patient? What issues can be identified from the visual examination?
A: I am not the best person to answer this question since my connection to TCM is solely through the story of yinyang. So if I may, I will explain about yinyang and the aspect of kyojitsu that will help any TMC practitioner when they are observing their patients. Kyojitsu is the Japanese word to describe the Chinese concept of insubstantial and substantial. Sun Tzu’s Art of War has a whole chapter dedicated to this idea. There are four ways in which any situation can present itself. I’ve shown them below using an analogy of a castle and warfare.
1. If the walls appear strong and are strong then they are as they seem (substantial)
2. If the walls appear weak and are weak then they do not function as walls at all and will not defend those inside (insubstantial)
3. If the walls are weak but are made to look strong to deter the enemy from attacking, then this is a case of the insubstantial being shown as substantial
4. If the walls are strong but they are made to look weak so that the enemy attack the incorrect place this is something substantial being made to look insubstantial
These four possibilities are the same in medicine. Sometimes the problem might be that yang is out of balance, or that yin is out of balance. This is the easiest problem to identify and solve medically because, like a castle with openly strong walls or obviously weak walls, the situation is exactly as it seems. However, symptoms may present themselves as a problem with yin when the problem actually lies with yang. For example, the body may have pumped out too much yin or yin may have become imbalanced because the body is trying to fight the yang. This could also be the reverse, where there seems to be a yang problem, but those symptoms are because the body is trying to compensate with yin. So, when you approach a patient, you have to ask yourself: “I know the body is out of balance somewhere within yin and yang, but is this a yin or a yang problem beyond what I can actually observe?” Like the castle walls, the illness may be just as it seems, but also like deception in war, the illness might be the opposite of what you can read from its symptoms. So watch out.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Yinyang theory is not just connected to TCM; it is, in fact, the opposite. TCM is an offshoot of the story of yinyang. Almost all original Chinese culture—outside of Indian Buddhism—has been influenced by yinyang. Even cities are named with yinyang in mind, especially urbanization along rivers, where yin and yang are used to identify the light and shady banks of a river (which in this case is the opposite to the norm, as north is bright and south is dark—this is due to the way the sunlight falls on the sloping banks). Beyond this basic use of yinyang in China, there are topics which ascend into the religious and the spiritual. Yin and yang are products of the Way, the Dao. In essence yin and yang are the material components of the divine Way; they are the building blocks of the universe. This means that to follow the Way you have to start at the path of yinyang theory. Your first steps to both medical ability and unity with the Dao start with one foot in yang and the other foot in yin, and by following them first, you will end up at the correct juncture to turn on to the path of the sage. I started my exploration into yinyang as an answer to an academic question, but it opened up a whole new world to me and a new way of thinking.