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Yin-Yang-Yuan Triality

Yin-Yang-Yuan Triality
Bob Jacobson – April 28, 2007 – 12:42am

I can tell you're a really interesting guy. And I can tell I'm going to enjoy your contributions to the site.

I'm unfamiliar with the Ying-Yang-Yuan Triality. Of course, I'm familiar with the "light and dark sides of the mountain" that support the Yin-Yang relationship. But this is new territory for me. Would you care to say something to illuminate my understanding of this symbol?

I'm glad you decided to join us! -john

John Francis Ca... – April 28, 2007 – 1:59pm


Thanks for your insightful question, which provoked me to investigate further the source of this lovely geometrical figure, which I found via Google Images and used to illustrate some personal mantras. I'll get to those presently.

First, here's the source of the figure, created by user "Paradox" and posted to Wikipedia Commons (a new discovery, Wikipedia's archive of images). Based on the description accompanying it, the triality was inspired by the illustrator's transgender identity -- not what I expected, and not my meaning. Like you, I see the triality as an elaboration on classical ying-yang duality, universally applied. "Triality" per se is a mathematical term whose use is beyond my ken, but as illustrated, the ying-yang-yuan triality is simply a three-way dynamic symmetry, as the ying-yang duality is a two-way dynamic symmetry.

So what's this "yuan" stuff? Does it genuinely have something to do with Taoism, or is it an invention out of Paradox's imagination?

I found the answer in Peter Kwok's erudite review of David Hinton's translation of the Tao Te Ching on Here's how Kwok, who awarded the translation five stars (tops), explains Hinton's invention of this use of the word, "yuan" (which, if you Google it, only comes up as China's unit of currency):

David Hinton is one of the very few translators who understands the subtlety of ancient Chinese and translates it well. The first sentence of the first paragraph of Tao Te Ching is usually translated as something like "[t]he Way that can be told is not the permanant Way". Such popular translation is often controversial because the Chinese word "way" was not used to mean "be told" until about 1000 years after Tao Te Ching was written. Hinton translated the same sentence as "[a] Way become Way isn't the perennial Way". How elegant! And what an accurate articulation of its philosophical meaning.

A couple sentences down in the same paragraph, Hinton wrote, "... in perennial being you see appearance". Again, the word that he translated as "apperance" is very tricky in Chinese. It originally means "covering by coiling" (or "winding around to block a view") and has mutated throughout history to refer to fences, alleys, and many other things that would totally obscure the meaning of the text. Most popular translations use the word "manifestation" in this context. This is not necessarily a bad choice because religion is, after all, subject to interpretations. But personally I think the emphasis here should not be on the indication of an existence, but should rather be on the ideal of seeing through the appearance of phenomena in order to attain an understanding that transcends experiences. I think Hinton chose a more appropriate word here.

Yet a few more sentences down, he coined a new word for one of the most fundamental concepts in Taoism: yuan. Yuan originally means black color with an yellowish undertone. Its also means "dark" and "mysterious" as in the sensation one gets while staring at an abyss. To describe such religious experience in Taoism, any translation of yuan needs to convey both meanings. Hinton calls it "dark-enigma" and not just "mystery" as in most popular translations. And I think he is both etymologically and philosophically right on the mark. [Emphasis added]

There are many other things that he did right. I have never read a translation that is so faithful to the original yet so wonderfully articulated. Highly recommended to casual readers as well as serious scholars.

Yuan as used in the triality is basically the Void, the Unseen, the Nothing-There in which the elements of ying and yang play out their constant drama. A more practical way of putting it is "the environment." When talking about the Tao, the environment is incomprehensible. But in our more mundane human experience of ying-yang, we can call that which surrounds the everyday, perceptible interplay and expression of ying-yang the environment and get away with it.

Ying-yang-yuan is simply a more accurate, holistic depiction of the relationship between Tao and human experience, properly portrayed as a triality.

