[This piece is work in progress. I may come back to it at a later date. I post it now fir anybody who is interested. Feedback welcome]
This essay tackles the tricky question of dualism. On the one hand, this is an abstruse philosophical issue. On the other hand, it has a lot of practical and attitudinal implications. The question of dvaita and advaita has been important in the history of Indian thought and the more or less corresponding issue of dualism and nondualism played an important part in the evolution of European theistic religion in the Middle Ages. We are still living with - almost haunted by - these templates of thought. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for Buddhism to be presented as a nondualistic philosophy, but this is a questionable assertion. Nondualism comes very close to being the eternalism and nihilism that Buddha categorically stated was not his teaching.
However, the subject is full of paradoxes. Linguistically speaking, we can immediately see that the term nondual or advaita is defined negatively. It is designated in terms of what it is not. Unless there is a duality to deny, nonduality is a nonsense word. Not-X is only meaningful if X. Thus, a thorough-going nondual position would actually have nothing to say. It could not even use its own name. This tends to lead us to the kind of philosophy that asserts that nothing exists, which is nihilism, or that nothing really changes, which is eternalism. There are certainly people who say that this is the core of Buddhism, but are they right? Such an approach implies that terms such as nirvana indicate an absolute non-existence. We could call this Extinction Buddhism. It appears to me that such an approach, though it has quite a following, contradicts the teaching of Shakyamuni.
Aside from philosophy and words, some people who have had profound spiritual experiences report that such terms as oneness and nonduality make sense to them as a way of describing the experience. In such an experience one may well have a compelling sense that all is well, that conflicts dissolve and troubling worries of mundane life melt away. One may experience a universal beneficence which is deeply reassuring. One can easily understand how the language of oneness can make sense when one is in the flow of such a profound transcendence. However, others have expressed their experience in other terms, for instance, as meeting with the divine or talking to an angel, in which there is a clear subject object distinction, or as being taken on a spiritual journey. Are people who use these contrasting styles of description talking about essentially similar experiences in different languages or are they describing different experiences? I am inclined to the former view, but there is no way to clinch the issue.
Nondualism generally refers to an absolutist and idealist system of thought. Buddhism does not deny the idea of absolute truth and it certainly has some ideals, but, arguably, it is also, for the most part, a practical, liberationist approach directed to the person living in a non-ideal world.
Such paradox has led, in theology, to the distinction between apophatic and kataphatic approaches. The former is the negative path of approaching the divine by discerning what is not-god. The kataphatic is the approach by positive means. The former asserts that one can say nothing positive about the divine, whereas the latter will retort that if you try to assert that there is anything that is not-god, you err, as whatever exists cannot be apart from god, and, therefore, is not not-god, that since god is all, there cannot be anything that is not-god, so the apophatic approach is completely empty. The apophatic will then say, Yes! That’s right, complete emptiness is what we seek and the kataphatic will then say “But how?" There is no end to this kind of dialectic between pure abstraction and practicality.
Undoubtedly, some people like an apophatic approach because they fear to ever get anything wrong and so prefer not to have to assert anything. This might seem like a risk free approach, but this is surely self-delusion. In this world, even doing nothing is doing something. We can all sit in a room in complete silence and there will be a kind of harmony and it may be wonderful to experience this for a period of retreat, but as soon as the silence is broken we may find that the supposed harmony was only a surface phenomenon that cannot be relied upon in the world of action. Many people feign spiritual advancement in this way.
I hope that, by now, you can grasp that, even if we were to assert the superiority of a nondualistic ultimate of some kind, there would still be practical usefulness in continuing to admit the duality between that nondual realm and the multiplicity that we encounter all around us and that makes up “real life” as we know it. We exist in a position in which even if everything is nondual, we have to deal with it in a dualistic way. We might occasionally have mystical experiences that we might like to describe as oneness, and the memory of these might be inspiring, but we still have to live in the world of diversity. We thus arrive at the seeming paradox of spirituality being about the duality of duality and nonduality, this world and an other realm that works according to a different set of rules.
