Non-Duality IV: Relationships in Process Thinking

We can widen our views of the types of relationships that are possible by comparing our habitual “entity” thinking with Zen-inspired “process” thinking. This may help organizations prevent or deal with abuses of power.

Recall that in “process thinking” we acknowledge that what we commonly perceive as “things” actually arise from activities and relationships (Non-Duality Part I). There are no static “essences,” and the world is in continual cycles of creation and destruction. The provisional “thing” I call “me” is no exception.

Realistically, we all started out as vulnerable, dependent children. We all, of any gender, are who we are today through the sustained efforts (both successes and failures) of caregivers and teachers and others. These all contributed to the “causes and conditions” of this present moment.

It is the idea that we can be characterized as fixed, active, equal entities is the view that we should find ludicrous! Not only do we start as children, we also get sick and (if we are lucky) grow old. We all have needs, vulnerabilities, and gaps in our knowledge and abilities. Because of these, we not only need to rely on mothers and teachers, but also on doctors, lawyers, therapists, clergy and other professionals, as well as on plumbers, health aides, and hair stylists. (Think about how you feel when you have to spend weeks walking around with a really bad haircut! Reliance creates vulnerability.)

We also simply don’t have time to make all the decisions that sustain the lives of ourselves and others. We allow some folks such as elected representatives or company managers to make decisions that affect us, and accept the direction of traffic cops. We take on power, and give up power, all the time.

Add to that the fact that our society does not provide a “level playing field,” and we notice even more relationships of power. Those marked as “other” by sex, race, sexual preference, and so on suffer disadvantages. Treating everyone equally in such cases may not mean treating everyone fairly. The pretense of equality can actually perpetuate injustice.

Lastly, note that even when we interact with people we consider our peers, here are subtle power differences. Some people are more prepared or more articulate. Others are more experienced or simply more assertive. I’ve found that even in the seven-person cooperative house in which I live, aiming for balance is a big challenge.

Inequality in power, to various degrees, is inescapable. Sometimes we play more yang. Sometimes we play more yin.

Options for Dealing with Power

Obviously, not all differences in power are necessary: Some are contrived and bolstered by social convention, law, or violence. Or a necessary difference may become exaggerated, and be much more extreme than it needs to be. We can attempt to remedy such problems through “structural” changes. For example, organizations may rearrange their organizational flow chart, adjust levels of authority and reward, create programs to remedy disadvantages, and/or revamp their procedures to allow for more voices to be heard. Changes in laws can change voting rights and even power relations within families. Working to accomplish such changes, when needed, is a worthwhile (and often extremely challenging) task.

But there will always remain situations in which some people inevitably have more power than others. Then the burning question then is, “How is power being used?” Power can be used to nurture the vulnerable and satisfy needs, as feminist work on care has highlighted. Or (as in the domination diagram pictured in Nonduality Part III where black is pure black and white is pure white) it can be used to exploit the vulnerable and withhold resources. Some situations don’t allow for structural flattening. Unavoidable asymmetries in power require balance, dynamism, and ongoing attention to not only to the structure of the relationship but also its quality.

Here the yin/yang diagram is helpful. I will use the example of what could make for a healthy, mutually respectful, and caring relationship between a Zen teacher and a Zen student, and point out important qualities that the entity model of domination misses.

The Yin Dot in the Yang

The first is symbolized by the yin dot in the yang. That is, the Zen teacher, who is primarily yang and active in this situation, still also has an element of being a student. They need to be able to be receptive, to listen, to admit when they don’t know, and to learn new things. In “Days like Lightening” by Taego Bou we are all exhorted to “Be like our original teacher, Shakyamuni, keeping on progressing, energetically.” Not even the Buddha could stop practicing. There is also an old Chinese story in which an arrogant scholar is dissed by a Zen teacher by being likened to a full teacup—no room there for anything to be added. Not even a Roshi can rest on their laurels and stop learning.

In other words, a teacher needs humility. Why is that often in such short supply? Recall that our culture values light over dark, yang over yin, knowing over not-knowing. Knowing and light are good. To not-know or acknowledge our own darkness is bad; to not know is threatens us with being on the down side of the hierarchy of domination. To admit to a lack, a darkness, is to realize that one’s quest to be good and pure has failed. It may feel shameful. Limited karmic selves don’t like that, and rise up to buttress and defend “me” when challenged or criticized.

Of course it is not only European culture that uses the metaphor of light as a good thing. Zen does as well, particularly when we refer awakening or realization as “enlightenment.” But contemporary Buddhist writers David Brazier and Joan Sutherland make convincing arguments for the equal importance of the dark. Brazier emphasizes that in relation to the Dharma (yang, symbolized by the light of the moon), a sincere practitioner’s position is mostly “being dark” (yin, the dark-backed mirror that reflects the moonlight). Sutherland coins the term “endarkenment” to refer to “the heart that breaks open to life and rests comfortably on the unfathomable mystery of existence.” She claims that it is just as essential to awakening as “enlightenment” (“the brilliant illumination that lifts us out of the suffering world”).