Now, I didn't know any of this when I put the pretty picture on my profile. When I posted the triality figure, I was thinking more narrowly, as I stated earlier, of some personal mantras:

"Mission, location, relation" is a mantra that I have to keep repeating to avoid outcomes in my life less than desirable. This triality can be explained as get something to do, find a place to do it, and then build relationships that support your mission in that place (leading back to the mission). I've violated this mantra many times, usually in pursuit of desired relationships and found myself, as I was just before the present moment, in a relationship that's unsatisfactory, a place I don't want to be (geographically, spiritually, or both, as is now the case), doing something I don't want to do or doing nothing at all. Oh, the danger of romance! Fortunately, a longtime friend helped me to see this pattern of violations and I recently reoriented as the mantra dictates. Wouldn't you know it: my missions are well-defined, with real opportunities to realize them; I'm relocating to two places (commuting between them) where I've always wanted to be; and my future relationships, with a partner and in communities, I presume will be good ones, possibly lifelong if I don't stray from the path.

"Person, event, situation" is a second mantra that informs my scholarly and professional exploration of experience. I'm writing a book on the design of experience (DFE), an emerging design discipline, and crafting a DFE practice within a progressive marketing organization that I consider a very good laboratory for testing concepts through their application (i.e., doing science and creating theories for my own and others' use). In this mantra, a person is a carrier of experiences, past and present, who encounters an event -- in my practice, an event engendered by intention (i.e., designed) -- within a situation that can be local or global (i.e., an environment). This for me is the only way to concretize experience so that I, as a designer of experience, can work with it as a medium for change.

The third of my mantras illustrated by the triality very generally has to do with the type of relationship I hope to forge with a special quality of woman in my next emotional relationship -- and if I'm attentive to the mantra, one that will be lifelong, because it will be so uniquely satisfying for both of us. At the moment, this mantra feels a little too personal to share publicly, probably because I'm new to the I-Thou community. I don't want to create the wrong impression of who I am or whom I hope to partner with, and possibly scare off the very woman (if she's a member of I-Thou, or a guest) who might be the one. Perhaps I'll reveal this mantra as I gain the community's trust. What I can say is, I know what's worked in past loving relationships and what hasn't, and I'll be damned if I'm going to repeat a key error in partnering that this mantra, if I heed it, will prevent.

So there you have it, John. Triality, ying-yang-yuan, and the personal mantras that inspired me to post the figure. I hope you still find me interesting and not self-indulgent. One of my role models is William James, who regarded himself as his best (because most available and accessible) subject for understanding what it means to be human. Like him, I like to expose my internal workings as a case study-in-progress, and feel noble doing so. One of my best friends, however, likens me to Voltaire's Candide, who stumbled into situations that an outside observer would find simply weird. Candide, instead, found each one interesting and even edifying. That's life.

Bob Jacobson – April 28, 2007 – 10:45pm

I am surprised at how much you have said about who you are. Reading your response was a rich experience that I intend to repeat. For me, you are a man who has an almost tactile appreciation for the life you lead, like someone who runs their hand over fine material, and comes away with an intuitive understanding of its warp and woof. You are an empiricist, and yet you are someone who loves speculation. How apt is your choice of Professor James – a pragmatist and a theorist at once. I suspect that, like James, you are a foundational figure in your chosen discipline. And yet, there is a vitality in you that your work doesn’t smother…a life made of romance and playfulness and intellect. In our post-postmodern world of complexity, genetics, evolutionary theory, and 65 nanometer technology, you are a rarity - namely, someone who looks for the grand patterns in the life that you live, and someone who approaches that life as a unique and engaging experiment.

I predict that you will find kindred spirits among the people that you will encounter here. It takes intention and time to trust cyberspace. I know it did for me. Even places like The Well did not prepared me for the life of Web 2.0. And, honestly, if somebody had told me 6 months ago that I would register for a social networking Web site, I would have told them they were nuts. Meeting people like you, Bob, proves to me that entering this new community wasn’t a mistake.

We have been working to develop structures that will allow us to share our lives with the kind of transparency and safety that we learned to enjoy at Esalen. As you enter more intimately into relationships with us, perhaps you can help us to do that. I hope we prove worthy of your growing trust.

John Francis Ca... – April 29, 2007 – 12:36am


I'm curious. I can't say I've ever seen Romance and Danger used in the same sentence before. Do you care to elaborate? If not, it is certainly worth thinking about...

Secondly, who are the rabbis that have inspired you? I've got a few favorites myself.


