There is a passage...
銀碗盛雪 明月藏鷺 類而不斉 混則知處
“A silver bowl full of snow / a white egret hidden in the moonlight / these are not the same / comparing them we can appreciate [our own] place”
This comes from the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, a medieval Chinese text.
My own teacher gave a teaching upon this text back in September 1981. Her translation is:
“The white snow falls upon the silver plate, / The snowy heron in the bright moon hides; / Resembles each the other yet these two are not the same; / combining them we can distinguish one from other.”
Here is what she said about this passage:
“Snow is white, a silver plate is white, but they are not the same whiteness. Herons and bright moons are the same colour, but they are not the same thing. Do not discriminate between the value of the silver and the apparent lack of value of the snow.”
In other words, in her view, it is a teaching about nondiscrimination, which is one varient on nonduality.
Now I have something to say...
This text specifically says, even in her own translation, “These two are not the same”. If two are not the same, then they are dual, and the purpose of the text is evidently to get us to "distinguish one from other."
Roshi’s teaching, not to discriminate values, has some grounding in Buddhism, but, I suggest, it is a subordinate value to that of honouring the Three Jewels as supremely radiant (the moon), and in this passage, it is the higher teaching, not the lower one that is meant.
Thus was I educated intensely in this nondual attitude, and it has taken me some time and effort to see that often what is taken as teaching on nonduality is actually nothing of the sort.
This particular extremely famous passage is surely telling us to appreciate our proper lesser place in the scheme of things. However white a heron/egret one may be, one can never be the moon. Egret means individual creature standing in the light - oneself. Moon means the source of the light - Buddha. This is a text about not pretending to be Buddha and not thinking that when Buddha acts on, in or through oneself that that is by one’s own power. It sets one apart and sets Buddha apart. This separation is necessary in order that one be able to receive.
The arrogant notion that one is oneself Buddha already, that one bumps into everywhere, is a sad distortion. We should not be minimising the difference; we should be realising the majesty.
[Footnote: There are those who say that one should never criticise nor disagree with one's teachers. This idea is also a heresy. Buddhism is a dialectical process. If my disciples are not capable ot debating with me then they have missed the point completely. To follow the Dharma is also to wrestle with the Dharma. How else is one going to arrive at the point where it becomes real?]
Yes, I think 'not very helpful' catches it about right. Ultimate validity has to rest in the domain of speculative philosophy and to a large extent hinges on definitions of words and arguments that are essentially circular, but in the realm of actual spiritual practice, I agree with Honen (and, I think Dogen - though there are many arguments about his precise position) that the idea that one is inherently enlightened hardly adds vigour to one's practice.
Namo Amida Bu