The Mystery Of One, Two, And Three

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

A couple of days ago we were talking about being and non-being. I promised, then, that with today’s chapter we would look more into origins for a better understanding of the relationship between being and non-being. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins with the mystical One, Two and Three. So, let’s take a look at this and see if we can decipher what it is that he means.

I am looking first at where Lao Tzu says: “The Tao gives birth to One.” My initial gut take on this “One” is that he is speaking of the Tao. So, the Tao gives birth to the Tao. And, I immediately see why that is going to sound less than satisfactory. The Tao gives birth to itself? Can that be right? So, I delved deeper into Taoist philosophy. What Lao Tzu first put down in writing, Chuang Tzu, who came along a little later, expounded on. Here is a little snippet of what he has to say: “At the beginning, there is Nothing. No existence. No names. Where One rises up, there is One, but it doesn’t have a form yet.”

That is Chuang Tzu expounding on what Lao Tzu identified as the One. What is at the beginning? Nothing. The One rises up, but it doesn’t have any form yet. It is still nothing. That is more helpful than you may think at first. Because we have already been talking about being and non-being. And, we have already said that non-being is nothing.

So, the One is Nothing, or Non-Being. What Lao Tzu is saying, I think, is that non-being is one aspect of the Tao. The Tao gives birth to One. One aspect of the Tao is Non-Being. This is the way it was at the beginning. There was no existence, no being. No names. Just Nothing. But Nothing, Non-Being, rises up. That is the initial One. Formless and nameless. Still, it is the Tao.

Something Lao Tzu has already told us is that non-being gives birth to being. Non-being and being, in Chinese philosophy that is wu and yu. Now, we have two. One gives birth to Two. Non-being and being. Yin and yang. Still, this Two is One in unity. We are talking about two distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. It has both of those aspects working together simultaneously. There isn’t one without the other. What I mean by that is that as non-being rises up, it spontaneously creates being. I asked, a couple days ago, “What could precede existence, if not nothing, or non-existence?” But that word “precede” is a shadowy term. Words are very limiting. Before and after. These are words that only have meaning to us if we look down on them or back at them. They are still yin and yang. Simultaneous and spontaneous.

As if this look at the One and the Two wasn’t mysterious enough, now we have the Two giving birth to Three. This Three gave me a lot of trouble for quite awhile. I really had to delve into Chinese philosophy to understand what it is that Lao Tzu is referring to. The conclusion that I came to is that Lao Tzu is referring to a third aspect of the Tao. We have the first, which is wu. We have the second, that is yu. And, we understand, that is yin and yang. The third is chi. I have seen chi defined as energy. Or, the life force. And sometimes, breath, or spirit. I think all of those are helpful. The important thing to understand is that yin and yang combine, and like the splitting of an atom, produce chi. I still think of this as a simultaneous and spontaneous thing. And all three are merely aspects of the one Tao.

Now, we see how it is that the Tao gives birth to all things. The three, wu, yu and chi, do it. I hope you have found this both interesting and helpful. When I first decided to start posting these chapters daily, and adding my commentary to them, I didn’t really know whether I was ever going to be up to the task of deciphering some of these more mysterious chapters. But I have enjoyed the challenge and I always enjoy hearing from my followers how much they are enjoying my take on these things.

But we have only gotten through the first third of the chapter. What does Lao Tzu mean by the next lines? And what, if anything, does it have to do with what he has been saying so far? “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. When male and female combine all things achieve harmony.” Once again, we are having a reference to yin and yang. How is it that the life cycle continues? We can’t turn our backs on the feminine. And only deal with the masculine. We need to allow female and male to combine yin and yang, to achieve harmony.

And then we have these last lines: “Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole Universe.” Yesterday, we were talking about extraordinary and ordinary individuals. Actually, the translation used the words superior and average. But it means the same thing. What makes the Master extraordinary is his willingness to embrace his solitude, his aloneness. Let’s not forget how everything came into being. It starts with one. By embracing your oneness, you make real that you are one with the whole Universe. We are all one with the Tao. The Tao is nothing and everything. And in the Tao, we are nothing and everything. Ordinary people can’t tolerate being alone. They hate solitude. But, it is only in solitude that we come to realize that we are not alone. We are not separate beings. We only appear to be separate beings. We are all one with the Tao.

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