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VincentRJ

The distinction between dualism and non-dualism

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It's interesting how the different schools of Buddhism have different views on non-dualism. I checked the internet for any reference to non-duality in the Theravada scriptures
The following extracts are from an article by Bikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html

 

"The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: "All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature."

 

"The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha's discourses."

 

"In the non-dual systems the task of wisdom is to break through the diversified appearances (or the appearance of diversity) in order to discover the unifying reality that underlies them. Concrete phenomena, in their distinctions and their plurality, are mere appearance, while true reality is the One: either a substantial Absolute (the Atman, Brahman, the Godhead, etc.), or a metaphysical zero (Sunyata, the Void Nature of Mind, etc.). For such systems, liberation comes with the arrival at the fundamental unity in which opposites merge and distinctions evaporate like dew."

 

So it does seem to be true that the concept of non-dualism represents a major difference between the Mahayana and Theravada schools.
However, since I'm a great fan of the Kalama Sutta, I'm more interested in what makes sense, rather than blindly following a particular sect of Buddhism with its many rules which may or may not be relevant to my individual circumstances.

 

Applying the principle of non-dualism at a moderate level (in accordance with the Buddhist principle of 'everything in moderation), I can see great merit in the concept of non-dualism.
We normally think in a dualistic way. It's either hot or cold, or warm or cool, or good and bad, or wealthy or poor, or clever or stupid, and so on. However, we know from science that there is always a spectrum between two extremes that can be quantified, often with great precision. Changes in temperature can be measured in hundreths or thousandths of a degree, ranging from absolute zero (or absolute evil) to moderate temperatures suitable for humans (absolute good) to extremely hot temperatures like the temperature of the sun, which gets us into the domain of evil once again, (the burning fires of hell).

 

Issues of  'good or bad' are far more difficult to quantify. They are issues of 'quality' and are very subjective.
As far as I can deduce, a non-dualistic awareness would be an awareness without any thoughts of approval or disapproval, or danger or alarm, or excitement or desire, and so on. In other words, a state of 'no thoughts'.

 

A state of 'no thoughts' could be very good for mental health. It could represent a total 'rest' for the brain, far better than a good night's sleep.

 

However, I should point out that, according to my own reasoning, the distinction between 'dualism' and 'non-dualism' is itself a dualistic concept. This reinforces the significance of achieving a state of 'no thoughts'. In such a state, the difference between dualistic and non-dualistic disappears, at least temporarily.
 

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That's an excellent analysis Vince.

 

I think there are several non-dual perspectives within Mahayana, they can be skillful means if one understands the truth they point to rather than believe in them as a monist ultimate truth.

 

The idea of Nirvana and Samsara being inseperable for example to me it's like they are two sides of the same coin.  The point is the potential to awaken from Samsara into Nirvana is always a pregnant possibility but it doesn't change ones outer environment, (ie Nirvana and Samsara exist in the same environment/reality) rather it changes the mind and how the mind relates to it.

 

Vipassana practice is non dual from the point of view that among other things it seeks to break down this idea of me (subject) experiencing objects.  Instead of using the unifying principle mentioned above it uses the opposite principle of change and conditionality breaking every experience down to the smallest components in order to free oneself of a subject object perspective.

 

Of course you are correct though that the distinction between 'dualism' and 'non-dualism' is itself a dualistic concept, which is why I prefer the way the Buddha's teaching doesn't make a big song and dance about it but instead promotes the crumbling of dualistic conceptual frameworks.  To me this is very different from the reifying of a monist non-dual concept as the goal and centre of ones path or religion which looks a lot like replacing one problem with another.

 

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22 hours ago, Brucenkhamen said:

That's an excellent analysis Vince.

 

Very kind of you to say so, Bruce. :smile:
 

I think there are several non-dual perspectives within Mahayana, they can be skillful means if one understands the truth they point to rather than believe in them as a monist ultimate truth.


 
The idea of Nirvana and Samsara being inseperable for example to me it's like they are two sides of the same coin.  The point is the potential to awaken from Samsara into Nirvana is always a pregnant possibility but it doesn't change ones outer environment, (ie Nirvana and Samsara exist in the same environment/reality) rather it changes the mind and how the mind relates to it.
 
Vipassana practice is non dual from the point of view that among other things it seeks to break down this idea of me (subject) experiencing objects.  Instead of using the unifying principle mentioned above it uses the opposite principle of change and conditionality breaking every experience down to the smallest components in order to free oneself of a subject object perspective.
 
Of course you are correct though that the distinction between 'dualism' and 'non-dualism' is itself a dualistic concept, which is why I prefer the way the Buddha's teaching doesn't make a big song and dance about it but instead promotes the crumbling of dualistic conceptual frameworks.  To me this is very different from the reifying of a monist non-dual concept as the goal and centre of ones path or religion which looks a lot like replacing one problem with another.

