The Duality of Non-Duality

Have you ever felt sick and tired of non-dual teachings? I do, especially when I hear people talk about it as if it was a Truth in itself, a somewhat ‘deeper’ and ultimate reality. I call them ‘spiritual carnival barkers’. To me they represent those poor souls who didn’t get what the Buddha meant when he said that the finger which points to the moon is not the moon itself. For the irony about any form of non-dual teaching is that it completely depends on the concept of duality. Which means, ultimately, that, it is a game without the slightest chance of any form of resolution, ever. Thus, non-duality as understood as the attempt to replace duality is as futile an endeavor as fighting with one’s own shadow, or removing a thorn with another thorn. Instead of freeing oneself of concepts about reality ‘barkers’ create yet another dichotomy, another layer of mind-made fantasy. Sometimes they talk about the absolute and the relative level of reality, not realizing, though, that they are just buying into (and consequently selling) another dualistic idea of reality. They may have had great realizations and awakenings about the unity of things, but, tragically, although they think they ‘got it’ (while they obviously didn’t) they suffer even more than before. Bodhidharma must have had them in mind when he said that “those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings”.

You may ask what it is that ‘spiritual carnival barkers’ haven’t ‘got’ yet. Let me explain.

Our minds are instruments of discernment and logic. Their job description is to dissect and separate, to judge and evaluate, which, ultimately, forms the fabric of the (subjective) realities we live in. Our minds are so good at doing their jobs that we, otherwise physically rather feeble living beings, have become the dominant species on the planet. The mind’s power, however, is at the same time our species’ biggest weakness. Our ideas of reality are the cause of fear and desire, resulting in aversions and grasping with all its consequences for the wellbeing of ourselves and our habitat. To counteract this weak spot of ours, (spiritual) philosophies have been developed to undermine our concepts of reality.

One of these philosophies is Buddhism. Since our subjective realities are the sum of our concepts and believes, in some of its most famous statements Buddhism points to the realization that all conceptualizations of reality are mere products of the mind (e.g. “it neither is, nor is it not”, “not one, nor two”, “emptiness is form and form is emptiness”). Accordingly, in Buddhism, the ultimate goal, Nirvana, is ‘entered’ into by means of permanently transcending the minds power (called maya) to create the illusion of a conceptual reality. Once we realize that reality is ‘neither like this nor like that’ but simply what ‘is’, we are liberated from the bondage of our own concepts.
Hence, if we get ‘stuck’ in the conceptual duality of non-duality we haven’t ‘got’ it yet. Once we have removed the thorn of concepts with the thorn of anti-concepts, we have to drop the latter to be free. There is no need to carry our boats on our backs anymore when we’ve reached the other shore!

Let’s look at it from yet another, more modern philosophical perspective. If we look more closely at concepts we see that they are based on pairs of opposites like good or bad, right or wrong. When pairs of opposites are embraced (e.g. it is both right and wrong or neither right nor wrong), concepts collapse. Thus, according to the famous Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, who thoroughly studied Eastern philosophy, the pathway to psychological health and wholeness, which he called individuation, is the ‘alchemistic’ reconciliation, or ‘union’, of opposites. Similar to the perennial philosophies of the East, Jung makes the point that we are only able to creatively hold the tension of the opposites if we realize that the opposites themselves are manifestations of what he called the ‘Self’. In other words, only if we realize the ‘Oneness’ of non-duality do we have the tool to collapse our concepts by reconciling the pairs of opposites that support them.
Again, the anti-dote is ‘non-dual realization’, but non-duality is not meant to be a new life support system. We should stop taking the medicine when we have recovered from our dis-ease or we risk poisoning!

How come ‘awakened’ people get stuck in the duality of non-duality?

According to Jung, when we start working with our unconscious beliefs and the opposites first get constellated, there can be wide oscillations between the two polarities; this can at times feel like manic-depression (“I got it; I lost it”) or even lead to nervous breakdowns (“Zen sickness”). If the person does not have a strong enough sense of self, which is to not have a strong enough ‘alchemical’ container to withstand the tension of the opposites, they will split-off, repress and project out one of the pairs of opposites and identify with the other. This will create opposition to the other side of the polarity and it may be an explanation why some people start “nestling in the stagnant waters of emptiness” (Zen). Awakening, thus, can make one more polarized and even more miserably struggling to bridge the (non-)dual polarity. Instead of a reconciling wholeness arising, egoistic symptoms result. For example, one may start considering the world to be foolishly ‘ignorant’, or developing fantasies of ‘healing’ or ‘redeeming’ the world or of dropping out of the world altogether, etc.

