Buddhist “non-duality”

“Non-duality” is a key notion of later Buddhism associated with the developments introduced by Nagarjuna in the second century of the common era. It is a companion concept to emptiness and is central to the Mahayana worldview.

These concepts are about as philosophical in the western sense that Buddhism ever gets. They are the attempt to ground the Buddhist emphasis on the impermanence of all reality in something objective. They are the elaboration of the notion of “dependent co-arising” which is so central to the Buddhist vision.

Buddhist practice concentrates on the mirage-like quality of the phenomena of experience as the source and wellspring of detachment. The craving that creates so much suffering and injustice for humankind is the result of attachment. This clinging to things ― pleasures, possessions, power ― thought to enhance and solidify one’s grip on life, is a chimera. Everyone’s experience confirms it. Chasing those things is like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When you get there, it disappears. You find that your desired happiness, ascendancy and solidity slips like water through your fingers. Part of maturing into adulthood is the appreciation of the ephemeral nature of all such goals, and balanced adults, psychologically successful and secure, are always aware of the reality of what they are pursuing. Detachment is a natural response to the experience of impermanence.

The Buddha made the empirical discovery that detachment is the key to the elimination of suffering because it provided two correctives to the maladjustments characteristic of immaturity. One, it gave the mind the serenity to gauge benefits and judge clearly what pursuits were worth any human effort at all, thus making it possible to avoid disappointments in advance; and two, it prepared the emotions for the predictable let-down when those disappointments occurred. He also saw that poor judgments and disappointments not only attended the grosser objects of human desire, like pleasure, possessions and power, but were equally present when more refined goals were on the table, like virtues, humility, generosity, compassion … yes and even detachment itself. He quickly came to the conclusion that detachment was universally applicable because everything was equally impermanent.

Enter “science”

Such a universal declaration was intellectually pretentious on the face of it. The Buddha never went any further, philosophically, than to declare it the fruit of his experience and asked his followers to confirm it in their own experience. Thus it stood for many centuries as a universally agreed upon principle of Buddhist practice because it worked. But in the second century of the common era a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher by the name of Nagarjuna tried to give this universally acknowledged experience a scientific basis. He wrote a treatise called “The Essential Wisdom of the Middle Way” in which he systematically attempted to examine all classes of human experience and prove that they were empty of their own reality, impermanent, and the proper object of human detachment.

The fundamental vision that grounds emptiness is based on what the Buddhists call “dependent co-arising” which means that everything that exists ― both that it exists, and the way that it exists ― is not self subsistent. It is rather the effect of a plethora of causes in space and time that ultimately reach to the very edges of the cosmos and cosmic history. It is this effort to define the existence of anything, a “thing” or any of its characteristics, as the effect of other things and forces beyond the “thing” or ability in question, that constitutes emptiness. All things arise into existence in dependence upon the arising of other things into existence.

Commentators use simple examples to illustrate the phenomenon. Take a rose. When you look at a rose what you are looking at is the net result of a network of causes ― the seed that became the rose bush, the soil and its many and balanced nutritional chemicals, water in the proper amount and at the proper acidity, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which the rose bush absorbed and converted into oxygen in the process of photosynthesis, etc. Each of those causes were themselves dependent upon other causes for their own arising into existence. Hence the carbon dioxide came from multiple sources like volcanic eruptions, the decay of organic matter, animal respiration; plant nutrients were released by the breakdown of rock into soil caused by various kinds of erosion; water formed from available oxygen and hydrogen gelled out of the gasses of the supernova that preceded the formation of our solar system … etc., etc. You get the idea.

Meditate long and be singularly focused on that aspect of our experience and it will shortly occur to you that when you think you are looking at a rose, you are really looking at all that went into it. That “all” is not hyperbole. It is literally real. Seen from the point of view of its “causes” the rose represents the combined effect of every thing and every event in the universe going all the way back to the big bang … none of which is a “rose.

So the “rose” is really not a rose. It is empty of its “self.” But that’s not just true of the rose. It is true of all things, forces, events ― all phenomena of whatever kind ― that occur in our universe.

Now this may seem outlandish. Of course a rose is the result of the entire chain of causes that are responsible for everything, but, you will insist, it is still a rose. The Buddhists respond, indeed, but for how long? The clearest indication that we are dealing with something that is not substantially itself is that it withers and disappears in short order.   This is characteristic of all things, including the human organism. We are here for exactly as long as the network of causes that generate our being-here exists. Our being-here is not dependent on ourselves or on some singular source that lives in another world, but precisely on that identifiable network of things and events other than ourselves which comprise the totality of our world. As those supports collapse because their own network of causes no longer produces them, they disappear, and with their disappearance so do we. Outlandish as it may seem and outrageous as it may feel, we are ultimately nothing more (or less) than the congealed effervescence of matter’s living, existential energy here and observable only while its transitory material causes continue to be operative.

