Non-Duality Part I: Entity vs. Process Thinking

To understand nonduality, we have to take a step backward and look at the fundamentals of how we think about the world. If we take an “entity” view, it makes no sense. If we understand the world as “process,” though, we can see that this is, in fact, the reality of our life.

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 Problem

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.”

Entity 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.

Process Thinking

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.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

6 thoughts on “Non-Duality Part I: Entity vs. Process Thinking”

  1. Hi Julie this is an interesting article, lots of good stuff in it, thank you!

    I just wanted to point out something very basic that I don’t see acknowledged much in the literature in any field connected to human experience, including psychology, sociology, political science, and economics.

    There are two fundamental and completely distinct categories of human experience, and they bear a clear relationship to each other. Confusing them is at the bottom of many so-called dilemmas and paradoxes, such as dualism/non-dualism.

    I’ll call one category “actuality”. It includes whatever is actually going on in a particular present moment at a particular place involving specific entities/processes. (Since this includes actual goings-on involving whatever it is that’s involved, it makes little difference whether we call them entities or processes because those ideas *about* the goings-on belong to the second category.)

    The second category I’ll call “reflection”. It includes what we remember about, think about, say or write about, or do about actuality after the fact of it happening. It also includes the imaginary which, although it can depart markedly from actuality, must to some degree reflect some form of actuality or risk being unintelligible and meaningless.

    Note that the remembering, the thinking, the saying or writing, the doing, and the imagining – the activities, the processes – belong to actuality in their own right, but in that they are *about* prior actuality that we hold in mind, their *content* is not part of actuality a different that in some way *refers to* past goings-on in actuality. In most contexts I use “narrative” instead of “reflection” (or the even more abstruse “referentiality”) for obvious reasons even though it’s not quite accurate.

    So it turns out that the duality/non-duality dilemma/mystery occurs only in narrative, in the category of reflection, not in actuality. I could say the same for yin/yang and a lot of other things. As experienced in actuality we do not encounter dualism, we encounter singularity. Whatever is going on, it and not something else is what’s going on.

    Just keeping those two categories straight would avoid a raff of unnecessary complication and confusion that I’m sure we would all rather put behind us.


    1. Thank you, Millard. I get your point–“chair” is an idea, but when we sit we just sit and only need the real thing, not the idea. However, when we want to think about home decorating or ask for something to sit on, “chair” sure comes in handy! So making our ideas and concepts, and their sources, clearer is still useful. A few episodes later in this series, I’ll write about the practical reason why I bring all this up now.


      1. Thanks for the response Julie. Actually, my point is that most conundrums, dilemmas, paradoxes, etc., are mental artifacts that
        wholly belong to the abstract realm of the reflective/referential/narrative (which includes more than just ideas). I guess a simpler term would be *the abstract*. I don’t tend to use it because it doesn’t connote referentiality to most people. The abstract sits in a dependent relationship to the actual. When an abstraction changes, the actuality it was abstracted from doesn’t thereby change, but when something actually changes, abstractions from it/references to it/narratives about it do necessarily change, if they’re going to continue to be from/to/about it — or else they become departures instead of reflections, which is to say they stop *referring* to the actuality in whichever ways they depart from it. I’m saying something far more important than “it’s nice to have words!” I’m saying that most conundrums, dilemmas, paradoxes “don’t exist” to put it bluntly, albeit inaccurately, because “don’t exist” implies that “do exist” is conceivable. I’m saying that dualisms and the dualism/non-dualism dualism do not belong to the category of things that either could exist or not. There is huge confusion about this, even in the thinking of our best.


  2. Thanks for the the inspiring writing you post. It’s wonderful and very helpful. Be well. Bill Callahan, Salem MA


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