This asymmetry between domains seems to be a ubiquitous feature of actual experience. Everything that happens in life is an encounter of some kind. However, it is not just an encounter between entities that exist on the same plane - one person with another person, one force with another force, one idea with another idea - there is always also a meeting of domains that are completely incommensurable - mind with matter, finite and infinite, conscious and unconscious, meaning and substance. Traditionally this has been talked about as the interaction of the material, visible world with the unseen spiritual world. Modernist thinking has tried to discredit the spiritual dimension and this has made many things more difficult to talk about. It is difficult, however, to see how we can have a complete understanding of Buddhism without it, and to do so we have to admit that Buddha’s practical teaching is necessarily framed in dualistic terms.
YOU NEED TWO WINGS TO FLY
The two wings of Buddhism are wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is called prajña. The word is cognate with the Greek word diagnosis. It refers to seeing into things and not being taken in by surface appearance. Compassion is karuna. It is a wish that spiritual obstacles be removed from people’s path. These are called wings on the analogy of the two wings of a bird. A bird with only one wing cannot fly. In the same way, prajña and karuna need each other. Prajña without karuna can be distant and clinical. Karuna without prajña can be counter-productive. Just giving people what they want is not always the wisest thing to do.
So prajña and karuna operate together. We can think of this as like the blades of scissors. However, really, prajña and karuna belong to incommensurable realms. It is not just one wing meeting another wing. Prajña penetrates the spirit of things, whereas karuna is very definitely grounded in the world of conditions. Thus, from the perspective of compassion, things matter whereas from that of wisdom nothing matters. These assertions do not negate each other because they belong to incommensurable planes. There is a dynamic and creative tension between them precisely because neither can be reduced to the other. However, neither can be complete without the other. In order to do things, one always implicitly invokes such interaction of realms.
To take another instance, Buddha called his teaching dharma-vinaya. Here too we have an important contrast. Vinaya is a system of case law based on lived examples. Dharma is the meaning and principles that animate such lives. Vinaya is concrete action and dharma is the spirit and meaning.
From these basic examples we can see that it is not enough to say that Buddhism is nondualistic and stop there. Whatever it has of nondualism always exists in a dualistic relationship with the world of conditions. To assert one without the other is to pretend to live only in the absolute and this is a self-deluding pose. Wisdom and compassion exist in a dynamic dualistic relationship. Buddhism is overflowing with examples of this type.
Even at the simplest level, Buddha makes distinctions. In his dialogues, he never shows any reluctance to distinguish what is dharma from what is not, what is wise from what is foolish. The prajña that he demonstrates and advocates itself consists essentially in an ability to distinguish the true from the false, the surface appearance from the deeper reality, and the things of the spiritual world from the mundane. It is not difficult to present his teaching as a thorough-going dualism, or set of interlocking dualisms, in which each presentation of the teaching rests upon a distinction between two incommensurable domains.
To repeat, in such pairings, the components are not parallel or symmetrical. Spirit and matter are not subject to the same laws. It is not like adding two quantities, it is a matter of bridging two completely different kinds of domain.
In the West, dualism once referred to those faiths that conceptualised the world as a battle ground between forces of good and evil. This conceptualisation is then easily extended to a distinction between domains or worlds, one benign and one diabolic. Such ideas can be quite pernicious and it is probably the fear of them that motivates our modern wariness of dualism
However, there are other less black and white notions of dualism that can be more useful. Thus, in psychology we talk about the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. Here again, it is an asymmetric situation. The rules that apply to the unconscious are quite different from those that apply to the conscious. The conscious is temporal, rational and conceptual. The unconscious operates quite differently. One has a sense that things emerge from the unconscious and then get shaped by the conscious mind that repackages them according to its ideas of what makes sense. Sometimes, as when one remembers a dream, one gets a direct view of the unconscious and it may seem quite bizarre. In fact, even when we remember a dream, the very act of remembering has probably already tidied up the original somewhat. Thus the conscious acts as a kind of filter.