We may not like it, but we are the way we are because we are matter, and that’s the way matter behaves. If we appreciate being-here we have to accept the sine qua non conditions of matter’s being here, because we are THAT.

The totality = non-duality

This awareness that all things are intimately linked by a chain of causes that extends to the very boundaries of our cosmos in space and in time changes the focus of what it means to be-here. There is no individual thing that is here by itself. It is here and has the character it does because everything else that goes into its being-here is-here. There is no way to define or identify any single thing without identifying and defining everything else.

So the fact that I spontaneously think of myself as an individual is an error, not just a partial truth, but a seriously defective falsehood because there is no aspect of any form or feature characteristic of me that is-here on its own. All of me ― body, mind, feelings, intentions ― is dependent on actively functioning factors that are other than me. So that at no point is there any duality with anything for there is nothing that can be called “not-me” and there is nothing I can look at and say that I am “not that” or claim that some part of me is “only me.”

So the Buddhist doctrine of “non-duality” is the flip-side of their identifying the real reality of the universe with the totality. They come at it from the point of view of their notion of “causality.” Everything is part of a totality because its existence and functioning is dependent upon the existence and functioning of other things … eventually, all other things. My “being-here” is dependent on my “causes.” Therefore my being-here does not exist apart from my causes. I and my causes are one being-here.

From my point of view, the Buddhist vision is corroborated by modern science which identifies the same homogeneous material energy as the fundamental component of all things that exist in our cosmos. Non-duality obtains in this view because nothing can claim to be made of anything other than what everything else is made of. We are all part of a totality of things which is comprised of the same material, and here on our planet most things even share their various elements in the same proportions, making us one identifiable family within the totality.

I think it is important to point out that the “reasons” the Buddhists give for “non-duality” are not exactly the same as what I would adduce from modern science. Regardless, it seems that the experience of oneness with all things which is a constant feature of all forms of mysticism ― Christian, Hindu, Judaic, Buddhist, Islamic ― is claimed by all traditions to have an objective “scientific” basis, and I contend that modern science agrees. Looked at from the point of view of the physical, chemical, biological constituents of all things we are all one thing: matter’s existential energy, living, evolving, dissolving.

“Non-duality” is the reason why the Hindus say “Thou are THAT.” We are all the subsets of the same reality. Were we to take that seriously, our behavior would change to the point of being unrecognizable. Right now, what we do to our bodies and to others’, human and non-human, is a function of a non-existent distinction that we insist on maintaining between us and “other” things.






12 comments on “Buddhist “non-duality”

  1. saluman73 says:

    Tony, Thank you for the emphasis on non-duality, on impermanence, and the lack of distinction in individual ‘beings’, especially individual human beings. For many years now, since I wrote “the Day My Ego Died” I have been convinced that I am not a separate being from the rest of Being. In that book, I related the “Dark Night of the Ego” that I went through when I realized that God was not a separate being unto himself, apart from the material universe. Therefore, how could I possible be an Ego, a person, a soul, distinct from the rest of material reality. Of course, through the ages, the human desire to live forever as the person we are now, led us to imagine an Eternal Father , outside the material universe, who would take us up to His eternal heaven if we deserved to be there with him. Now you have led us down the proper path of Buddhist impermanence with your beautiful picture of a rose.
    How enlightening to see a rose as the product of the entire universe, but already decaying the moment it appears in full bloom. And we like roses, are magnificent manifestations of the miracle of eternal matter. But if a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, won’t we, by any other name or manifestation, be as gloriously magnificent?
    Sal Umana

  2. What are the implications of non-duality?

  3. “Right now, what we do to our bodies and to others’, human and non-human, is a function of a non-existent distinction that we insist on maintaining between us and “other” things.”

    Please explain this and also give examples.

    • tonyequale says:

      1) BY WAY OF EXPLANATION: “… The fact that I spontaneously think of myself as an individual is an error, not just a partial truth, but a seriously defective falsehood because there is no aspect of any form or feature characteristic of me that is-here on its own. All of me ― body, mind, feelings, intentions ― is dependent on actively functioning factors that are other than me. So that at no point is there any duality with anything for there is nothing that can be called “not-me” and there is nothing I can look at and say that I am “not that” or claim that some part of me is “only me.”

      2) EXAMPLES:
      A) I enlist in the military … I obey orders to kill people I do not know based on my superiors’ claim that they are “not us” and are my enemies.
      B) I feed and clothe my body without concern that others’ bodies have no food and are naked, because they are not me.

  4. the Closet Taoist says:

    Hope this stuff is not going to be on the Final!

  5. Hi tonyequale,

    First let me say that I like the way you have answered my questions. You have not tried to confuse or evade any part of my questions but have taken those head on and logically.

