Yin and Yang refer to the two opposite but complementary forces exercised by all things in the universe. From the previous articles, it is clear that Yin and Yang are already implied by the concept of Vital Breath. The Vital Breath of Oneness circulates; the Infinite is the Supreme Ultimate; the movement and stillness of the Supreme Ultimate give birth to Yin and Yang, which in turn generate the motions and changes of everything in the universe. The Five Agents are categories referring to the fundamental ingredients of the universe. They are named after wood, fire, earth, metal and water, but do not simply refer to these five concrete substances. Rather, they represent a basic framework or mental model by which all phenomena can be classified into five types. The Five Agents are the basic ingredients of the universe.
Yin-Yang is intrinsic to the universe
The source of Yang is Dao. The Laozi states that Dao gave birth to the primordial organic unity, from which are derived the two opposite forces, which interpenetrate each other, giving birth to the myriad beings. The backside of all beings is Yin while their front side is Yang; the Vital Breaths of Yin and Yang cross-penetrate until they reach a harmonious state. (<<Dao generates One, One generates Two, Two generates Three, Three generates the myriad beings. The myriad beings turn their backs to Yin and embrace Yang. The Vital Breaths neutralize each other, creating harmony.>>) The generation of Yin and Yang by Dao creates the most fundamental forces of the universe, which are both in opposition and in unity. These Vital Breaths are both mutually opposite and mutually generating. At the same time, they are intrinsic to every thing. Ying-Yang’s unity in opposition expresses itself in countless ways. Speaking of the human species, there are male and female; the human person has a spiritual (yang) and a material (yin) dimension; Spirit can also be divided into Yin Spirit and Yang Spirit; and the same goes for Vital Breaths. As for Heaven and Earth, Heaven is Yang and Earth is Yin; mountains are Yang and waters are Yin, etc. Mountains, water, grass, wood, earth, stones, ghosts, spirits, and so on all contain Yin and Yang aspects.
The rich meaning of the Five Agents
The Five Agents are a fundamental classification system for all things. The relationships between the Five Agents represent the basic relationships between all things. The Five Agents are wood, fire, earth, metal and water, each having manifold meanings, which it would be impossible to fully enumerate. Below, we shall give a brief list of those most commonly used in Daoist religious practice and scriptures:
Five Agents: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water
Five Directions: East, South, Centre, West, North
Five Colors: Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black
Five Flavors: Sour, Bitter, Sweet, Acrid, Salty
Five Planets: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury
Five Viscera: Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lung, Kidney
Mutual generation and mutual control of the Five Agents
The relationships between the Five Agents are characterized by mutual generation and mutual control. Mutual generation means that each Agent gives birth to another Agent according to a specific order. The order of mutual generation is an endless cycle. Mutual control means that each Agent restricts another Agent according to a different order. The cycle of control is also an endless one: each controlling Agent is also under the control of another Agent in a different situation. The order of mutual generation is as follows:
Wood generates Fire; Fire generates Earth; Earth generates Metal; Metal generates Water; Water generates Wood.
The order of mutual control is as follows:
Wood overcomes Earth; Earth overcomes Water; Water overcomes Fire; Fire overcomes Metal; Metal overcomes Wood.
If the Five Agents are enumerated in the order of Wood-Fire-Earth-Metal-Water, then in the cycle of mutual generation each Agent generates the next Agent down the list; while in the cycle of control each Agent overcomes the second Agent down the list.
Yin-Yang and the Five Agents are mutually related conceptual systems. The relationship between Yin-Yang and the Five Agents is discussed in article 188.8.131.52, in relation to the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate. The Supreme Ultimate gives birth to Yin and Yang, which, through their intercourse and transformations, give birth to the Five Agents. This process is described in detail in the chapter ‘On Yin-Yang and the Five Agents’ in the scripture Seven Slips of a Cloudy Satchel. The author of this text says that Yin-Yang develops from the ‘Younger’ to the ‘Elder’ (In the Science of Changes, Yin-Yang is divided into Elder Yang, Elder Yin, Younger Yang and Younger Yin), and generates the Five Agents. The Younger Yang generates Wood; the Elder Yang generates Fire; the Younger Yin generates Metal; and the Elder Yin generates Water. Yin and Yang interpenetrate harmoniously, forming a husband-and-wife couple. The Agent ‘Earth’ is not mentioned, because it is not restricted to a single place. Rather, it harmoniously interpenetrates with the other Four Agents. Yin-Yang generates the Five Agents, each of which, in turn, has Yin and Yang aspects. For example, the Agent Fire is expressed in man as his Spirit, which can be divided into Yin Spirit and Yang Spirit, and hence Yin Fire and Yang Fire. Earth expresses itself as man’s consciousness. But consciousness can be divided into correct knowledge and confused thoughts. Correct knowledge is Original Spirit, and is also called the male (Yang) Earth, while the confused thoughts are called female (Yin) Earth. The latter must be eliminated; therefore one must undergo the process of Self-Refinement.
When Daoists practice Breathing Arts and apply Magic Arts, they always follow the principles of Yin-Yang and of the Five Agents. This type of application is integrated into the concrete methods of Refining Skills and Practicing Arts.
Author: Liu Zhongyu
Translator: David Palmer
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)