Abide not in duality,
refrain from all pursuit of it.
If there’s a trace of right and wrong
true-mind is lost, confused, distraught…
From One-mind comes duality,
but cling not even to this One…
These verses are from the Zen sutra entitled “Affirming Faith in Mind” (“Xinxinming” by Jianzhi Sengcan).
The first set of lines in the quote can be troubling. Are we really supposed to give up all notions of right and wrong? And if we give up dualistic thinking in favor of non-duality, isn’t duality/non-duality in fact just another dualism? Does non-dualism even make sense, conceptually? And then, to make matters even more confusing, there are the last two lines. What could it mean that two comes from one? And if we didn’t divide things, and thought only about One, that would be wrong, too?
Not only is this problem of “the many” (of which two is the simplest case) and “the one” a conceptual conundrum, it is also a an experiential puzzle. Zen tells us that I am not separate from you, and that we are all in some fundamental way joined—that is, one. Yet we do live our everyday lives seemingly from within our own separate skins. I usually experience I and you as distinct and different beings. And in my everyday life I feel it is important to distinguish right from wrong!
It seems to me that there are two ways of understanding non-duality. The way that is stressed in most Zen texts is experiential understanding. If we are graced with moments of awakening or enlightenment, we find that they totally mess with our habitual way of seeing the world. We intimately know for ourselves the quality of non-duality. Many Zen texts seek to evoke awakening obliquely, through poetry or (in the case of koans) directly challenging our (over-)reliance on conceptual thinking.
But non-duality can also be looked at conceptually and analytically. We can attempt to “unpack” and explain it. Victor Sogen Hori argues in Zen Sand that experiential understanding and intellectual understanding are not opposed—that “there is an intellectual language, both technical and symbolic, for talking about the many aspects of Zen awakening” (p. 15). This in no way replaces the experiential, but complements it.
So in this essay, I will offer an intellectual approach to understanding non-duality. In order to for this to work, we have to start before the “one-or-many” dilemma. We need to take a step backwards and examine the fundamental ways we perceive our world.
I will call our usual, habitual way of seeing the world “entity thinking.” For Zen writing to make sense, I argue, we need to use “process thinking.”
Our naïve view of the world is that it is composed of entities (that is, things or objects). These entities first exist in themselves, and then engage in action. These entities first exist in themselves and then relate to each other. Table, banana, tree, you, and me all exist as separate, identifiable objects. Then I eat the banana. Then you and I become friends.
What makes these objects identifiable? In order to make a common language in which to communicate, we develop a folk belief in unchanging, although sometimes unseen, “essences.” The word “banana” brings to mind something with the attributes of being several inches long, tapered at both ends, edible, and yellow. But we also recognize an inedible green banana as a banana—it somehow has the “essence” of banana-ness. Meanwhile, an orange does not. “Me” at age 7 is wildly different from “me” at age 65, but I feel like there is some essential continuity. Meanwhile, you don’t share “my” essence—you have “your “own.
This way of thinking has good evolutionary roots and practical value. Given that our brains developed not as a way to seek truth, but as a way to seek survival, being able to identify and categorize things is useful. If we didn’t we would be perpetually lost in the endless depth and detail of the stimuli in our environment. Not being able to quickly distinguish “dangerous” from “not dangerous,” we’d probably end up getting hit by a bus. Two categories—that is, duality—is the most brain-work-economizing case.
But this simplification of our experience comes at a cost. Our categories, taken rigidly, can blind us to the way things are. Think about gender, for example. There are people who adamantly insist that there are only two genders, male and female, and that the “essence” of one’s gender furthermore dictates certain proper roles and relationships. Any deviation is said to be “unnatural.” Evidence otherwise from the LGBTQIA+ community tends to just roll right off them. Giving up our beloved categories can make us feel insecure.
Likewise, the fundamental issue we face in our Zen practice is waking up from our “dream of self.” An ego is certainly useful to have, to manage everyday life. But if I live self-centeredly, always seeing you as separate, always focusing on myself—even if that means trying to improve myself, to make this “me” into a a better and more generous person!—I may do great harm.
In what I am calling “process thinking,” there are no pre-existing entities. What we commonly perceive as “things” actually arise from activities and relationships. Because activities and relationships shift and change, there are no static “essences.” While we create ideas of objects and categories in order to navigate our word, we recognize that these are only a sort of convenient shorthand, and provisional. Categories and objects form, change, and disperse. The world we perceive is dynamic, in continual cycles of creation and destruction.
In some ways, this is glaringly obvious. What I think of as “my opinion” this week, perhaps I perhaps picked up from you in our conversation last week. What I called “a banana” this morning was separate from “me,” but after I eat it I am made up of banana and acting with banana energy. Some of the banana will end up as sewage. And this entire “me” will, at some point, also return to the dust from which it was formed.
Yet—most likely because our egos feel real and we can’t really imagine dying—we prefer to forget all of this. I first came upon intellectual formulations of process thinking in the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead. That in turn spawned Christian “process theology,” which influenced my academic feminist work (example). Later, I came to Zen, and learned how the Buddha taught non-self (anatta) and impermanence (anicca), moving away from Hindu idea of an essential personal soul (atman). I recently learned more about how Zen Buddhism took up aspects of Daoist non-dual philosophy when developing in China.
Taking a process view of the world, “the many and the one” is not a conundrum! In fact, it follows directly. I recognize that I have “no fixed self”—that is, no essential self that preexists before activity and relationships. There is no stable boundary dividing me from the rest of the universe. Yet this oneness, this emptiness of distinctions, is not a characterless void. It is fertile. Among the many “things” that arise from activity and relationship is undeniably this so-called “thing” I call “myself.” We ourselves arise in all our variety and distinctiveness.
Ocean and Waves
One Zen image for is the ocean and waves. The ocean is vast, and empty of distinctions. Yet waves form that, while created of (ever-changing molecules from the one) ocean, can be individually distinguished. These exist for a while and then disappear. I am a wave. You are a wave. We are one. We are many.
Continued in Part II.
Part III. Part IV. A long (and very dense) podcast, Non-Duality: A Zen View of Relationships, also presents the main points of this whole four-part series. My brief podcast A Zen and Yin-Yang View of Power makes the same points as the final blog post.