Nonduality and The Middle Way

About a year and a half ago, the Washington Post noted:

Sociologists say that we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular. We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”

I’ve begun to notice that “nonduality” has become a key word in this new vernacular.

SANDAn example is an organization I recently became aware of called Science and Nonduality. They have a cool acronym (SAND) and a cool logo. According to their website, “The mission of Science and Nonduality (SAND) is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but rather is based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.”

Last month SAND held a conference in San Jose California that featured a bunch of participants I’ve never heard of before. But they’re having a “retreat”called “The Sutras of Science” at Esalen in February that will feature Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman, among others.

It seems rather obvious to me that they are using Nonduality as a substitute for the word “religion.” You notice in the mission statement above they mention religious dogma, and this is a group that seems informed by Eastern philosophy which to my mind is rather non-dogmatic. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overlay our issues with Western religion onto Eastern spirituality, and that’s a shame.

Several of the speakers at the SAND 2014 conference are described as “nonduality teachers.” I wasn’t aware that nonduality had become a field all its own. I guess I haven’t been paying attention.  I wonder if the pay for nonduality teachers is good. If so, I’d like to give it a try. I think I’d qualify.

Nonduality has been around quite a while.  Although Chinese philosophy has always had a non-dual view, what we think of as nondualism more or less got its start with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his teaching on the two truths.  In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, he calls nonduality (advaya) “the gate of security, the destruction of false views; the path walked by all buddhas, the ‘dharma of no-self-nature.’”

nondual-hotdog-72On the SAND website they write, “nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness. Our starting point is the statement ‘we are all one’.” This is true, and yet I wonder if they understand that this “oneness” belongs to the relative truth. In his Treatise on The Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

All things enter the non-dual dharma. Although things are not two, they are not one either.”

They do, however, posses one nature: they “are in truth sunya (empty).” For Nagarjuna, the non-dual dharma is like space (akasa) in that it is “completely unobstructive.”

I also occasionally see folks write something like this: “The message of nonduality is that the true nature of reality is non-dual.” Well, that is certainally part of the message and nonduality is an aspect of the true nature of reality, but not the whole thing. What I mean is that often people take nonduality to be the ultimate truth.

Actually, duality and nonduality both belong to the realm of relative truth. Neither-duality-nor-nonduality is the ultimate truth. In other words, the ultimate truth is neither extreme, it is the middle. Here’s one reason why Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka or Middle Way.

Let’s take the example of a coin. The point is not that we have one and only one coin. The point is that the coin has two sides. As K. Venkata Ramanan points out in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,

The extinction of ignorance does not leave us in a blank; it is not an act separate from the arising of knowledge. The two are simultaneous; they are two different sides of the same act, two phases of one principle. [Nagarjuna’s treatise] observes that in their ultimate nature there is no difference between ignorance and knowledge, even as there is no difference in the ultimate truth between the world of the determinate and Nirvana, the unconditioned reality.”

The ultimate truth is not emptiness because ultimately emptiness is empty. The ultimate truth is not nonduality because duality and nonduality are merely two sides of one thing. So what is this one thing? If we have to name it, let us name is Nirvana. And yet, Nagarjuna reminds us that “Nirvana is not any one thing.” This is the Middle Way.


A Kick in the Pants

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.


Sameness and Nonsameness

Taoism and Buddhism have had a long history of co-existence and interaction. Many of the early Buddhists in China were also Taoists, and Taoism exerted a profound and positive influence on Buddhism. One reason for this is that both Taoism and Buddhism share a non-dual view of reality.

Buddhism expresses this understanding as pratitya-samutpada or interdependence, and in Taoism it is harmony, represented by the concept of yin-yang. In non-duality, there is a quality of sameness to all things, and yet there is also a quality of difference.

The I Ching (“Book of Changes”) is one of the oldest books in the world. Its origins are thought to pre-date recorded history. Most people think of the I Ching as a way of divination, or fortune-telling, but it is really one of the great works of philosophy, and it was used by both Taoists and Buddhists. One such Buddhist was Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655). He began as a Ch’an (Zen) monk, but when he was 31, he gave up Ch’an to devote himself to Pure Land practice as taught by the T’ien-t’ai school. He was also a prolific author, composing numerous commentaries, liturgies, and translations, including a commentary on the I Ching.

The 13th hexagram, Tong Ren (Sky above, Fire below) is translated by Alfred Huang as “Seeking Harmony”, while one of the translators of Wang Bi’s commentary has it as “Fellowship.” In the translation of Chih-hsu Ou-i’s commentary, it is presented as “Sameness with People”. Here is an excerpt from the latter:

Without difference, how could sameness be shown? Make sure the different do not lose their difference, so that sameness can rest in great sameness.

In Buddhist terms, just as sky and fire are similar yet dissimilar, dissimilar yet similar, the various states of being each have their families, each of which acts as one being with one mind.

One mind has all possible states of being inherent in it, and every state of being has every other state of being inherent in it, so there are countless differences in the points of interpenetration of these states of being, which are representative of our states of mind.

So all these states of being are ultimately based on just one mind. This is the final attainment of sameness without sameness, nonsameness with sameness.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Alfred Huang, The Complete I Ching, Inner Traditions International, 1998; Wang Bi, The Classic of Changes A New Translation of the I Ching, Trans. Richard John Lynn, Columbia University Press, 1994; Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987.


With or Without Light

Dogen (1200-1253)

I’ve been reading Dogen lately, and one of the reasons why I appreciate him so much is that he seems to have had a high regard for Nagarjuna, and there are similarities between the two. I agree with David Loy that they both “point to many of the same Buddhist insights because they deconstruct the same type of dualities.” [1. David R Loy, Faculty of International Studies, Bunkyo University, Philosophy East and West  Honolulu  Jul 1999 Vol. 49, Iss. 3] Of course, as Loy points out, their textual styles were quite different.