In olden times, much of what we today think of as psychology was conceptualised differently. Rather than imagining an unconscious mind inside of ourselves, they were more likely to think in terms of the actions of spirits. People of the Buddha’s day had a highly developed idea of the spirit world and the existence of a hierarchy of spiritual beings who helped or hindered people’s lives. The mundane and spiritual worlds were in continual commerce with one another. The notion of these two worlds pervades Buddhism.
There is the world of appearances (rupakaya) and the world of truth (dharmakaya). One can take this more literally or less literally and there is no great consistency between texts in this regard. Sometimes the Buddha seems to be quite literally relating to an unseen world. Sometimes the texts seem only to be talking about the difference between substance and meaning. When we try to tie the matter down in a rational manner we are likely to end up in a terrible muddle and conclude that the texts are so mutually and even self contradictory as to be nonsensical.
Let’s take a famous example. When the Buddha talks about his own experience of enlightenment, he tells his audience that he was, at first, reluctant to teach. It took divine intervention to make him go forth. The god Brahma Sahampati appeared and told him that there were some in the world who have but little dust in their eyes who were wasting for want of the dharma. There would be some who would understand. The Buddha was thus persuaded. This is all fascinating. The verses are some of the most beautiful yet the content, if we take it straightforwardly, tells us that the first real decision that the newly enlightened Buddha made was a mistake, a misjudgement - so much for omnipotence - and that it took an intervention from the unseen world to put things right. Furthermore, the Buddha recounted this story himself more than once, so evidently he meant to teach something by this example.
Now, of course, one can take passages of this kind literally or metaphorically. As modern people we might see the unseen world as referring to the unconscious mind. I am reminded of the passage in Jonathan Reggio’s book, One Day the Shadow Passed, where he says, “Some people say that when you lose you way you do so for a reason. Your deeper mind, which is better attuned to the truth of the world than your conscious mind, has decided that your life is heading in the wrong direction and that something must finally be done. Unconstrained by time and space your deeper mind works out a new plan that will take you back to the source of all truth, for it views your conscious mind as a wayward younger sibling who sometimes needs to be guided back on track. More often than not it neglects to explain its plan, knowing from bitter experience that the conscious mind will ignore and overrule its seemingly irrelevant advice.” (p.19. Reggio 2012, Hay House, London). Now we might be reluctant to think that the just-enlightened Buddha had already gone off track or lost his way, but perhaps that is a function of us misunderstanding what exactly it was that he was enlightened to. After all, in this case, the deeper mind, if that is what Brahma Sahampati is, does explain its plan to Buddha and Buddha listens. Could it be that that is the key difference between being enlightened and not: to heed rather than to ignore and overrule?
We can also pause for a minute and reflect upon the fact that conscious mind versus deeper mind is another dualism and that we actually have no greater knowledge of what the deeper mind is than we have of the gods of the unseen world. We might prefer to see one of these descriptions as a metaphor for the other simply because one of these descriptions is more in keeping with our culture than the other one, but there is not much basis for this beyond cultural preference. In Buddha’s day they thought differently and talked in terms of gods when we might talk of complexes or unconscious processes, but as C.G.Jung says, talking about gods is a lot more positive than talking about complexes and sometimes there is something to be said for having a positive language. Either way, we are talking about a mysterious world or other dimension of experience that the ordinary person does not understand and tends to “ignore and overrule”. Perhaps spiritual enlightenment has something to do with ceasing to ignore and overrule it. In fact, it could be that such ignoring and overruling was what Shakyamuni was referring to when he coined the term avidya, the blindness that is the root of all our ego building projects.
If this line of speculation is correct, then the practical import of ideas like non-dualism should be something to do with opening up the gate between these two domains. It should not be a matter of trying to raise the barrier higher and denying the existence of the other side. In this conception, Buddha becomes a kind of shaman who travels easily from one side to the other and back again. There is plenty of support for this idea in the Buddhist literature. Buddha frequently converses with deities.
