Understanding non-duality

- through Francois Leclercq

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Nonduality is one of the most misunderstood and distorted teachings of Western Buddhism. The way this is generally understood is that our daily life, with its messy thoughts, feelings, and ordinary responsibilities, is a relative truth.

Relative truth is important because it is what allows us to function in daily life, but it does not represent the whole picture. We can therefore rather see it as a necessary evil.

If we want to see the whole picture and enter into non-dual consciousness, we must experience the ultimate truth, which is beyond words, images and categories. This is also known as vacuum.

Simply put, duality is found in the relative truth of ordinary life. And non-duality is found in the ultimate truth of emptiness. So, our plan as Buddhists is to train hard; engage in chanting, meditation, sutra study, and prostrations so that we can escape relative truth and live in ultimate truth.

A careful reading of the preceding paragraphs will, however, show why this thinking is wrong.

How can we experience non-dual consciousness if we cut our lives in half, calling some things relative truth and others ultimate truth? It's like saying we want to become pure by covering ourselves in mud.

Furthermore, this does not match the example we see from our Buddhist ancestors: if we look at the historical Buddha, for example, he did not sit happily under the Bodhi tree after achieving enlightenment.

Instead, he passionately engaged with the relative truth of everyday life, teaching the Dharma to everyone he encountered until his death 45 years later. We can learn how the Buddha understood the relationship between relative truth and ultimate truth by studying the following passage:

Know also by this form of explanation that those who say, « The character of the compound and the character of the ultimate are not different,» and those who say: “They are different” are misguided; their orientation is incorrect.

Suvisuddhamati, for example, it is not easy to designate the whiteness of a conch as being a different character from the conch or as being a character which is not different from it. As it is with the whiteness of a conch, so it is with the yellowness of gold.

(The Samdhinirmocana Mahayana Sutra)

In this passage, the Buddha emphasizes that it is erroneous to separate relative truth and ultimate truth into distinct categories. However, it is also wrong to say that they are the same. Rather, we must understand that they are inextricably linked in ways that we will never fully understand.

In the same way, one cannot separate the whiteness of the conch shell from the shell itself. We cannot separate the relative truth of the world from the ultimate truth that underlies it. So, we don't need to do anything special to experience non-duality.

Simply put, our ordinary daily life is non-duality.

Of course, this begs the question: If we already experience non-duality, what is the purpose of Buddhist training?

Stick to the conch shell example. It is true that you cannot see the whiteness of the shell without seeing the shell itself if you hold it in your hand. However, if the conch is placed on a sandy beach, it will inevitably be covered.

A small amount of sand will obscure it enough that we can see the color, but the shape of the shell is hidden from us, so we don't know exactly what we're looking at. Lots of sand could completely cover the conch, so we don't even know it's there.

Only by removing the sand are we able to clearly see the relative truth of the color of the shell and the absolute truth of the nature of the shell.

As human beings, our minds are filled with the “sand” of greed, anger and ignorance. These taints obscure our ability to see both relative and absolute truth, in the same way that sand might prevent us from seeing shells on the beach.

Le Lotus Sutra describes this state of being by telling the story of a man who walks around with a precious pearl in his pocket without knowing it is there. He only finds it after meeting a kind friend who tells him where the pearl is.

The Buddha is the friend of history and the Dharma teachings are the instructions he gave to help us find the “pearl” of non-duality. In other words, it is through the skillful use and understanding of the relative that we become fully aware of the absolute.

This is why the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Six Perfections are so important. This is a literal instruction manual, designed to help us enter non-dual consciousness.

Namu Amida Butsu

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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