Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
This chapter consists of two parts, which have so little to do with one another that they were surely not originally intended to be combined. The first part deals with the creation of the world, and the second with commendable attitudes in human life.
There have been many theories about what Lao Tzu might mean with the one, two, three, in the first few lines. One should normally be Tao, the Way. So, did it give birth to itself? Well, it sort of did, since it has no other creator. Tao emerged, which is a kind of birth, and ignited the creation of the whole world.
The two would normally be yin and yang, the classical Chinese duo behind all polarities in the world – such as light and dark, high and low, male and female, and so on. Lao Tzu has stated earlier that he regards the emergence of yin and yang as belonging to the creation of the world. So, this may very well be what he implies here.
What three were born out of the two is much more difficult to ascertain. Heaven and Earth would have appeared early in any creation story of ancient China, as well as in most other cultures, but what might the third be?
Some say man, others say ch'i (also spelled qi), the vital breath. Man is more likely to be included among all things, appearing later, so the vital breath would be more likely here. The lines that follow do indeed support an early appearance of the vital breath.
Maybe the line should be read: "Two gave birth to the third." The Chinese wording of the text allows for this reading. It would need to mean that ch'i emerged out of yin and yang. This is actually similar to the Chinese tradition on the matter.
Still, I'm not convinced that Lao Tzu intended for these lines to be interpreted that literally. Maybe he was only suggesting that as soon as Tao broke up the original unity, which might be called chaos, then things started to appear, one after the other, in no particular order. Soon, there were ten thousand things, the Chinese expression for all things. He found no need to specify the exact order of appearance.
What he says about the behavior of all things is much more significant and precise. They carry yin and embrace yang. This is an elemental yin and yang principle. Both exist in everything, although sometimes in unbalanced proportions. Earth is the very signature of yin, and the same goes for Heaven and yang. Everything in between the two should be mixtures of yin and yang.
All things then reach harmony by blending with the vital breath, the life energy ch'i. Without it they would not remain and not have the ability to move or change. They would not be alive. About the vital breath, see chapter 10. It's also mentioned in chapter 55.
Still today, it's easy to reveal bad leaders, because they are almost always the ones most eager to be praised. That simply means they strive for personal gain. Usually, they don't seek just fame, but also fortune, increased power, and on and on.
The paradox of gain leading to loss is not only true for ruling, but for any endeavor. Aiming too high is bound to cause failure. Greed is costly, pride is shameful. In business, you can't get profit without investment. Personal relations don't last without compromise. Life is diluted if you only struggle to prolong it.
Moderation in all things is the most likely to succeed.
Here, too, moderation is to recommend. Lao Tzu repeats that we should avoid any extremes. Although he rarely makes moral judgments on people's life choices, he does confess that he is repelled by brutality, and by the search for personal gain gone wild.
He will come back to it in other chapters, but already here he is quite clear about it. Don't rock the boat, especially not for personal gain. Nature is rich enough to support us all in abundance, if there are not some who forcefully claim much more than their share.
Still, that's far from unknown to us.