It could well be that much contemporary Buddhist teaching has been hijacked by a misreading of references in the texts to consciousness. Buddhism is surely not really about learning to be more and more conscious and alert all the time in a manner that excludes the deeper mind. Rather, it seems to me, the Buddha encouraged and demonstrated a remarkable ability to heed the deeper mind. To do this does not require sharp here and now awareness so much as free-floating consciousness and a willingness to allow the mind to wander. Many contemporary forms of Buddhist practice seem to consist of exercises designed to cultivate the dominance of the conscious mind at the expense of the deeper. In the modern world, mankind is trying to be in control of nature and this extends to trying to be in control of our own natures. This may be a great folly. It may also be a misunderstanding of Buddhism.
Let’s go back to the distinction that we started with, the two wings of Buddhism, prajña and karuna. In this context karuna, compassion, is closely connected to skilful means (upaya). We can say that karuna is the wish to save beings from their spiritual obstacles and upaya is action to carry that wish into effect. Upaya refers to the ways in which a Buddha helps beings toward enlightenment. It rests upon the idea that all the teachings of Buddha are provisional, in the sense that they are adapted to the capacity of the listener. There is no point in giving a teaching that the listener cannot understand. Implicit here is the idea that each person is necessarily upon his or her spiritual path, but that each path is unique.
We can use the analogy of people travelling to a destination from many different starting points. If a person at the destination were in telephone communication with each of the people who were coming she might have to advise one of them to go further north while advising another that the way forward was to the south or east or west. If the travellers were to consult each other, they might become confused by learning that another traveller had been given a different instruction to the one they themselves had received. “First she tells Mary to go west and then she tells me to go east - well, which direction is it?” From the perspective of the person at the destination it is all clear and makes sense, but for the travellers it can be confusing. Hence there are many schools of Buddhism, each catering to different groups of people. Whether everybody is in the right party, however, is less easy to determine.
If we extend this analogy, we can readily identify a major pitfall. Those who are too far to the west of the destination should be instructed to go east and those too far to the east to go west. However, those who are too far to the west are there, presumably, in some degree, by choice. In other words, they have a preference for going west. Similarly, those too far east have a preference for going east. If, therefore, instead of the instructions being issued directly to individuals, all the instructions are made available to everyone, then people will naturally tend to pick the wrong instructions. Those in the east will prefer the instructions meant for people in the west and vice versa. Just following one’s immediate inclination may not be the optimum strategy.
This is one reason why so many pieces of Buddhist advice are in the negative form or speak of restraint or of not taking things at face value. In fact, not taking things at face value is a good rough definition of prajña. We all know that Buddhism talks about restraining desire. Desires get low marks in Buddhism. This is saying that what you desire may well not be what is good for you. It may well not advance you upon the path and might even be an obstacle. From this we can see that compassionate help, in the Buddhist sense, is not always straight-forward. In the ordinary worldly sense we think that we are helping somebody if we assist them in getting what they want. If we had more penetrating wisdom we might sometimes realise that this was not the best way forward.
One has to ask, therefore, what kind of “path” we are talking about. What do we mean by labelling it a “spiritual” path? The Buddha likens it to crossing a river. He speaks of the teachings as a raft to get one to the other shore. When one gets to the other shore one will no longer need the raft, but for now the raft or something equivalent is necessary. The idea of this shore and the other shore gives us a metaphor for skilful means. The raft is a skilful means for crossing an expanse of water. This analogy implies that there is a "this shore" and an "other shore" and a journey in between. This shore refers to a purely worldly life. The other shore refers to a spiritual destination. The journey is the spiritual life. The Buddha does not say so in the sutra, but we can think of the Buddha himself as a kind of ferryman taking us across. The idea of two shores, of course, is another dualism. It is not difficult to map the other shore, the deeper mind and the unseen god realm onto one another, even if the fit is not perfect.
