Zen for Couples: 'Not One, Not Two'

When walking down our spiritual paths, it's important to take the journey together... separately.

Excerpted with permission from "Waking Up Together" by Ellen and Charles Birx, Wisdom Publications, copyright 2005.

Recently, we attended the wedding of a young woman we knew during the years she was growing up in our neighborhood. At her wedding there was a special table set up in front of the church and in the middle of it was a white pillar candle with a white taper candle to each side of it. As part of the ceremony, the parents of the bride and groom each lit one of the tapers and gave it to their adult child. The bride and groom then joined the flames of their two candles and together lit the pillar candle. Then they returned the lighted tapers to their original places, still burning brightly.

This is a beautiful ritual to symbolize that when we unite with another in marriage, something new is created. We are one couple, one family. At the same time, each person remains an individual. Simultaneously, both of these realities are honored and nurtured. The light of all three candles is the same light.

In Zen we say, "Not one, not two." "Not one" means that we cannot ignore differences among individuals. Each of us is unique and that's what gives life its texture and richness. "Not two" acknowledges the unity of everything in its essential nature. The experience of unity expands our awareness and capacity for love.


There is deep human longing to relate well with a partner, friends, family members, and people at work. When meaningful relationships are formed, it is one of the most important and satisfying aspects of a person's life. Relationships are also the source of some of life's greatest pain and disappointment. Volumes have been written on how to improve relationships and much of this advice is useful. Yet relationship problems still plague us and remain a major cause of human suffering.

In the everyday or relative world, which is the perspective of most people, relationships occur between self and other. The world of self and other is the realm of duality. Even marriage and family therapists, who use a systems psychology approach, and take into consideration the influence of each person on the family system, are still dealing with parts of a system and the interactions and multiple influences of the parts. This is a step forward in understanding the complexity of relationships, but it is not enough. It still views people as separate selves-albeit ones interacting with one another-and remains thus dualistic, and ultimately limited. What is needed is a giant leap forward to the direct experience of non-separation or oneness.

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Ellen and Charles Birx
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