My guess is that the best Zen teachers have made friends with their own darkness, their own failings, their own shadow. Rather than pushing that all away, one, as Brazier puts it, “become[s] generous of heart because when one sees another go astray one realizes how easily one could similarly be rash or foolish.” Being human, a teacher might find that their limited karmic self still initially rises up in outrage when someone challenges them. But spiritual maturity, one would hope, would allow them to also investigate the possibility that they could “use a little improvement.” Admitting being dark or “in the dark,” after all, is not shameful…when you have a ying-yang understanding. 

The Yin Dot in the Yang

The student, while primarily yin and receptive, also has an element of yang and activity. They do not lose their self-authority. In the yin-yang understanding, they have—and would do well to develop and exercise—their individual judgement and power of discernment. As Reb Anderson says, “nobody else can do it for us.” Taego Bou also exhorts us to “not seek guidance from those without wisdom.” 

In the yin-yang understanding, a student learns from the teacher, and sometimes has to trust that the teacher understands something that they do not. But they do not blindly follow the teacher. They receive, but don’t simply knuckle under to being on the down side of a relationship of domination. They listen, but don’t try to lose themselves in mystery and “crazy wisdom.” The wise student doesn’t try to get the teacher to tell them what to do with their life. They recognize that teachers are still fallible humans. If a teaching feels really “off,” or their gut tells them that they don’t belong with this teacher at all, a wise student pays attention. The black polliwog swimming in the tiny fishbowl has an open eye.

One note of caution, though: While the yin-yang model encourages us to be humble teachers and wise students, that may not be the reality we are in. If a teacher does not understand their power and responsibility in a yin-yang way, they may attempt to dominate (see Nonduality Part III). Instead of putting the student’s well-being first, a teacher may try to use students to meet their own needs. Being in a position of authority and trusted by the student, they have available to them a whole bag of tricks they can use to cloud the student’s eye of discernment. These include asserting their authority, pretending they have no power, lying, gaslighting, emotional blackmail, and breaking down resistance using all sorts of cultish tricks.

Given that students want something from the teacher, they are by their position in the relationship often vulnerable to such pressures. Expecting students to always act wisely is therefore unrealistic. The ultimate responsibility for the student’s safety rests with the leaders of a sangha.  

The Swirling

The yin-yang diagram is dynamic, swirling. Nothing stays in one place. Today I play the role of teacher, but I started in the role of student (and remain a student, as well). Things change over time.

And things change when the situation moves. I teach sangha members in dokusan; A member of our board teaches me about non-profit law. When I take my car in for service I’m the ignorant one and the technician has the power.

Sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow. That’s the dance of our life.

The Boundary

The backwards-S-shaped “line” between the black white polliwogs creates a boundary between the two shapes. Black, while it contains the white “eye” and continues “swimming,” does not at any time seep into the white, nor vice versa. The roles remain clear. There is no pretense of equality or sameness; there are no shades of grey.

It turns out that maintaining this clear boundary is vitally important for using power with respect and care. I knew, in my career as a university professor, that it was important to not get too chummy with particular students or ask students for favors. But I understood this mostly as a way to avoid accusations of favoritism or of letting students “buy” a higher grade. I also taught a course that included the topic of about sexual harassment, and recognized the damage done by unwanted sexual attention. Yet I didn’t feel powerful when I assigned grades. To me it was just a chore.

Only with the recent problems in my sangha have I become fully aware of a teacher’s moral obligation to face into issues of power, and keep up a clear boundary for the good of the student. I’ve only recently learned about the more subtle aspects of power and “consent.” Research indicates that not thinking about one’s own power or feeling powerful, are, in fact, very common phenomena among those who hold power. Powerful people also tend to lose the ability to understand what the exercise of power looks like from the “down” side.

For this reason not only teachers but other professionals including doctors, nurses, lawyers, therapists, clergy, and social workers have codes of ethics that categorically forbid various kinds of “boundary violations.” It matters not a bit whether the financial, emotional, spiritual, or sexual boundary crossing was “consented to” (or even initiated by) the student: It is always the teacher’s responsibility to keep the boundary clear. Trying to be in a teacher-student relationship and some other kind of relationship at the same time leads to, at a minimum, confusion. And it may lead to devastating harm to not only the student but the whole community. And, as discussed earlier, the person on the down side can often be fooled by a trusted teacher’s tricks.

Moving on from Here

Unfortunately, the lineage I’m in has not made understanding such dynamics of power a requirement for teaching…yet.

As Marilyn Peterson puts it in At Personal Risk,

As [students], we expect [teachers] to manage the boundary that maintains the natural asymmetry between us…The covenant that binds [teachers] to us is broken when they deny, or ignore, or use the power differential in a way that negates the ethos of care. 

Our sangha is currently planning an a ceremony of covenant among members, teachers and board. We have an Ethics Council that I hope will soon require more training of sangha leaders (such as those offered by Faith Trust Institute). We are also looking at “structural” differentiations to see which sorts may not actually be necessary, and experimenting with more peer-driven modes of learning. I see all of these efforts as indispensable to incorporating awakening into our lives as individuals and as a group.

Part I, Part II, Part III.

My brief podcast A Zen and Yin-Yang View of Power makes the same points as this blog post. A longer (and very dense) podcast, Non-Duality: A Zen View of Relationships, presents the main points of this whole four-part series.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a Dharma Holder and Interim Spiritual Director at the Greater Boston Zen Center; mother of two grown children; and, when energy permits, an avid dancer.

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