The ferryman is quite at ease with the journey. He has done it many times and he is familiar with both shores. This is the Buddha. He knows the other shore, the param-ita. He also knows the worldly shore. Buddha is worldly wise as well as spiritually wise. He understands the two truths (another dualism), absolute and relative. It was by transcending the relative truth that he discovered the ultimate. Buddha is, therefore, a knower of both worlds (lokavid). The ferryman is happy to take us across. However, not many people actually get onto the raft. There are many people who try to swim by their own effort and there are many more who try to build replicas of Buddha’s raft.
The idea of two levels of activity - prajña and karuna - alludes to the distinction between the two worlds, the world of fame and gain and the spiritual domain. Buddha was revered as a sage who saw the other world, the param-ita, clearly, and so can take us across.
Buddha lived in this world in close relation to the other world. In many texts he is presented either as a kind of emissary from the other world or as in close communication with it. Thus, we hear that when he was born he descended from the Tushita heaven or, in the early part of the Larger Pure Land Sutra, Ananda asks if he was communing with the other Buddhas.
Buddhism is not just a secular philosophy. In his classic book Buddhist Logic (originally published 1930), Tscherbatsky asserts that in its first five hundred years Buddhism was an austere philosophy practised only by ascetic monks who had a completely apophatic philosophy. This idea is still quite widely held, but it is not true. To have even a small number of monks, you need to have a much larger lay congregation and the latter will be inspired by a more positive spiritual vision. What is true is that such records as we have were mostly those produced by the monks. However, if we look at the Parinirvana Sutra, we see that the Buddha’s funeral was largely taken over by the lay congregation and his relics were then put into reliquaries where the devotees could go to worship. Buddha clearly had a large scale lay movement of people who were so inspired.
Buddha's Buddhism was a religion from the very beginning. His authority to teach came, as far as most ordinary people were concerned, from his knowledge of the other world, his communion with gods, his ability to recount previous lives and tell the destinies of those who died and other abilities that modern people pay no attention to or dismiss as mythical. We ignore and overrule it.
We want to be in charge, masters of our soul, but the soul world is beyond our grasp. We think, for instance, that in order to do something in life a person has to become conscious of the issue, deliberately choose a goal and then consciously select means toward the chosen end. Real life just isn’t like that. Even when it is, the person really has little idea why they prefer what they do. Deeper forces are always at work, or, we could say, the gods always have a hand in it. However we conceptualise it, it rather appears that what was distinctive about Buddha was not so much that he was right about everything, always conscious and supremely clever, but rather than he was open to the other world and its guidance. He paid heed to it.
The two wings of prajna and karuna-upaya refer to the way that a Buddha is a bridge between the two domains. Prajña is the penetrating wisdom that sees beyond this world and karuna-upaya is the action within this world that results from having such knowledge of the beyond. Prajña is a movement into the other world and compassion is the return journey.
In my own case, I can readily relate to this. As a child and at various points in my life I have had religious experiences. My Western education suggests to me that these are psychological phenomena, projections of my own mind, and so on. However, we do not really know what the mind is any more than we know about the realm of the gods and angels. There is a mystery implicit in life and people in different ages have sometimes thought of this as being a world beyond this one and sometimes, when they have not been willing to credit the existence of such a world, have talked about it as being “in the mind”. The actual experience is more suggestive of the traditional view than the modern one. After all, people do sometimes see angels, but nobody ever experiences a mind and certainly in regard to the so-called contents of the mind, one never experiences nor perceives the container.
If one goes to an art gallery accompanied by an art expert who has some skill in teaching and explaining, one may learn a lot and actually come to see the pictures in a new way. One starts to see meaning in details that one had not previously noticed. One comes to understand something of how the picture came to be as it is, the conditions that the artist worked within and that led him or her to create the work. After such education, one no longer just sees pretty pictures, one sees a world of meaning; one could say that one appreciates a heart-mind world beyond the rational world of surface appearance. However, this awakening to a new way of perceiving is not just a function of having received extra knowledge. The conscious mind has been fed with information and arguments about the art, but, at the same time, one has been infected by the attitude, enthusiasm and inspiration of the connoisseur. Even if one only retains a fraction of the information, one has been infected and changed by the spirit of what one has newly experienced. Perhaps we can understand the Buddha in an analogous way. He takes us around the art gallery of life where we have all hung our works and he helps us to understand the great spiritual depth behind or implicit in each picture.
