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)
Can We Yet Realize This Mystery?
Today’s chapter is shrouded in mystery, but maybe we can spend a little bit of time unraveling the mystery. For that I am relying on research I have been making for as long as I have been reading through this work. But, I am reluctant to share this, simply because I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on ancient Chinese cosmology. I am certainly not offering what I would consider the one and only explanation on what Lao Tzu is trying to convey with today’s chapter. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will encourage you to do your own research, come to your own conclusions. If anyone out there has any questions or comments, I am happy to be in dialog with you about this.
What is this mysterious One, and Two, and Three? Mystery is a good place to start. Remembering back to chapter one, Lao Tzu talked about the mystery of the Tao, which we can only realize upon being free from desire. So long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations. But, and this is important, both the mystery and the manifestations arise from the same source, called darkness.
The first line in today’s chapter, “The Tao gives birth to One” could well be translated, “The Tao gives birth to the Tao (or itself).” But, I would prefer to say that the mystery of the Tao gives birth to the manifestation of the Tao. That is One.
“One gives birth to Two.” Another translation says “the one divided into the two”. Either way, that is yin and yang, how the Tao is manifest.
“Two gives birth to Three” or, as another translation says it, “the two became three.” This third, according to multiple sources I found, is “Chi” the life force which flows through all things, in Chinese cosmology.
The Three, yin, yang, and chi, give birth to all things.
Okay, not so bad. It seems a reasonable enough explanation. But what about this next stanza?
All things, the all things the Three gave birth to, have their backs to the female (yin) and stand facing the male (yang). But, it is when male and female (yang and yin) combine, that all things achieve harmony.
Once again, this seems reasonable enough to explain things. Lao Tzu has been talking about the dualistic nature of things, and our problems with it, since chapter two. You can’t just have one without the other. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be harmony.
The third stanza seems somehow out of place. I have read from various sources, that this part of the chapter actually belongs after chapter thirty-nine. But, I don’t want to start cutting and pasting. Let’s just leave it right where it is and let it stand alone.
The merely ordinary, hate solitude.
Here, we may need to understand better what Lao Tzu means by ordinary and solitude. We all may sometimes wish to be left alone, but that isn’t what Lao Tzu means. Solitude means a state of aloneness. A state in which you don’t just feel alone, you are alone. There is no one else, nothing else. Just you, one, with the universe. That terrifies the merely ordinary. Darkness within darkness. No sound, except your own breathing, your own heart beating. But the Master makes use of it, embraces it. Being one with the whole universe, the process only begins again, the One becomes Two, the Two becomes Three, the Three give birth to all things.