Kristy Bliss – April 29, 2007 – 7:50am

That would be a better slogan for our currency than "In God We Trust," don't you think? John, I trust cyberspace. I've trusted it since 1975, when I participated in my first interactive Asteroids game, competing for the USC Annenberg School against CalTech and UCLA -- three of the then-existing four nodes of the ARPANET. (The other was SRI.)

Web 2.0? Well, I'm not sure it's an improvement on cyber-community. (Caveat: Having led for the last year a world-class virtual team creating a new Web 2.0 -- or 3.0 -- service based on collaboration, I realize this may be is a do-as-I say, not-as-I do reply.) The exponential growth of contacts and communications breeds a more cosmic consciousness of what's going on, globally, but being active in this huge and expanding bubble of being is difficult, not unlike solving the problem of global warming now that we know all about it. I understand that the stats show the GenY and GenZ kids are opting out of MySpace, Facebook, and even YouTube, etc., in favor of joining more focused, purposeful communities online. My faith in the younger generation is restored.

As for your comments about me -- hey, look in the mirror: you're a pretty cool dude yourself. Personally, I wish I'd put the qualities and capabilities you see in me to better use. I'm in my mid-50s. Reading about people who are two and three decades my juniors, doing amazing things in the world, breeds a certain envy. A life is composed by fortune and synchronicity as well as intention ("Timing's everything," and so is one's class) -- but their consciousness, self-awareness, and focused commitment is irresistible. I took too many random bounces, often leading with my heart. When I was a grad student, preparing for my field exam, lugging a pile of books around, my former boss at the UCLA Placement Center sarcastically told me I was a dilettante. I like "generalist" better, but to tell the truth, his reality is more practical: ours is not a generalist society anymore, as it may have been in the 19th Century, and being a generalist seldom earns notice, let alone kudos. So thanks for yours.

Many Esalen participants share this fetish. Being part of this community and reinvolving myself with Esalen is part of my effort to understand and more effectively use a generalist approach to life to greater advantage, personal and social. I'm pleased to be here and to accept your gracious offer of community and camaraderie, John. Really, it's an honor. I'll do what I can to help with the developments that are going on.

Bob Jacobson – April 29, 2007 – 12:56pm


Oh, I think you're being coy. Almost every great movie about romance -- Casablanca comes first to mind -- is about "danger and romance!" So is every Harlequin novel, or at least their covers. Here's the derivation of "romance" from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Romance: c.1300, "story of a hero's adventures," also (c.1330), "vernacular language of France" (as opposed to Latin), from O.Fr. romanz "verse narrative," originally an adverb, "in the vernacular language," from V.L. *romanice scribere "to write in a Romance language" (one developed from Latin instead of Frankish), from L. Romanicus "of or in the Roman style," from Romanus "Roman" (see Roman). The connecting notion is that medieval vernacular tales were usually about chivalric adventure. Literary sense extended by 1667 to "a love story." Extended 1612 to other modern languages derived from Latin (Spanish, Italian, etc.). Meaning "adventurous quality" first recorded 1801; that of "love affair, idealistic quality" is from 1916. The verb meaning "court as a lover" is from 1942.

Chivalric adventures sound pretty dangerous to me. A knight never knew what brigands, trolls, Saracens, Black Knights, dragons, or bewitched maidens he'd discover in pursuit of the Holy Grail -- but he sought out adventures to purify his soul and thus become worthy of receiving the Grail and eternal grace.

Today, even in the absence of a Holy Grail, most of us are still adventuring, to test ourselves. Our modern adventures, especially those of the heart, come with their own ambushes. But we really want grace. I guess that's why we ride to Jerusalem, too. Our romances lead us on. But sometimes we need to take a break and plan our moves, rather than rush to horse.

About my rabbis...

One of the two most important rabbis in my life has passed on: Mordecai Soloff, a great scholar and teacher (although he could be arch) central to the Reform tradition of scholarship in the 1950s-1970s. He guided me through bar mitzvah, confirmation, and post-confirmation -- and was disappointed when I admitted that his personal God didn't register with me, except as a fascinating figment of human imagination. I was no longer rabbi material. I once wrote Rabbi Soloff a personal note complaining about the charge that our temple, like most others, levied on non-members to attend High Holy Day ceremonies. My ulterior motive for this principled act: I wanted to bring my girlfriend. Rabbi Soloff wrote back, "Okay, bring her, for free." Little did I know that when he gave his sermon, he would use my letter to argue both sides of the issue. He even asked us to stand for the congregation's applause. I'd call him Confucian.

