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A practical illustration of non-dualism
January 30th, 2018
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

A practical illustration of non-dualism

Buddhism promotes non-dualism… not as 'the' sole truth, or the superior version of 'Truth', but as one of the "two truths" (or more), i.e. as a constructive perspective to consider although it doesn't capture all there is to consider.

Practical applications sometimes seem elusive though, so let's provide an example. Because to reduce the "truth in dhamma terms" to some kind of nice metaphysical theory about the nature of reality would be erroneous.


Dualism (as a flawed cognitive process) might often be found in how one responds to a partner stating e.g. "I'm not dragging my feet" (or any variation of I'm not…", really).

If one thinks in terms of propositional logic, then a double-negation changes nothing… i.e. "not (not A) = A".
Propositional logic is fundamentally dualistic: a statement is either true or false. [Whether it is true or false might be unknown, but 'knowledge' would necessarily mean establishing the statement as either true or false: there's no neither-true-nor-false, nor both-true-and-false. A statement might be undecidable, i.e. you cannot establish whether it's true or false. A statement might be ill-formed, ill-posed, without the possibility of a valid true/false determination. But everything stays in terms of true/false and one's ability to establish which side the the divide the statement falls.]
But if an ordinary being applies a double negation to the "I'm not dragging my feet" statement, then one is very likely to make a serious mistake.

For "I'm not dragging my feet" is likely to become "(not I) am not not-dragging my feet"… then "(not I) am dragging my feet"… then "you are dragging your feet", and at last be 'taken personally' and interpreted as an accusation one has to defend against.
The ego enters the scene, with its cohort of defensiveness, refusal to listen to the other even (s)he tries to clear up the confusion, etc. Communication gets harder, stress follows!

The belief in a self separate from others (a key aspect of what Buddhism calls 'ignorance') was at the root of the mistake: such a belief supports "not-I" = "other/you"… This is the existential version of dualism, "I ≠ not-I".

Non-dualism, in Buddhism, rejects various naïve definitions of "I" (cf. the anatta doctrine, or self-less-ness)… a rejection which then doesn't allow for such a simple "I ≠ not-I" either!

Once the "I" as an inherently separate entity is rejected, the perceived "I" is reduced to a mere convention, a label pushed onto a group of phenomena (dhamma) tightly entangled, a group in which processes evolve though, a group in which some processes cease, some processes arise… a group that changes too much to allow for a fixed identity to be validly established, but a group entangled enough to 'suggest' such an identity and thus to fool us.
There's no clear definition of what's "I" any more, it might even be a matter of perspective: "I" might identify with some traits —I'm great— in some context (in a good mood), and other traits —I'm useless— in some other context! There's no clear "in (me) vs. out (of me)" anymore, there's no clear "what's me" anymore… There might be representations, labels, narratives, but hopefully without the delusion of a solid ground supporting these.

Once this becomes clear, the benefit of non-dualism in the described example should appear relatively clearly. How does one respond to a partner stating "I'm not dragging my feet" ?

Even if one assumes this is equivalent to "not-I is dragging its feet", then "not-I" might simply point to a slightly different group of processes; it might for example be the same "I" except for having made a different choice in the recent past: same body, mostly same thoughts, a few different thoughts, a slightly different past = "not-I". In this way, it's possible to step away from black-and-white caricatures.

And it is likely to be exactly what the partner is pointing to: (s)he's point out that (s)he has made a choice (not to drag one's feet)… that (s)he has committed to the current course of actions… Maybe (s)he is clarifying this, because (s)he feels it's unclear to the listener [maybe for good reason, maybe the decision is very recent… or maybe because (s)he feels previous statements or behaviours were misinterpreted…].

Surely a clear statement of intent by someone should not automatically make the listener immediately feel attacked, criticised!
Taking things personally as a criticism is a sign of self-centredness, as if anything the other says is implicitly about the listener, as if everything is about the listener!
Building mental fabrications from any "I don't" into "but you do" is a clear sign of ignorance, and is supported at its root by (ignorant) 'dualism' and notably the belief in a self as an entity separate from other, non-self entities.

When you cultivate non-dualism, in the Buddhist sense —i.e. when you 'decompose' what previously seemed like integral entities into aggregates of processes (physical and mental),— you gain an ability to let go of defensiveness, you gain an ability to keep listening to what others say (instead of immediately rushing into commentaries and justifications), you gain an ability to constructively stay engaged; you see your safety (your cessation of stress) and that of others as a win-win collaborative game.

When you forget about the non-dualist truth, when you stick to the conventional truth alone (in which one person is 'distinct' from the next), you're likely to fall back into aversion and self-centredness, you're likely to see your safety as a win-loose battle against others, you stress and you cause stress to others.


There are very practical consequences to Buddhist non-dualism… because this non-dualism is not some kind of belief in "we're all part of God's plan", nor in "we're all just a sub-part of Brahma's consciousness".

Buddhist non-dualism is the courageous decomposition of mental fabrications (lazily projecting 'entities', because this seems convenient and energy-efficient to navigate the world) so that we don't get bound by caricatures, by naïveness, by stupidity, by abusive simplifications or generalisations… By decomposition, one sees components, but also how these come to be (perceived), how these are impermanent, conditioned, how these come to cease. Identity and therefore difference seem to vanish before our eyes, and yet it's not all the same, we just shifted the perception to another level instead of getting caught into a unique representation we'd then conveniently call "truth".
It's a perpetually re-engaged enquiry into what we perceive, so we don't get caught in karmic prejudices, habits or defensiveness, so we don't blind ourselves…

The Buddha said thus:
« Then, Malunkyaputta, with regard to phenomena to be seen, heard, sensed, or cognized: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Malunkyaputta, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress. »
— Malunkyaputta sutta (SN 35.95)


#Buddhism #Dharma
Buddhism has no specific guideline on supporting teachers, it simply asks for you to consider causality: if you want this living tradition to survive, how are you participating, in practical terms, to make this happen? Nice words, exposure or social media ‘+1’ might feel good, but they do not actually help with the basic necessities: koan.mu/donate.htm
Image © Pat Swyler, "two female sculptures with meditation poses"