12/24/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Winter Solstice: A Confucian View

Here in Colorado its that time of the year again: shorter days, longer nights. It may not be so obvious in its physical appearance in a world dominated by technology to address our every need and convenience -- after all, we are able to keep much of the darkness and cold at arm's length in the comfort of the world we have built. Yet the progression of Nature this time of year is steadily toward less and less light.

I am reminded of this progression by adjusting my solar panels on our mountain retreat to their near vertical position -- to capture as much of the diminishing light as possible with the now lower horizon line and fewer hours per day of sunlight. Writing from an off-grid setting miles up a dirt road at 9,000 feet in the Central Rockies of Colorado, I fill more hours of each day with "chopping wood and carrying water," as the Ch'an/Zen phrase would have it. And what a joy it is, kerosene lamps bringing light into steadily increasing hours of darkness each eve.

And then the nadir of light is reached -- that point at which light is closest to extinction and darkness pervades: Winter Solstice.

Religions worldwide, ancient and modern, have sought to address this point of greatest darknness be it by great bonfires burning through the longest night, decoration with greens or the burning of candles as reminders of the persistence of light, even "in the darkest hour."

Light will prevail, our traditions tell us, darkness will recede and even in the stony stillness of winter, life will flourish again. So we have the foundational metaphor of light and the particular meaning in this moment of the nadir of light, followed as it always is by its gradual increase.

The question before us is how Winter Solstice is viewed and interpreted in an even larger setting. Where world religions are often seen to incorporate the metaphor of darkness and light, little has been considered of a Confucian view of darkness and light or the nadir of light at Winter Solstice.

And, as the proverbial question would have it, what would Confucius say?

The answer, as one might expect, is that Confucius himself, like many religious founders, has little to say about a great variety of subjects. And Winter Solstice is certainly one of those! That does not exclude the topic from discussion in the later Confucian tradition, however, and one finds profound reflections upon the metaphors of light and dark as foundational to much of East Asian thought.

The most basic structure of such thought is found is the well-known symbol of Yin/Yang, a symbol ubiquitous to East Asian history and cultures. The Chinese characters contain the essential meaning of light and dark as ever changing phases of the coursing of all things, Nature and humanity alike. The totality of this changing and transforming universe is what generally is referred to as the Tao, the Way.

yin yangThe motion of yin/yang is a circular one -- more a spiraling one -- ever changing between one phase and the other. As yin fulfills itself, inherent within it are the seeds of yang, and visa versa. All changes occur within the goodness of the nature of Nature, for there is no evil in the cosmology, most certainly not in darkness any more than light.

The major source for the philosophy of yin/yang is the Chinese Classic the I-Ching, "Book of Changes." Within the "Book of Changes" much of the philosophical speculations concerning yin/yang is found in the commentary hsi-tz'u chuan, "Great Treatise." It was often to this source that Confucians -- Chinese, Koreans and Japanese -- turned to understand the cosmology of yin/yang theory.

So, how does yin/yang theory connect to Winter Solstice?

To answer this question I turn to the writings of Okada Takehiko, a contemporary Japanese Confucian; and one of his books I translated a number of years ago, "Zazen to Seiza" (Buddhist and Confucian Meditation) (See R. L. Taylor, The Confucian Way of Contemplation, 1988).

This teaching focuses upon the "storing of wisdom," chih-ts'ang, a phrase the Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi (1130-1200) found in the "Great Treatise" of the "Book of Changes." The source of this teaching for Chu Hsi begins with the fundamental Confucian teaching of the Four Beginnings, ssu-tuan, of the moral nature of each person -- goodness, righteousness, propriety and wisdom. Chu Hsi and a lineage of teachers direct to Okada himself extend such "beginnings" to the nature of the universe and interpret wisdom, chih, as the endpoint and fulfillment of such teachings.

And here is the connection to Winter Solstice. When those same Four Beginnings are placed in the context of the four seasons, wisdom, chih, corresponds to winter.

The metaphor is profound: Wisdom for these Confucians is the endpoint of the Four Beginnings and it is best understood within the context of winter.

In Okada's own words:

"Stored wisdom is boundless and empty, but in it there is included all existence. It is the totality of principle with no distinguishing characteristics, and within it there is a vigorous activity. Therefore it is the unity of existence and activity. In terms of the four seasons it is the moment of midnight of the winter solstice, and it corresponds to the point of time when quietude is completely exhausted and subtle function is about to begin moving." (Okada, Zazen to seiza in Taylor, Confucian Way of Contemplation, p.148)

There are many technical points of later Confucian metaphysics in this passage, but what should be very clear is the degree to which Winter Solstice holds meaning as a profound metaphor for the acquisition of wisdom within the Confucian tradition.

And so, as we come once again to that shortest day and deepest night, consider the ways in which humankind has sought to find meaning, profound meaning, in the cycling of light and dark, the yin and yang of cosmic process, with the Confucian recognition of wisdom as that which is more often than not seen as "through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).