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.

To be continued…

What If ‘Capitalism’ Isn’t the Problem?

A few days ago, I was interviewed by Oshan Joshan for his podcast series “Musing Minds.” We talked about both economics, Zen, gender…so on some of the same themes I’ve addressed elsewhere on this blog.

Oshan gave the interview the title “What If ‘Capitalism’ Isn’t the Problem?” That’s not to say we don’t have enormous problems! Only that we have mis-identified their source.

Another Head

About eating chocolate…and wanting the piece that is still in my hand.

20160813_203519In Zen, as in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, there is talk of characters who have two heads. In Adams’ book, it’s  a character named Zaphod Beeblebrox. In Zen, it comes from a talk by the 9th century Chinese Master Linji:

 …There are indeed so far none who have presented themselves before me all alone, all free, all unique… They are all ghostly existences, ignominious gnomes haunting the woods, elf-spirits of the wilderness….Do you think you deserve the name of ‘monk’ when you are still entertaining mistaken ideas of Zen? You are putting another head over your own! What do you lack in yourselves?

Zen teachings tell us continually that “this is it,” that there is no need to keep seeking for something beyond, for something outside of ourselves.  I’ve made a practice for myself of asking  “Which head am I in?” Am I in this head that rests on top of my neck, connected to my spine, my heart, and the feelings and sensations that are going on right now? Or am I feeling, thinking, and acting from the additional head I’ve constructed on top of that one? Continue reading “Another Head”

Enoughness: A Reflection on the 2nd Precept

Is it possible to cultivate a sense of “enoughness” with regard to relationships?

question on index card

My teacher, Josh Bartok Roshi, gave a dharma talk at an all-day sit recently. Which I missed. (I was helping a friend move.) But although I arrived late in the afternoon, Josh shared with me a set of reflections he had handed out. These were lists of “Values based on” various precepts, vows, and liturgical pieces. One stood out for me: A meditation on the 2nd Grave Precept.

In our liturgy book, the second of the Ten Grave Precepts is worded, in its longer form, as

 Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, not having thoughts of gaining is called the Precept of Not Stealing. The self and the things of the world are just as they are. The gate of emancipation is open. Being satisfied with what I have, I vow to take up the Way of Not Stealing. (p. 48)

The corresponding entry on Josh’s handout is: Continue reading “Enoughness: A Reflection on the 2nd Precept”

Buddhism and economic transformation

Economies have no essential nature. Once this is recognized, many more opportunities for change present themselves.

golden buddha eric pouhler

Many of us, informed about world events and motivated by love and compassion, feel the need for profound economic transformation. We started long ago to question injustice, consumerism, and military-industrial ties. The growing specter of climate-change related disruptions has convinced even more people that ‘business as usual’ is not a viable option.

But what form should this transformation take, and how can we make it happen? I believe that insights from the careful study of both economics and Zen Buddhism can help us along this path—no matter what faith tradition we come from (if any).

I began studying social science, and eventually earned a PhD in Economics, because I thought these studies might help me to contribute to solving the problems of global poverty and hunger. Continue reading “Buddhism and economic transformation”

Beyond “Small is Beautiful”: Buddhism and the Economics of Climate Change

Based on a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, sponsored by the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, on Feb. 18, 2016.

Maitreya in dry grass

MANY BUDDHISTS—as well as many non-Buddhists!—have raised   concern and alarm about the climate crisis and other crises facing our society and our world.  Clearly, we need to take urgent action.  As Buddhists, we have a pressing moral obligation to do what we can to relieve the suffering of all beings on the planet, both now and in the future. Our hearts yearn to make things better.

And clearly much of the climate change disaster is caused by economic activity. If you graph carbon dioxide emissions and industrial output over a long period of time, the two graphs look pretty much identical. The development of large scale, fossil-fuel burning industries was accompanied, in Western societies, by the rise of large corporations, global markets, and a rising emphasis on consumption as a source of well-being. Great wealth has been created, but this wealth has been very unequally distributed, and has often come at the cost of environmental and social sustainability.

It’s abundantly clear that we can’t go on with “business as usual.” People and other sentient beings are already feeling the disruptive effects of a set of historical and social developments that, as a whole, have taken far too little account of the effects of our production and consumption on the rest of nature. We urgently need to change how our economies work.

But how? Continue reading “Beyond “Small is Beautiful”: Buddhism and the Economics of Climate Change”

Husbandry: a feminist reclamation of men’s responsibility to care

To stop the economy’s advance towards greed and destruction, we need new metaphors and images that inspire a radically different alternative.

Millet The Angelus
Post-card rendering of The Angelus by Jean François Millet. Credit: Bewareofthe Some rights reserved.


What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word ‘care’? If you search for images on Google you’ll get lots of pictures of white mothers snuggling with their babies. You’ll also see photos of a female caregiver’s hands intertwined with those of an elderly person, and images that show two hands holding a young plant that symbolizes Earth.

If you Google ‘economics’ instead, you’ll get lots of pictures of piles of cash, or representations of math and data. Continue reading “Husbandry: a feminist reclamation of men’s responsibility to care”

Self-Interest and Other-Interest

We get to choose between being self-interested, on the one hand, or putting the needs of others first, on the other, right? Or maybe not.

sharing and self interest

I grew up, as a Lutheran preacher’s kid, hearing a lot of negative things about self-interest, selfishness, and self-centeredness. And I heard a lot of positive things about putting others ahead of oneself, altruism, and even self-sacrifice. When I got older and went to college, I was exposed to a different view. Continue reading “Self-Interest and Other-Interest”