 

You mention the term 'monism'. This highlights one of the fundamental differences between dualism and non-dualism. Are the mind, the brain and the body independent entities? The concept of monism claims they are not; they are one. Dualism seems to claim that they are independent.

 

I confess that I tend to side with the monistic argument, which seems more rational to me. A mind cannot exist without a brain. A brain cannot exist without a body. A body cannot exist without a mind and a brain.

 

A person who is unconscious, or in a deep coma in hospital, who might otherwise die in a natural environment in a forest, for example, might recover due to the minds of the nurses and doctors who take care of him/her.

 

Here's a short pdf which explains the problem, from a neuroscientific perspective.

http://web.mst.edu/~rhall/neuroscience/01_fundamentals/historical_roots.pdf
 

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Actually monism as I understand it goes much further than that and claims that life the Universe and everything is just one thing, everything is one.  On a material level that makes sense as everything is built of the same atomic building blocks so possibly that can be extended to the non  material. However I don't really see how that oneness gets equated with awareness, or considered The True Self.

 

Vipassana practice does the opposite and attempts to break experience down to the smallest components.  The point of both approaches is to get away from interpreting our experience just from the conceptual framework we live by, to loosen attachment to ideas of me, you, country, identity, occupation, security etc as if these were the ultimate reality of things.

 

Concepts are necessarily dualistic because it's all about differentiating between this and that, and we need then to interact with the world around us.  It's attachment to and identification with the concepts we interpret our experience through that is responsible for much of our unwise attitudes and suffering.

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On 8/21/2017 at 1:03 PM, Brucenkhamen said:

Actually monism as I understand it goes much further than that and claims that life the Universe and everything is just one thing, everything is one.  On a material level that makes sense as everything is built of the same atomic building blocks so possibly that can be extended to the non  material. However I don't really see how that oneness gets equated with awareness, or considered The True Self.

 

I'm getting the impression the entire issue is very convoluted and confusing, so perhaps there's nothing to be gained here.
There are even different types of monism, such as 'Existence Monism', 'Priority Monism', and 'Dual-aspect Monism'.

 

Concepts are necessarily dualistic because it's all about differentiating between this and that, and we need then to interact with the world around us.  It's attachment to and identification with the concepts we interpret our experience through that is responsible for much of our unwise attitudes and suffering.

 

I agree. We have a conventional naming of things which is essential in order to function in the world. Even the most enlightened Buddhist monk needs a passport to travel out of the country (unless he can fly like a bird). :smile:

 

Attachment and clinging to such things is the problem, (although it might be wise to be attached to one's passport if one travels frequently).

 

Concepts such as monism and non-dualism perhaps just serve the purpose of helping us to understand, at an intellectual level, that all things that we perceive through our senses are 'empty' of any inherent identity or 'self'. The identity we ascribe to the various things that surround us, are no more than a product of our own thought processes.

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10 hours ago, VincentRJ said:

Concepts such as monism and non-dualism perhaps just serve the purpose of helping us to understand, at an intellectual level, that all things that we perceive through our senses are 'empty' of any inherent identity or 'self'. The identity we ascribe to the various things that surround us, are no more than a product of our own thought processes.

I think you are right.

 

If we look at the characteristics of existence.

  1. Everything is impermanent,
  2. therefore everything does not provide lasting satisfaction,
  3. therefore everything is not self,
  4. therefore everything is empty, ie has no inherent existence,
  5. therefore everything is one, ie there is a unifying principle here, ie non-dual.

 

The first 3 are in the original teachings, the last two are Mahayana enhancements.  I think they are useful as enhancements if they are just about clarifying one's view about the characteristics of existence but become a problem when it becomes a new conceptual framework that replaces the old.

 

ie adding 6th therefore oneness is is the eternal, unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe. Call it True self or God or Brahman or whatever, and realising this oneness is the purpose or ultimate reason for the path.  This is where it is adding concepts that don't need to be there, antiethical to the original teachings, and it becomes not Buddhism.

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On 23/08/2017 at 9:24 AM, Brucenkhamen said:

I think you are right.

 

If we look at the characteristics of existence.

  1. Everything is impermanent,
  2. therefore everything does not provide lasting satisfaction,
  3. therefore everything is not self,
  4. therefore everything is empty, ie has no inherent existence,
  5. therefore everything is one, ie there is a unifying principle here, ie non-dual.

 

The first 3 are in the original teachings, the last two are Mahayana enhancements.  I think they are useful as enhancements if they are just about clarifying one's view about the characteristics of existence but become a problem when it becomes a new conceptual framework that replaces the old.

