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)
Of all the chapters which delve into the mystery of the Tao, none are as mysterious as today’s chapter. What is this mysterious One to which the Tao gives birth? What is the Two? And, the Three? Is this some esoteric mystery that only a select few can know? Or, is it something that his initial readers would have immediately understood, but my westernized mind does not? I have even entertained the notion that Lao Tzu intends for it to be a mystery. But, only for a moment. Lao Tzu seems to want us to understand the mystery, as best as we can. I decided, some time ago that I needed help. I read through many different translations. I consulted quite a few commentaries. I never was satisfied. Finally, I decided that Lao Tzu was speaking plainly. This was just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. All the other pieces would help me to understand it, if I could just figure out how they all fit together. Eventually, I consulted the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on.
This is what Chuang Tzu had to say on the mysterious One. “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 helped me. Because that pointed me back to what Lao Tzu has been saying all along about non-being. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. It is not yet manifest, what it will be. I think the only way to describe it is to call it the non-manifestation of the Tao. It is a mystery.
And every creation story seems to start out with nothing. I don’t know how satisfying it is, but I am going with identifying the One as non-being, or nothing. The initial action of the Tao, then, is to give birth to nothing. What an inauspicious beginning! Why not light? No, we start out with nothing.
That makes things a whole lot easier, actually. Since Lao Tzu has already told us that non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang all over it. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being and being. That would be Wu and Yu in Chinese philosophy. What we have here is two very distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. And these aspects rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. Yes, I know we see the One rise up first. Giving precedes receiving; but only for an instant. Until what is given is received, nothing has been given. They work in concert together. That is why it is also correct to say that being gives birth to non-being. This is how yin and yang work. Spontaneous, and almost simultaneous.
Now that we have non-being and being, yin and yang, what is this mysterious Three? To answer that, I had to delve a little deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of flux, a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the motivating force that puts them into motion? This mystery Three is a third aspect of the Tao. The first being, wu. The second being, yu. The third is chi. I have seen chi defined as energy. Or, the life force. And, sometimes, as breath, or spirit. I think all of these are helpful. The Two, wu and yu, yin and yang, combine. And, like the splitting of an atom, produce chi. Once again, I see this as something that happens both spontaneously, and almost simultaneously. All three are merely aspects of the Tao.
The Tao gives birth to itself, in all its aspects. This can be more easily understood and accepted, once we understand and accept that the Tao is everything. I spent a great deal of time demystifying just the first third of today’s chapter. But all of that is necessary if we are to understand the next two-thirds. Once we have that, we can understand how the Three gives birth to all things.
All things stand with their back to the female and face the male. What an interesting position in which to find ourselves. Where is the balance, the harmony? The chi moves all things, so that male and female combine. And then, harmony is achieved.
So, why is it that ordinary men hate solitude? Yesterday, we were talking about extraordinary and ordinary individuals. Actually, the words we used were superior and average. But, they mean the same thing. It takes an extraordinary person to so value solitude, that you embrace your aloneness, and know how to make use of it. Let’s not forget how everything came into being. It started with One. Just One. Nothing, really. Embrace your oneness with the Tao, and with the whole Universe. We are all one with the Tao. The Tao is nothing, and everything. And, in the Tao, we are both nothing and everything. Ordinary people can’t tolerate being alone. They hate solitude. But, the Master understands. It is only in solitude that we come to realize that we are not alone. We are not separate. We only appear to be separate. We are all One with the Tao.