My other top rabbi is alive today (thank goodness), a youngster barely 30: Yossi Marcus, who leads Chabad in San Mateo. One of 10 incredibly accomplished children of another major Chabad rabbi and his wife, in Long Beach, Yossi is a great scholar and community leader-in-process. Each Wednesday, while I lived in San Mateo, with my friend Susan I attended Yossi's evening disputations on the Torah, the Talmud, and the Oral Tradition. As you might imagine, Yossi and I had some wonderful arguments in the Jewish tradition. He's ardent but fair and lots of fun. Also, Shabbat at his home with his gracious wife and kids, or one of the Jewish holiday events he organizes -- like the giant Menorah lighting in Burlingame each year -- are a kick. If you're in the neighborhood, check him out.

Bob Jacobson – April 29, 2007 – 1:32pm

Perhaps the lack of danger when considering romance is a female thing. I laughed when I read your description and definition. You are creative.

As for rabbis, I don't know either of the gentlemen you speak of. I grew up in Millbrae and trust me, there was no Chabad in San Mateo back in those days. There was no candlelighting in Burlingame either. Peninsula Temple Shalom in Burlingame was the only game in town with Rabbi Gerald Raiskin. It became more progressive later on but for anything other than ordinary reform services one had to venture to The City.

I studied with David Zeller, a self-proclaimed orthodox rabbi and reform jungian (or was it the other way around?). He taught me Kaballah. In Los Angeles we had a small Westside Congregation led by Michael Menitoff. There have definitely been some powerful influences on my sense of tradition over the years. I was headed to seminary after graduate school but was waylaid by marriage. Bad choice. Love my kids but becoming a rabbi would have been a life's dream.

I did my thesis on Jewish Women's Spirituality while living in LA. One day I will tell you my story about the Yeshiva.

Welcome aboard.


Kristy Bliss – April 29, 2007 – 5:54pm


I took a weekend course at Esalen in Kabbalah with one of Zeller's non-rabbincal colleagues, I think his last name was Cohen (appropriate). We did a meditative exploration of the 10 zephirim (is that grammatically correct?) that felt like it lasted 2 hours; in actuality, it lasted 25 minutes. Is that remarkable? I like Kabbalah, it reminds me of quantum physics. We Taoists are an earthy lot.

So do tell when you have the time.

My apologies for not being present for all of your testifying today. I had to babysit my partner's daughter impromptu, then hooked up my camera and...pop! I was disconnected. Albert has the Big House set to lock out latecomers, so I couldn't get back in. If you talk with the other participants, please extend my apologies. I don't remember all their names.

Nice to meet you, Mindy. You're a cool Esalenite.


Bob Jacobson – April 29, 2007 – 7:56pm

It makes sense for Jews to have a mystical option. Meditation fits into Judaic practice, I believe. I am grateful to have had David Zeller as a teacher. I studied with him for a year and learned a great deal.

As for the Big House, we take our Weather Reports seriously. It is important to have the time to commit to the meeting from beginning to end when possible. We dig deep personally and having chat going on or people popping in and out of meetings is less than optimal. It detracts from what we are trying to accomplish so as a group we asked Albert to close the door once the meeting is under way. Hopefully in the future you will be able to attend fully if this kind of process appeals to you. The potential for doing more exists with a trust base and an opportunity for consistency, confidentiality and safety within the space.


Kristy Bliss – April 29, 2007 – 8:12pm


We agree. Meditation is a large part of the Jewish experience, whether formal or just Buber's I-Thou. It's interesting to speculate on which of the hundreds of forms of meditation practiced today may have been practiced in ancient Canaan or Egypt, pre-Israel; or during the Middle Ages in Maimonides' Toledo; or in the Nazi death camps.

As for the Weather Report, I appreciate the need for protocol. I did not plan to be called to childcare duty. And when my client-side system crashed due to my turning on my camera, that was totally unexpected. A backdoor should exist for good-faith reentry. Had I been able to reenter, I would have participated uninterrupted for the duration of the Weather Report.

After 30 years of online experience, I take moments of online communion no less seriously than do you or the other participants in the Weather Report. In fact, I dearly wanted to partake of the circle of support, because my situation at this moment is more pointedly stressful than most others'. In the future, I will commit to remaining present throughout the event.