One duality, or rather non-duality, that Dogen mentions frequently is the non-duality of ignorance and enlightenment. In Bukkyo or “What the Buddha Taught,” he says

You should know that ignorance is inseparable from One Mind, and deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from the One Mind.” [2. Adapted from the Shasta Abby and Suwanna Wongwaisayawan translations]

Mumyo: Ignorance

One Mind (isshin) is another term for Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature. The characters Dogen uses for ignorance is mumyo, the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word avidya, or “ignorance,” as this sentence is within the context of a discussion about the twelve-fold chain of dependent arising, and ignorance is the first link in the chain. The Chinese characters for mumyo literally mean “without light.”

To be in the state of ignorance is to be stuck in the dark, blind to “the true suchness of all things, shoho jisso, things as they are, which are not outside the ultimate truth.” [2. Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed., Moon in a Dewdrop Writings of Zen Master Dogen, , North Point Press, 1985, 345] In terms of the relative view of things, ignorance is the opposite of enlightenment. From the ultimate view, however, they are two sides of the same coin. Delusion and enlightenment are non-dual.

Hotokeshou: Buddha Nature

Put another way, there is one bulb in the socket. Whether the room is dark or lighted, depends on the switch, not the bulb. The bulb is the same whether the light is off or on. The difference between delusion and enlightenment is primarily a matter of perception. In the dark, we cannot see our inherent Buddha Nature. When we switch on the light, our inner light, we see Buddha Nature clearly.

In the above quote “deliberate acts” is a reference to karma, while “becoming aware of things” indicates consciousness. He goes on to say

Since is ignorance is inseparable from extinction, then deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from extinction. Since ignorance is inseparable from nirvana, deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from nirvana. We can speak in this way because what arises is also what is extinguished.”

Dogen is explaining that actually ignorance is not something to extinguish, nor is nirvana or enlightenment something to attain, because both are present within us at all times. In Genjo Koan, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” he writes:

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are ordinary beings. [3. ibid, 69]

Dogen means that there is no separation or difference between ordinary beings and buddhas. They are one being, and again, it is a case of being with or without light. One needs only to flip the switch to realize isshin or One Mind, and the way we do this is through practice. Dogen’s sentence here leads into the Genjo Koan quote I used in my last post, where he says that realized buddhas “continue to realize buddha.”

True buddhas do not just switch on the light and then sit back to admire their Buddha Natures. They keep on becoming buddhas. They shine more light on Buddha Nature.

With light, there is much to do, such as actualizing the fundamental point in daily life. Without light, in the darkness, you can’t much of anything at all. To fare on the Buddha way is to go beyond all limits, to see the light and move ever forward to the beat of that most excellent mantra, the mantra that relieves all suffering: gate, gate, gone, gone, paragate, gone beyond, parasam gate, gone far beyond, bodhi svaha!



What Evil Lurks In the Heart

Cat Ballou was mean and evil through and through.

I’ve been beating the drum for non-duality a lot lately. I hope I am not overdoing it, but it’s an important subject and deserves a certain amount of attention. In light of recent events, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit the non-duality of good and evil.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i maintained that the mind, although intrinsically enlightened, contains all the potentials for both good and evil, that it is both pure and stained, and that even Buddhas possess evil natures. He developed a meditation in which one “entered” evil in order to cultivate mindfulness of it. This supposedly allowed the practitioner to exercise control over evil.

The focus here is on the negative side of the coin, but there is also the positive side. Neal Donner, in his essay, Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil, writes,

[Chih-i shows] that there is no contradiction between evil and the Way. Even if evil is constantly present in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other . . .”

This notion of the interpenetration of various qualities within the mind is one of the core principles found in T’ien-t’ai philosophy. The other day I mentioned how suffering never actually ceases, it just becomes dormant as we active more positive qualities. Chih-i put it this way:

Although the Buddha does not remove inherent evil (Ch. hsing-er), he fully understands the nature of evil. As a result, he is not defiled by it and can be the master over evil. Additionally, owing to his observation, evil never arises, and the Buddha does not create evil again.

The Profound Meaning of the Kuan-Yin Sutra (Kuan-yin Hsuan-i)

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

Because of my pop (and pulp) culture inclinations, I can’t help but think of The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The Shadow was a crime-fighter who used hypnotism to “cloud men’s mind” so they would think he was invisible. He also had to rely on physic powers to see in men’s hearts. You and I as ordinary beings don’t need physic powers or hypnotism, nor do we really need to enter into esoteric meditations to see inherent evil. As with emptiness, the power of understanding, in this case, understanding of the non-duality of good and evil, combined with self-reflection, will suffice.

However, there is still the question of how make sure that inherent evil remains in a dormant state. One point that seems clear in regards to the recent shooting in Aurora is that it is not just an issue of guns or violence, it’s also an issue of mental health. Most of us will never perpetrate that kind of evil, but we are perfectly capable of committing small wrongdoings, what you might call “little evils.” So, the short answer to the question would be that we should insure that our minds stay healthy. Naturally, I recommend the practice of Buddhist meditation as an excellent way to accomplish that.

Again, it doesn’t seem necessary to engage in esoteric meditations to maintain a healthy mind. Nor, as a rule, do we need to become knee-deep in psychotherapy. Simple, basic meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, is good enough. Along with calming the mind and developing a greater awareness of the present moment, meditation also helps us suppress the negative states of mind that create non-virtuous emotions and actions. When we get up from the meditation mat, our calmness and inner health will serve us well when we face situations in daily life charged with potential negativity.