The teaching of the Eastern philosophies and of Jung are that all (yes, ALL!) of our stories of right and wrong are but reflections of the yet unreconciled polarities that make up our ego’s. To ‘free’ ourselves from our constricting beliefs and make peace with ourselves and the world, we have to learn to embrace and bear apparent paradox (more on this in my next post). Jung, thus, compared individuation, the process of becoming whole, to incarnation, for to the extent that we claim our wholeness we allow ‘God’ to incarnate in this world.

“When people begin their practice of seeking to attaining total Enlightenment, they ought to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize that all things and all spiritual truths are no-things, and, therefore, they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever.”



How to Blow Your Mind

The last post was concerned with a gradual approach to dealing with the seeking mind. It was explained that the seeking mind can be exhausted to such an extent that a permanent resting place in ‘what is’ (right here now) can be found. In this post, however, I would like to introduce the possibility of blowing the seeking mind by engaging it in paradox. (In no way I want to suggest that this latter, more sudden approach is better than the other, more gradual one. In fact they complement each other rather nicely)

The way we are hardwired to experience reality through our minds is in terms of pairs of opposites. Left or right, good or bad, black or white, etc. The founding fathers of quantum physics were the first Westerners to scientifically discover that our normal ‘either/ or’ approach to reality was somehow not how it really seemed to be. In a series of famous experiments they proved, for example, that two opposite outcomes could be simultaneously true or untrue. It was found that the occurrence of one or the other outcome was based on a probability distribution that only collapses into a definite event at the time of measurement.
While creating a lot of uproar in the scientific community of the West, this new paradoxical ‘both/ and’ / ‘neither/ nor’ view of the foundations of reality was nothing new to philosophers of the East. The scientific findings reflected what these philosophers had been saying for millennia: the mother of reality is paradox, a field of potentiality. There are no opposites, dualities, there is only paradox, non-duality.

It is rather straightforward to see why non-duality/ paradox is a more ‘realistic’ representation of reality than what our minds make us believe. All pairs of opposites are co-dependent and, thus, inseparable. We can’t talk or think about one without implicitly referring to the other. ‘Left’ only makes sense in conjunction with ‘right’. Hence, all opposites are actually two sides of the same coin, superimpositions on the ‘One’ reality. From this ‘One’ reality the ‘Many’ are created in our discriminating minds by means of establishing pairs of opposites. The mind is like a prism that breaks up the ‘One’ light into the ‘Many’ colors of the visible spectrum.

Let’s have a look now at some pairs of opposites that Eastern philosophers found to be exquisite mind-blowers when understood in terms of paradoxes (‘both/ and’ or ‘neither/ nor’) as opposed to opposites (‘either/ or’):

Form and Emptiness
From an Eastern philosophical standpoint this is probably the most important pair of opposites that needs to be transcended in order to understand reality how ‘it really is’. It is the ultimate mind-blower. No wonder it is most prominently featured in the most revered Mahayana Buddhist Sutra, the ‘Heart Sutra’ where it says that ‘Form’ is ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Emptiness’ is ‘Form’.

What it points to is that ‘Emptiness’ is the substratum of all ‘Form’ (which is a placeholder for the world perceivable by the senses). ‘Emptiness’ is the field of potentiality that manifests/ is actualized as ‘Form’. ‘Form’ is actualized ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Emptiness’ is potential ‘Form’. Just like the ocean is the substratum or the potential to manifest/ actualize as the waves, ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ are inseparable and, thus, ‘One’ (and the same).

This ‘One’ is both, ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ simultaneously. Or stated differently, since ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ are inseparable, this ‘One’ is neither ‘Form’ nor ‘Emptiness’. Again, read slowly: since it is both, it is neither. This ‘One’ is all that ‘is’ and, hence, there is no ‘other’ in reference to which it could be defined. It (whatever it is) can never be grasped by the mind. If we seriously try, though, we need to prepare to have your minds blown.

Subject and Object
Any notion of a subject depends on a sensory object: if there was no sound, smell, touch, vision, taste nor mind-objects (thought, memory, imagination etc.) there would be no notion of a subject, just bare existence/ being. The notion of an object on the other hand is dependent on a sensing subject.
Object and subject arise in co-dependence: without objects, there is no subject and without subject there are no objects. Fundamentally, thus, object and subject must be ‘One’ (and the same) like wave and ocean, completely inseparable. There are neither subjects nor objects but only this ‘One’ perceiving itself by itself.