I will say this about online communications, however: as they depend on technological systems, from the power utility to the PC and the video camera -- all subject to failure -- and as online events that involve people around the world will unavoidably occur, in one place or another, while life is going on in the background, a certain amount of serendipity is to be expected. I-Thou's Big House is not the actual Big House. In the real one, the environment is locally controlled; online, it's not. Of course, if you can't commit to doing your best to stick around and be respectful, you shouldn't participate. But while no one should willfully diminish another's spiritual experience online (or off), things happen.

If you meet the Buddha on the Internet, pull the plug.

In the future, Mindy, I promise you and my fellow participants that commitment of which I spoke above.


Bob Jacobson – April 30, 2007 – 12:21am

My gosh Bob, your many years of experience online are true to my few. We have had all kinds of glitches and crashes in our Big House Weather Reports and all were managed with good humor and understanding. It will be lovely to have you joining the circle. I look forward to knowing you better especially as our tradition lends us some common touchstones. Now that you are on the Big House list, you should be able to re-enter without any kind of special arrangements. It will be great to have your video as well as audio. That is a pleasant "plus" for this experience.

Your comments about the use of meditation throughout the various eras of Judaic practice are food for thought. I had always thought of prayerfulness in those contexts to be more traditional, not meditative. The more I consider it though, the more it seems that the two are interchangeable. Obviously Buber had a handle on it. Frankl speaks of purpose as key to man's thirst for survival. It is hard to imagine there was meditation going on in concentration camps and I am sure that there must have been, now that you mention it. Our natural inclination to turn to God or the Great Spirit for inspiration and strength in crisis would be via prayer. Davening can be trance inducing. Shall we call this meditation as well?

Have you ever utilized Father Keatings Centering Prayer techniques? That is clearly a Christian form of meditation and quite powerful. I consider it generically applicable which I believe was Father Keating's intent. The Episcopalians I practiced with felt uncomfortable excluding prayers to Jesus in their meditation practice. My presence challenged that bit and I chose to bow out from the group rather than insist upon a non-sectarian approach to the practice. The pastor who led our group was quite comfortable with Fr. Keating's inclusive intent and welcomed me to the weekly meetings. The congregation felt otherwise. Folks can be very proprietary about religious practice and politics as we well know. It is often best to let it be.

I'm enjoying our conversation and look forward to more. Welcome Bob. By the way, you are in Santa Monica, aren't you? Is there still a Westside Congregation?


Kristy Bliss – April 30, 2007 – 7:19am


I learned meditative techniques from Jack Gariss, KPFK's "Chief Meditator," while still an undergrad. I was a volunteer at the station and every Sunday morning, I would find a private place to listen to his long discourses on the cosmos and meditation, including his efforts to use modern technology -- alpha-wave detectors -- to detect "good" meditation in practice. (He was amazed, by the way, that all of the students who visited his Meditory in his backyard, and who took his classes, were high alpha-wave producers. He couldn't tell, he said, if they were that way before they began meditation or afterward, but it only mattered intellectually.)

Four of his techniques that I grooved on, and still practice, are meditating while appreciating food (and then eating it); a meditative technique where one lies on one's back and imagines the tide slowly rising up one's body, inch by inch; walking meditation, what he called "the tiger's stalk"; and lastly, the one I like the best, meditation in action, being aware and awake while doing every little thing in one's waking hours. I was never one for quiet meditation or prayer. For me, being aware of my presence in the world, through motion and sensation, provides the best connection with the Tao and its many manifestations.

There is a Westside Congregation. It's Unitarian Universalist. I'm not aware of a Jewish Westside Congregation. However, a reform temple is active in east Santa Monica, near where Montana crosses into West LA. I almost got there during Purim, but Savanna had a bad cold and we had to cancel our planned costuming and festivities.

I'm looking forward a lot to reintegration with the Esalen community, on-campus and off. Esalen before was always a peripheral part of my experience, but I find myself drawn back to its essence and look forward sometime soon to puttering in the Garden. I'm looking forward also, Mindy, to continuing our conversation in the Weather Reports, at Esalen, and just taking a stroll. Thanks for your warm welcome.

Bob Jacobson – April 30, 2007 – 11:06am