The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.
All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.
Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is certainly shrouded in mystery. What is the One, the Two, and the Three?
First off, there is a whole lot of giving birth going on. The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. And, so on and so forth. What is this One, Two, and Three, and what does them giving birth to each other have to do with anything? Well, remember that Lao Tzu has already said, and on more than one occasion, the Tao is the great Mother, giving birth to all things. So, the One, Two, and Three are all very much related to the Tao. I think calling them each aspects of the Tao is probably right thinking on this.
Now, I reserve the right to be completely wrong in my interpretation of this mystery. I am relying mostly on Stephen Mitchell’s translation, and considering what Lao Tzu has been saying all along for the purpose of context. I don’t claim to be fluent in the original Chinese text. But, I have consulted enough interpretations to be relatively confident that my interpretation isn’t far from the mark. So, I have that going for me.
One thing to be noted is that in each case, the One, the Two, and the Three are all followed by a verb phrase (gives birth) that makes the subject singular. In other words, neither Two, nor Three, refer to more than one. The first stanza could read, The Tao gives birth to the First. The First gives birth to the Second. The Second gives birth to the Third. The Third gives birth to all things. But I don’t know whether changing the cardinal numbers into ordinal numbers helps, or only confuses things more.
I don’t mean to confuse anyone. But I do have my own interpretation of what the One, Two, and Three are.
One refers to non-being. Two refers to being. And, Three refers to Chi. Non-being and being we have talked about before. It was just a couple chapters ago that Lao Tzu said, “All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. That makes me pretty confident that non-being and being are good interpretations for the One and the Two. Chi is something altogether different though. We haven’t talked about it before. In Chinese medicine, Chi is a reference to the life-force that flows through all beings. The Tao, itself, flows through all beings, so Chi is just another name for, or aspect of, the Tao.
An alternate interpretation would be, One refers to the Tao. So, the Tao gives birth to itself, first. Then the Two refer to both non-being and being, yin and yang. And the three would be the addition of chi with non-being and being. That takes care of the first stanza.
The second stanza is about the relationship of all things with yin and yang. The second stanza directly relates to a question I posed, yesterday, in my commentary: Where is the balance? All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. If Lao Tzu seems to be over-emphasizing yin, perhaps, it is because there already is such an over-emphasis on yang. The first line of this stanza confirms it. All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. Yin is being ignored in this picture. If harmony is to be achieved, male and female are going to have to combine. Then, there will be balance.
Okay, now that we have covered the first stanza, which talked about the three; and the second stanza, which talked about the two; all that is left is to talk about the third stanza, which talks about the one.
In my commentary on chapter 38, I asked the question, “Why would I want to be ordinary?” In that chapter, Lao Tzu had compared the Master with an ordinary man. Today, he returns to talking about ordinary men; saying, they hate solitude. But, the Master makes use of it. Instead of hating solitude, the Master embraces his aloneness. It is in solitude, in aloneness, he realizes he is one with the whole Universe.
There is my takeaway from today’s chapter. If I don’t want to be merely ordinary, if I want to be like the Master, I need to embrace my aloneness and realize I am one with the whole Universe.