Cause and Effect
It is pretty straightforward to understand that every effect has a cause: something is pushed, it moves. Cause, however, also depends on effect. Every effect causes new effects just like every cause causes new causes. To assume that causes do not depend on effects would imply that causes can be uncaused, which is illogical. Eastern philosophers, thus, no not believe in the ‘Big Bang’-Theory because it assumes an uncaused cause to initiate the ‘Bang’. Rather, they have been saying that all that happens is (and has always been) the cause of all that happens. Effects cause themselves. Cause and effect are completely intimate, inseparable, ‘One’ (and the same) and, thus, there is neither cause nor effect. The only constant in the universe is perpetual change, impermanence. The universe is ‘One’ cosmic dance, always in flux.

Life and Death
Due to the perpetual changing nature of the ‘One’ universe, the minute a ‘Form’ manifests it irrevocably starts its process towards ultimate de-manifestation. Death depends on life. On the other hand, Scientists have discovered that the amount of energy (the potential for change) in the universe is constant. Hence, new ‘Forms’ can only manifest when other ‘Forms’ de-manifest. Life also depends on death. Life is the prerequisite for death and death is the prerequisite for life. Life lives on itself.
The cycle of life and death is but the perpetual change of actualization in the ‘One’ field of potentiality. Just like the wave does not go anywhere different to where it has always been when it sinks back into the ocean, life and death are fundamentally inseparable, two seemingly distinct aspects of this ‘One’ reality and, thus, there fundamentally is neither life nor death. There is but this ‘One’ constantly changing its appearance, destructing in the name of creation, creating in the name of destruction.

Here and There
Space is that which is in between two (or more) local reference points, a ‘here’ and a ‘there’. If all is but this ‘One’, though, there is no ‘other’, which means that this ‘One’ has no definable range or border. It is infinite. In infinity there is no center since from any local point of reference the ‘One’ stretches out infinitely in all directions. If everywhere is its center, locality does not exist in this ‘One’. All local points are effectively in the same (no-)place. Everywhere is always ‘here’. And because of that, this ‘One’ is spaceless.

Now and Then
Time is the succession of changes between two reference events, a ‘now’ and a ‘then’. If all always has been and forever will be but this ‘One’, there has never been and there never will be any succession of events in this ‘One’, because there has never been and there will never be something ‘other’ than this ‘One’. Although its appearance may change, fundamentally all there eternally is, is this ‘One’. It is always ‘now’. And because of that, this ‘One’ is timeless.

Samsara and Nirvana
Whatever we perceive, we experience ‘Emptiness’ manifest as ‘Form’. Every emotion, sensual perception, thought or memory: we are constantly experiencing the ocean in the form of the waves. Just like the waves are no impediment to sense the ocean, our experiences are never in the way to sense this ‘One’.
If samsara is the confrontation with ‘what is’ from a perspective of separateness, nirvana is the unconditional acceptance of (all!) the waves because they are known to be the ocean. It is the realization that all there ‘is’ is no-thing but this ‘One’ (without an ‘other’) which extincts all dualistic notions. Nirvana, therefore, is the extinction of itself. Nirvana is ‘this’.

Unio Mystica
The ‘divine’ union, as reported by the mystics of all spiritual traditions, is reconciling the opposites in the paradox that no-thing exists (in and of itself) because all is ‘One’. All is always and everywhere fundamentally inseparable from this ‘One’. There is neither ‘Form’ nor ‘Emptiness’, subject nor object, cause nor effect, life nor death, time nor space, samsara nor nirvana. Any notion of duality is an act of ignorance towards the fundamental reality of this truthless ‘truth’.

To conclude, let me reiterate that opposites (and their expression in the form of words) are conceptual abstractions and superimpositions on this ‘One’ which have the power to create an apprehensible ‘reality’ where fundamentally there is none. Since what has no distinctive features can not be understood, though, the only way to realize this ‘One’ is through the pairs of opposites. The ‘gateless gate’ to the noumenous is reached through the transcendence of the world of phenomena.

Nobody will ever be able to grasp what this ‘One’ is because it is so completely self-sufficient, self-entrenched, self-contained and self-instituted that it does not allow for an outside perspective to uncover its mystery. The mystic, thus, having once and for all blown his seeking mind remains silent, and awed in not knowing.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
~John 1:1