The Nameless and the Named

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A friend recently asked me a question about two lines in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. It reads:

The Nameless is the origin of the universe.

The Named is the mother of myriad things.

What does that mean? This is my interpretation:

Elsewhere, in Chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching also says that “The Tao gives rise to One; One gives rise to Two; Two gives rise to Three; Three gives rise to the myriad things.”

It is the same idea. In the beginning is unity or oneness. But if there were only this Primordial One, then there cannot be any activity or change. One Hindu myth says that in the beginning, God was all by himself. He was bored because he had no one to play with. For this reason, he split himself into two. This means the arising of duality and polarities. In this sense, God created duality for his own entertainment. We can relate this to the Bible story of creation too. In Genesis, Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can be understood as this fundamental split. Without the split, we will still be living in the primordial soup of unawareness.

The yin-yang symbol can be seen as a symbol for duality. The masculine and the feminine are polarities. Goodness and evil are polarities. Light and darkness are polarities. Even more basically, subject and object are polarities. Without this fundamental split, nothing will happen. In fact, nothing will be perceived and there cannot be consciousness. In order to have consciousness, there has to be subject and object.

Once duality is formed, things will multiply. The progression from two to three to the myriad things is a natural progression. From duality, we get multiplicity. The universe is born. The Hindus see this as the beginning of “lila”(divine play). In fact, in order for the divine play to happen, God has to perform an act of self-forgetting. The multiplicity of things have to forget that they are all from the same one God. They have to forget their divine nature. All the fun in the universe and the colorful unfolding of human history hinges on our forgetting that we are God.

Today’s Western theologians talk about our illusion of separateness. This illusion of separateness accounts for our inability to have universal love. In Vedic literature, this illusion is called “maya.” Due to maya, we are not aware that we are God. But such illusion is necessary for the world to go round and round. When we look at the yin-yang symbol, it looks as if the yin and yang keep running into each other. It is the interplay of yin and yang that keeps the world in motion. That is another way to express divine play.

Let us return now to the Nameless and the Named. In the beginning was the Nameless One. That was before the formation of duality. That was the Primordial Oneness, the undifferentiated Whole. But once the One split into Two, then there is subject and object. Consciousness is then possible. From consciousness comes differentiation. From this point onward, things can be identified and named. Hence, the Named is the mother of myriad things.

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