 

ie adding 6th therefore oneness is is the eternal, unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe. Call it True self or God or Brahman or whatever, and realising this oneness is the purpose or ultimate reason for the path.  This is where it is adding concepts that don't need to be there, antiethical to the original teachings, and it becomes not Buddhism.

Interesting subject Bruce.

 

Is calling it God or Brahman technically incorrect though?

 

Didn't the Buddha suggest that even Brahman was in a state of Samsara?

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On 12/3/2017 at 11:12 PM, rockyysdt said:

Interesting subject Bruce.

 

Is calling it God or Brahman technically incorrect though?

 

Didn't the Buddha suggest that even Brahman was in a state of Samsara?

 

Yes it's technically incorrect within the Buddhist framework because it doesn't form part of the framework, I was talking more in terms of the concept not being useful.

 

The Buddha talked in terms implying all deities being samsaric beings, Brahma is just one of them but is mentioned in quite a few passages.  However I referred to Brahman which is a very different concept, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Difference_between_Brahma,_Brahman,_Brahmin_and_Brahmanas

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On 07/12/2017 at 7:18 PM, Brucenkhamen said:

 

Yes it's technically incorrect within the Buddhist framework because it doesn't form part of the framework, I was talking more in terms of the concept not being useful.

 

The Buddha talked in terms implying all deities being samsaric beings, Brahma is just one of them but is mentioned in quite a few passages.  However I referred to Brahman which is a very different concept, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Difference_between_Brahma,_Brahman,_Brahmin_and_Brahmanas

It's a good example illustrating the use and interpretation of words having vast differences in meaning, simply by adding a character, in this case the letter "n".

 

 

What has always perturbed me, for want of a better verb, is that depiction of the realms of existence seemed to be confined in, and either elevated or lowered from, the earthly realm.

 

This doesn't take into account the existence of countless worlds in our universe, not to mention the life these far flung places must harbour.

 

It seems that our infinite lineage of Re Births take place on earth or within realms above or below it, a common flaw which is also displayed within Christianity, Islam & Judaism, amongst others.

 

In other words confined within a humans realm of existence, suggesting the depictions are man made. 

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Who is reborn? The aggregates? Surely not anatta.

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12 hours ago, trd said:

Who is reborn? The aggregates? Surely not anatta.

 

This is the question that goes unanswered.

 

On one the hand we are taught that what is born is impermanent & conditioned, and will expire upon death, but on the other hand, that which was never born can never die, it is permanent and unconditioned, or deathless.

 

Yes, who is re born, and what awakens?

 

 

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3 hours ago, rockyysdt said:

Yes, who is re born, and what awakens?

 

... and how does this question segue from "The distinction between dualism and non-dualism", if at all.

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On 8/21/2017 at 10:37 AM, VincentRJ said:

For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: "All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature."

 

Actually, it would be more accurate to state that "the validity of conventional dualities is neither affirmed nor denied" if you read Nāgārjuna (who is widely considered one of the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.) 

 

Further reading on the Mahayana and the concept of "sunyata:"

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1048288.The_Fundamental_Wisdom_of_the_Middle_Way

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On 5/21/2018 at 7:02 AM, fusion58 said:

 

Actually, it would be more accurate to state that "the validity of conventional dualities is neither affirmed nor denied" if you read Nāgārjuna (who is widely considered one of the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.) 

 

Further reading on the Mahayana and the concept of "sunyata:"

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1048288.The_Fundamental_Wisdom_of_the_Middle_Way

Hi,

I haven't read the book, but thanks for the link.

 

However, it seems to me, logically, if you describe something as 'neither affirmed nor denied', then that implies you have no position on the issue.

 

For example, an agnostic, by definition, is someone who would declare that he neither affirms nor denies the existence of a Creator God. He simply doesn't know. Wouldn't you agree?

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On 5/22/2018 at 9:07 AM, VincentRJ said:

Hi,

I haven't read the book, but thanks for the link.

 

However, it seems to me, logically, if you describe something as 'neither affirmed nor denied', then that implies you have no position on the issue.

 

For example, an agnostic, by definition, is someone who would declare that he neither affirms nor denies the existence of a Creator God. He simply doesn't know. Wouldn't you agree?

First, we probably need to reframe "the validity of conventional dualities."

 

"Validity" is more of a logical construct than an ontological one. If you substitute "existence" for "validity," then I think Nagarjuna's position becomes more clear.

 

This is to say, opposites which, when paired, comprise conventional dualities can only be said to exist interdependently, or in a relative sense. Therefore, we can impute neither being nor non-being (or "coming or going") to them.

 

By analogy, a wave on the ocean isn't created from nothing. Likewise, it doesn't expire into nothingness or non-being when it disappears from our view. The wave has no existence independent of the ocean - it's simply something the ocean is doing. 

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