Men, Women and Interbeing

While men and women are potential mates to each other, it often seems like they are natural enemies in the war of the sexes. This is particularly true when we look at the sayings of the “second wave” militant feminists. Feminist Catharine MacKinnon, for example, said that “Male sexuality is apparently activated by violence against women and expresses itself in violence against women to a significant extent. Similarly, another radical feminist, Marilyn French, famously said that “All men are rapists and that’s all they are.” The demonization of masculinity and male sexuality is nothing new. In this age of Me Too, there is much talk about toxic masculinity. Most of us are familiar with misogyny, but few of us understand the extent of misandry. The danger of such inflammatory language is that masculinity will be understood as nothing but toxic and violent. In this highly charged political environment, can Buddha’s teachings help to ameliorate the hostility?

One of the greatest teachings of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, is the notion of Interbeing. Interbeing is another way to express Buddha’s central teaching of Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit), which is the Buddhist model of causation. In a sense, the Christian’s model of causation is very simple. It is a single-factor model — God creates everything; everything comes from God. The Buddhist causation model of Dependent Origination, is, however, much more complex. It is multiple-factored. To put it in layman’s language, the existence of anything is dependent on the existence of everything else. Thus, everything is interconnected and interdependent. Because you are, I am and vice versa. I cannot exist without you. And you cannot exist without me. It is best to understand Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination in terms of biological science — in the understanding of an ecosystem. Everything living organism in an ecosystem is an integral part of that system. When something happens to one species, the entire system will be affected. That is precisely why we should worry about the extinction of, say, the honey bees. Albert Einstein is alleged to have said that “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

The term that Thich Nhat Hanh coined, Interbeing, is just another name for dependent origination. Dependent origination is a highly complex and abstract worldview. But Thich Naht Hanh’s poetic ability makes things more concrete and easier to understand. In one of his essays, he talked about the web of relationships that connects a piece of paper with the clouds, the rain and the trees. He said:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. The piece of paper exists only due to the ecosystem involving the clouds, the rain and the trees.”

The Interbeing model is a holistic model, not a dualistic model. Every element of that system is an integral part of the system. It cannot be removed without creating ripple effects throughout the entire system. Even though some elements seem to be opposites and polarities, they actually complement each other. In other words, they need each other to exist. It is precisely due to interdependence that men and women should not alienate each other.

In our society, the relationship between men and women is often strained. While there are many forms of feminism, the radical version of feminism is based on a “war model,” where men and women exist in an antagonistic relationship. Radical feminists treat men as enemies. While the patriarchy is arguably one of the most oppressive systems in our society, it is insane to demonize and alienate men in the fight against patriarchy. Every man is some woman’s child, brother, father or lover. To treat men as the enemy is to forget this reality. A woman cannot hurt men without also hurting herself through a feedback loop. For eventually, someone very dear to her and someone she does not want to live without is a man. If a woman promotes the idea that masculinity is toxic or that men are demonic, then it will have an adverse effect on her own son, her own grandchildren and all her male descendants in the future. It will have a negative impact on her male peers — her brothers, her male cousins, her husband or lover. It will also create negative consequences for all the men who are her senior — her father, her uncles, her grandfathers and male ancestors.

When we view the world through the lens of Interbeing, when we see a woman, we also see the world of men in her. Similarly, when we look at a man, we will also see his mother, his sisters, his daughters. The bottom line is that a woman cannot vilify and hurt the male gender without also hurting herself. For the same reason, men cannot oppress women without reaping very grave consequences. Every woman is potentially a wife and a mother. If we traumatize or mistreat a mother, we will also hurt her husband and her children. There will be a chain effect of bad karma. It is for this reason that international agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank have always promoted the education and well-being of women. When a woman is educated and happy, we all reap the benefits.

In the past, the genders use an antagonistic model to fight the war of the sexes. Misogyny is real. But so is misandry. Both are examples of stupidity, totally devoid of wisdom. Let men and women work together, as a team and as equals, to create a better future for humanity. Men and women are not enemies to each other. They inter-be and their well-beings are closely tied. This is why we should teach cross-gender compassion and reject hate speech.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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