Prajña is perception that goes beyond surface appearance. In Buddhist language, it is to see dharma, not merely rupa. It might be a matter of seeing a spiritual reality, more real than the empirical, or it might be a matter of understanding the psychology of a situation in greater depth, and these two might actually turn out to be different ways of describing the same thing. In any case, the spiritual reality is taken as more real than what first appears to us. Rupa is form that has some effect upon us. Behind it lies a reality. Fundamental reality is called dharma. However, we need to be careful how we understand this. The Buddha rupa is the statue on the altar. What appears is a physical form that has a name. The reality behind this is the true nature of Buddha, which, for we ordinary beings, is the most profound mystery. When we say that we see the reality behind the form, we do not mean that we see what looks like a sitting person but perceive the reality of it being just a piece of stone. Buddhism is not materialism. In Buddhism, what is most real, what is dharma, is a non-material world of profound meaning.
Karuna-upaya is the wish and action involved in helping others to move toward such an awakened perspective and make it real in their lives. This is what Buddhas do. Appreciating it involves us in cultivating a special sensitivity rather than ignoring and overruling it as we have all been educated to do. The person who has seen may be able to open the eyes of those who have not yet seen.
When we ignore and overrule the hidden world, we do so in an attempt to live a coherent, rational life in what we designate as “the real world”. However, our attempts to live a loving and wholesome life in such a way inevitably lead to disappointment (dukkha). This disappointment can be a cause of despair and cynicism, or it can be the gateway to a new life. People make spiritual progress through some combination of disillusionment and inspiration. It is the world of conditions that disillusions us and it is the influence of the other world, coming to us through those who are already awake, that inspires.
The two wings of Buddhism refer first and foremost to the action of Buddhas themselves. We are beneficiaries of their wisdom and compassion. Although we might take the Buddhist teachings as personal advice, our capacity is limited. Buddhism is not so much saying, “You should exercise wisdom and compassion,” and more pointing out how Buddha exercises wisdom and compassion that benefits us. If one happens to have wisdom and compassion, one will surely deploy it, and will need no further injunction to do so. It will take care of itself. However, to cross the stream we rely upon the ferryman.
In actuality, the influence of the Buddhas mostly comes to us second or third hand. We are inspired by those who have been inspired by the Buddhas, or by those who have been inspired by those who have been inspired, and so on. It is a transmission. To use a different metaphor, the current that we receive comes from a far away generator. We do not often plug into the power station directly.
Buddhism is non-dualistic in the sense that it establishes a bridge between two poles of real life, the here and the beyond. It is, however, very easy to misunderstand this line of teaching. Buddhism has a well established sense of the here and the beyond and without it it is very difficult to make sense of the teaching. The teaching has to be understood dualistically before non-dualism makes any sense. Buddhist wisdom is to stop ignoring and overruling the beyond but is it not a matter of asserting that only the absolute realm exists, except in a purely formal academic sense, because Buddhism is a practical path of liberation, not just an abstract philosophy. Conversely, Buddhist compassion is not merely being helpful in practical ways, it is the skilful means of the awakened in helping the unawakened to see and experience the mundane in a manner that is illuminated by an awareness of what is beyond. One is only ripe to do so insofar as one has experienced some disillusionment with skating on the surface of life. Asserting that there is no real difference between enlightened and unenlightened beings may make sense from an ultimate perspective, but that is a perspective that none of us have more than very occasional access to, so there is a grave danger here of self-deception and false aggrandisement. Not only that, but clinging to the idea of non-duality in an exclusive way may simply impede our ability to seriously consider real issues, and may encourage us in exactly the kind of ignoring and overruling that Buddhism seeks to carry us beyond.