“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.
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.