    Now take this example: Suppose you see a man A who is dying of thirst and you see also a man B who is not thirsty at all. Now you think that man A and the man B are both one (because thinking of someone as an individual is an error because there is no aspect of any form or feature characteristic of someone that is-here on its own. All of someone ― body, mind, feelings, intentions ― is dependent on actively functioning factors that are other than that someone.) and you make no distinction between those two and give the water to man B. Will that action of yours save the life of man A?

    • tonyequale says:

      Dear realist,

      Thank you for your commitment to clarity. I appreciate that you continue to follow-up on the discussion. But before I answer your question, I would like to point out that your dialog is entirely focused on my statements, and your own (possibly limited) understanding of my “ontology.” I have yet to hear of your ontology or why you are questioning things that I consider relatively uncontrovertial from a scientific point of view.

      I recognize that the Buddha’s “metaphysical” basis for his call to moral universalism is historically conditioned and may be legitimately considered inadequate in today’s terms, but I believe I am compensating for that by using modern science as a more accurate descriptor of what exactly it is that makes all things to be intimately and intrinsically “one,” and of course as I am sure you are aware, that is matter’s energy. We are all made of the same “clay.”

      Once that foundational reality is established, the rest is “subjective.” But, of course, the “subjective” is exactly what morality and spirituality are all about. There are certainly enough physical/metaphysical grounds for declaring that things are NOT one at all; and those grounds appear to be sufficient for those who have decided that the world is exactly as it appears: populated with a plethora of separate and distinct “things.” However, as soon as the conventional appearances are revealed by science to be nothing but the (illusory) macro-perception of what on a lower level are entirely indistinguishable components, it becomes a matter of choice how you decide to relate. If you decide to relate to things as distinct and separate, be prepared to account for the time following death when the components dissolve and disappear and the “thing” no longer exists as a distinct, separate and autonomous living organism. You are left with the “metaphysical” problem of explaining how they disappeared. The Buddha explains it by saying they weren’t really entirely there to begin with, because their presence was being provided by things that weren’t them. … I would say that modern science would talk about the disappearance of temporary formations because they were all and severally constructed of components that themselves were subject to entropy.

      In any case, even if I make the choice to see things as “one,” there is nothing in that stance that obligates me to give water to an “apparently separate subset” of matter’s energy who is clearly NOT in need of water and deny it to another who is. Whatever would motivate me to do that? There is nothing in the understanding that “all things are one” that prevents me from responding to some obviously factual but theoretically unexlainable anomaly created by some prior conscious misunderstandings about which I have little knowledge and no control? If someone is thirsty, it is not because someone else ― a believer in “non-duality” ― erroneously thought that that particular concrescence of matter’s energy was not separately in need of water, but rather because there was some major injustice adversely impacting the situation, generally in the form of “this ‘thing’ is separate from and more worthy of water that that ‘thing’.” The “solution” for the believer in “non-duality,” is exactly the same as that of the dualist: justice demands that you give drink to the thirsty.

  6. Richard D says:

    For some strange reason, this response appeared in my email and I knew right away it was meant for you. ….
    Ahh, Willie of Occham could not have responded better. Have been looking for the “Way” for most of my time here but continue to struggle.
    At first I thought “of course – here and now is the Final!!!!” How dense of me not to grasp and continue to look for more sophisticated answers.
    But then, in the most simple way, the “here” of my one and only fleeting reality has already moved on, as has the “now”- briefly visited by Matter’s Energy, so compelled by its very nature. I was left with only the taste-memory as it were, of dust-the-wind.
    Clearly the H and N of cosmic existence is far beyond the grasp of my aging and feeble mind. In a sense I have fulfilled my only prescript for a happy retirement – which consisted of channeling all my years of striving to do and be SOMEBODY…into reveling in the grace of total underachievement, rising up in my golden years to be an exemplary NOBODY!!!
    I damn near succeeded. Then I read your tome on The Mystery of Matter. “Ah ha” said I. This is a unifying moment in my life – not realizing that being nobody was just another way of being somebody and my unyielding desire for IDENTITY, even though taking me into new fields of self-morphing behavior, would be utterly devastated by yet another Quixotic mission. I immediately fell from the grace of oblivion and entered the realm of Depressed Strivers Searching for Reality Anonymous, a place that truly touches all the human senses but cannot ever satisfy the quest for more.
    My time, as is yours, is draining out from under me even as I try to scoop up the moon shining on the lake in front of me. I must say good night for now and seek restful sleep that will bring another round of “is you is or is you not”, sliding back into being ORDINARY and finding peace in embracing no thing. Thanks for your stimulating essays.
    -the Closet Taoist

  7. tonyequale says:

    I share your discoveries. In this quest, William of Ockham would indeed be a wonderful interlocutor for such as we … but like the Wiffenpoofs assembled, I suspect that a series of contiguous moments in the company of John Jameson would actually precipitate the enlightenment we seek.

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