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)
This mysterious chapter used to catch me by surprise as I journeyed through the Tao Te Ching. My early attempts at trying to demystify it were, to be generous with myself, a little less than adequate. But after several cycles through the Tao Te Ching, and a lot of research, I finally feel like I have a passing understanding of what it is that Lao Tzu is saying. I was determined; and that helped. I consulted multiple translations, including the original. I looked into the writings of the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on. But simply getting familiar with the whole of the Tao Te Ching, has helped me the most. Context rules! What was this mysterious One to which the Tao gave birth? What was the Two? And, the Three? Was this some esoteric mystery that only a select few could know? Was it something that his immediate readers would readily understand, but my westernized mind could not? Here are some things that I needed to remind myself of. Lao Tzu isn’t writing to confuse us. He is writing to enlighten us. He wants us to understand the mystery of the Tao, as best we can.
So, let’s look at the context first. This isn’t a few isolated words. We have the whole of his writings before us. When I begin to think of the Tao as the Source, as the great Mother, who gives birth to all things, I have a starting point. Then, I consider what Lao Tzu said about the Tao just a couple chapters ago. All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being. We are talking about giving birth. First the Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. And, Three gives birth to all things. And I keep reminding myself that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. The One, the Two, and the Three must be very much related to the Tao. So far, so good.
Now, let’s look at how Chuang Tzu expands on what Lao Tzu has said. “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.” When I read that, a light bulb went on in my head. That got me thinking about being and non-being as aspects of the Tao. And it especially got me thinking of non-being, that pesky nothingness, that is the key to everything. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. I think of it as pre-manifestation of the Tao. It isn’t yet manifest. It is the Tao as mystery. Being is so much easier to understand. Being is the Tao manifest. Non-being gives birth to it. Out of nothing comes something!
And interestingly, every Creation myth, I am familiar with, seems to start out with nothing. And, so we get back to today’s chapter where the Tao gives birth to One. Chuang Tzu identifies that One as Nothing. Non-being seems to fit. It seems a rather inauspicious beginning, but the initial action of the Tao is to give birth to nothing, non-being. Other creation myths start out with the nothing and then add light. But Lao Tzu takes us back to the birth of nothing. It would be an even less auspicious start if we didn’t already know that that nothing, non-being, is what gives birth to being. No wonder we had to start with nothing. Nothing but the Tao, that is.
Understanding what the One must be, helps us to understand what the Two is. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang written 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 of the Tao rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. The One rises up first, yes; just like giving precedes receiving. But until what is given has been received nothing has been given. So, almost simultaneously, we have being being birthed by non-being. This is how yin and yang work.
Now that we have the Two, yin and yang, what is the Three that gives birth to all things. I said earlier that we have to remember that it is the Tao that gives birth to all things. When Lao Tzu talks of being and non-being he is talking about the Tao. So, too, when he is talking about the Three. But we need something more than just to say that the Tao gives birth to the Tao over and over again. To understand the mysterious Three I had to delve a little bit deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the prime mover? What initiates the motion? Obviously it is the Tao; but we have been describing different aspects of the Tao. First, there is Wu, non-being. Second, there is Yu, being. And third, there is Chi.
Chi could be translated as energy. Or, the life force. I have also seen it described as breath or spirit. All of these are helpful for understanding what Chi is. Chi is what gets the ball rolling, so to speak. It puts everything into motion. The Two, Wu and Yu, being and non-being, combine; and, like the splitting of an atom, they give birth to Chi. Once again, I would say that this is both spontaneous and almost simultaneous. I don’t think it is really helpful to try and think of the passage of time between the Tao giving birth to non-being, non-being giving birth to being, and non-being and being giving birth to Chi. They are all aspects of the Tao. And together they make a big bang.
In all respects, the Tao gives birth to itself. That is the beginning. That is the beginning of all things. It is your beginning. It is my beginning. The Three give birth to all things. And that brings us to the next part of today’s chapter. All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. Say what? It helps to remember yin and yang here. Lao Tzu is actually saying what he just said in reverse order. He starts out with all things. Why do they have their backs to the female? Female, we know is yin. But the back is yin, too. I only recently came to understand this. They stand facing the male. We know male is yang. And the front is also yang. Yin facing yin and yang facing yang. That isn’t going to work. Thankfully, Chi, gets things turned around where male and female, yin and yang combine to achieve harmony.
And, we are back to the solitary One. Lao Tzu says, ordinary men hate solitude; but the Master makes use of it. We don’t want to be merely ordinary. We need to embrace our aloneness. We need to realize the power of One. We need to realize that we are one with the whole Universe.