by Wayne Ren-Cheng

See Right View: Individuality Paradox Part One

The Buddha awakened to unnatural craving being at the core of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish experienced by human beings. That was true then and it is true now. In the contemporary Western culture there is an aspect of societal interaction that is a major causal factor for feelings of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. Human beings crave associations based on group, interest and worldview, etc. Current and possible interactions and interconnections are decided upon based on those associations. This way of determining interconnections can, and often does, result in the arising of violence, hatred, envy and mistrust. Associations are natural expressions of individuality, and are causal factors in how a person is, but they should not be the determining factors in how a person connects and responds to the others.

In the sutras, legacy texts or teachings there are no teachings that delve into the propensity for human beings to crave an individual identity tied into a self, or societally defined group of people. The Buddha found it necessary to separate his disciples by gender, and after his death there is historical evidence that Buddhists sects divided themselves into traditions on the grounds of belief, of ritual, and of practice. Yet, this is never addressed as directly opposing the Buddhist doctrines of interdependence and interconnectivity. Sounds paradoxical but in Buddhist philosophy there are many paradoxes that one must find their Way to an understanding and acceptance of.

People crave being the individual . . . the whole unique expression of the universe ideal, but that craving is also connected to being an individual within a group of like-minded and/or physically similar individuals. People crave the company of others that they view have the same qualities that they have, or think they have. Identifying too strongly with any social group leads to an Us-vs-Them mentality. The recognition that they aren’t like I view myself and my group as being, so they are wrong, bad, dangerous, immoral, illegal or alien leads to conflict. Since primitive man realized that there were primitive women the divisions began to arise. It likely started with gender within the species, but it expanded quickly to include all those emotions and concepts that the ego revels in . . . territory, sex, money, material possessions, intelligence, faith, race, political choices, etc. It only takes a modicum of mindfulness and awareness to realize the unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish this view has caused.

I have listened to Americans speak eloquently about the dangers and inequality of the caste system in India, or the cultural divisions in other countries; then in the next sentence proclaim their own ‘caste’ through their words or actions. Their proclamation might arises as one based on political affiliation, sexual preference, education, race . . . and the list is a long one.


In the Venn diagram above is a representation of the layers of association that many people surround their Buddha-element, the essence of ‘how you are’ with. While these are shown in a specific order, the order will be different for each individual dependent on which cultural division they deem most important. This way of defining ones’ self makes it extremely difficult to experience interconnection with all but those people who can pierce each layer. White, black, brown, yellow, red . . . ? Gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, asexual . . . ? Humanist, racist, nudist, revolutionist, pacifist . . . ? Vegan, omnivore, carnivore or vegetarian . . . ? Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green . . . ? Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan, Buddhist . . . ? High school, college, MBA, PhD, none . . . ? Geek, Millennial, intellectual, hippie . . . ? 10, 20, 30, 40 . . . ? Cancer survivor, alcoholic, ADHD, gym member . . . ? Each of the categories define an aspect of what, who, when, why and where a person is. At the center will be found ‘how you are’ . . . if that center can be reached.

There is a Venn diagram that illustrates what Professor Thomas P. Kasulis, in his book “Intimacy and Integrity,” termed an intimate relationship (see Right View: Individuality Paradox Part One). It is two circles that overlap depicting the shared experiences and connections of two people. If the initial layer can’t be breached due to a difference than an intimate relationship of any level is impossible to achieve. Professor Kasulis also offers an illustration of an integral relationship. Two circles that instead of overlapping have a line depicting a temporary or sporadic connection that benefits both without leading to actual shared experiences. While the interdependent nature of a relationship can be achieved given this diagram, there will be little chance of any deeper relationship developing.


The above Venn diagram offers a different way of viewing layers of associations. Instead of layers they take on the look of a cluster of Intimate Venn diagrams within a circle, one that is indicative of influences rather than associations. Note that the categories all overlap and have varying degrees of interdependence. They are not separate aspects of an individual. They combine, each as causal factors that are interconnected and interdependent, to have an effect on how one is. It is the choices one makes interdependent on those factors, and others that determine how one interacts with themselves and the world around them. In this illustration the core of ‘how you are’ is at the center leaving the possibility of intimate and integral relationships wide open. There is space to interconnect without the preconceptions and judgments that come with social categories.

That race, sexual orientation, worldview, diet, politics, health issues, age, social group, education, religion, and other categories are factors in causal conditioning, they shouldn’t be used to limit interconnection. They must be factors in developing and strengthening encompassing interconnections. Race needn’t make one a racist and politics needn’t make one a staunch partisan. Education needn’t make one judgmental and religion needn’t make one a fundamentalist. How one chooses to be must be based in knowledge and wisdom, not in an attachment to any category.

Causal conditioning does arise as a result of the associations one accepts. Some, like race and sexual orientation are genetic factors that come with the individual; others, like politics and religion are choices. Whether genetic or choice they shouldn’t become dispositions or habits that inhibit positive personal transformation. These associations are interconnected and interdependent parts of how you are and of how you choose to be. In the case of genetic factors, while they are permanent in that you can’t alter them, they don’t have to dictate how you interact with world. Some people let race for example hinder their interactions with people of other races . . . becoming the disposition of racism. That is a choice that is causally conditioned and can re-conditioned with a more appropriate view of the similarities between all human beings. Choices can also hinder interactions when they are allowed to dictate thought and action. Whether one is chooses to be a vegetarian, a carnivore, or an omnivore doesn’t make them better or worse than the other. None of these associations should limit connections between people.


The above diagram illustrates the near impossibility of achieving deep interconnections when presented with a bodymind dominated by a Layered Associations. As an example, someone whose religion and education are the same can penetrate those layers, but connection ceases at social group; one may be a Millenial, the other a Mason. There is little chance that either will experience how the other person really is. ‘How you are’ is too deeply protected the layers of ego, so an intimate relationship is difficult to achieve and to maintain.


This diagram illustrates an individual whose sense of ‘how you are’ is the entirety of their being. Note the circles depicting others are unlabeled. It isn’t the label that is important, it is how those individuals interact with others. There can be different levels of intimate relationships that respect the associations while cherishing the similarities.

Associations must not become mechanisms of judgement. I am Republican . . . you are not. I am a geek . . . you are not. I am a particular Buddhist tradition . . . you are not. This is dualistic thinking. Judging others based on these divisions is dualistic action.

It must be accepted that no one will be just like us . . . we are each unique expressions of the universe. Each individual is the product of different experiences, different associations, and different external factors. It must equally be accepted that everyone is a human being who encounters suffering and joy, gain and loss, fear and courage, all the ups and downs of existence . . . we are not unique in the universe. Accepting this reality will lead to thoughts of enlightenment, awakened moments when interconnection and interdependence are fully realized and become a deep part of how we are. It will cause the arising of the knowledge that what we do matters on an encompassing scale, so we must engage in thoughts and actions that promote positive individual and societal transformation. It is a matter of choice.


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