Nonduality in Buddhism and Judaism
All three of the "vehicles" of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, contain nondual teachings, that is, expressions of the view that reality is essentially unitive, and that both unity and multiplicity are irreducible truths of our experience. Here, by way of introduction, I will focus on how nonduality is presented in those traditions which have had the greatest impact in the West. By way of comparison, I'll also make a few references to Judaism, my other contemplative tradition, to see how the same view is gestured at by two very different systems.
Perhaps surprisingly, the tradition which is perhaps most well-known in America is Theravada Buddhism, the "way of the elders" based primarily on the Pali Canon of Buddhist sutras. In a sense, this tradition should be the least appealing to Westerners, as it is primarily monastic, and can often seem disinterested in the cares of householders. Yet this path has been the primary entry point for many Jews exploring Buddhist practice, including this one -- I have sat six week, nine week, and twelve week vipassana (insight) meditation retreats in the Theravadan tradition, in both Asia and the United States. One reason for Theravada's appeal, I think, is the dichotomy between contemplative and devotional practice. Vipassana is primarily contemplative; its central objective is jnana, wisdom, not bhakti, devotion. Thus it is compatible with secularism, atheism, and also with religions such as Judaism, because it has relatively little emphasis on worship, ritual, and faith in the religious sense of the word. As transmitted to the West, Theravadan Buddhism is scarcely a religion at all.
Yet it is resolutely nondualistic. First, the principle of nonduality flows directly from the insight into anatta, or non-self, one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. The insight into anatta is necessarily an insight into nonduality; if every thing lacks separate reality, what else is there? If Vedanta dissolved the "object" of the world into the ultimate Subject -- You are All -- the doctrine of non-self dissolves the subject entirely, leaving only the All. (Judaism has a bit of both: bittul ha'yesh, annihilation of the sense of self, more like the Buddhist model, whereas the statement that God memaleh kol almin - fills all the worlds -- more like Vedanta. Obviously the Endpoint is the same.) Likewise the realizations that all things are anicha, impermanent, and dukkha, unable to ultimately satisfy us. As these insights take hold, not intellectually but intuitively, a letting-go of the unreal naturally evolves. And for a nondualist, this subtraction of the illusory is the most important step toward realization of the true.
In the Pali Canon, these doctrines are of relatively little interest as ontological principles. The Buddha's teaching in these texts if primarily about suffering and the end of suffering, not the nature of reality, and as such is conveyed in relative terms, not absolute ones. However, the two subjects are of necessity intertwined, for what we call the "ego" is where suffering occurs, and when the delusion of a soul is erased, then phenomena like pain, sadness, and anger are merely phenomena which arise and pass, often in an instant. Look closely, and you will never see the "self" doing anything at all; you will only find mental factors and material forms - never a self.
The notion of anatta, non-self, may seem diametrically opposed to Vedanta's conception of the Atman, or Self. However, the two are more alike than they seem, because in both cases, the small self - you, me - is more illusion than reality, and that is what matters. For Theravadan Buddhism, what's left when the self is taken away is Nothing. For Vedanta, it is Everything. For Nondual Judaism, it is God. But it is the subtraction that really matters.
In a sense, the only question dividing these nondual traditions is whether everything is One, or Zero. And despite years of intensive practice in all three of these traditions, I am hard-pressed to tell the difference. Here are the nondual conclusions of one of the core texts of Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra:
Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.
Here, Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.
Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment...
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!
If we were to translate the Heart Sutra into Hasidic language, boldly and ahistorically, I think it would run something like this:
Yesh [something] is Ayin [nothing] and Ayin is Yesh. Everything that appears to be Yesh is actually Ayin. From the perspective of the Ein Sof [infinite], there is nothing: no creation; no body, heart, mind, or soul; no sefirot and no worlds; no life or death; no sin or righteousness. Higher, higher, higher even than the idea of higher, YHVH, Halleluyah.
As with the Hasidic view, the "emptiness" of the Heart Sutra refers to the intrinsic emptiness of all things. For example, as we saw in chapter one, while a table certainly exists according to our usual definition of "exists," there is no intrinsic table-ness. All its properties come from without: strength, color, shape, atomic structure, whatever. Take these "other" things out, and nothing is left. "Table" is really a convenient label only for a temporary set of conditions which, in the Buddhist view, are impermanent, empty, and ultimately unsatisfying.
From the perspective of nirvana all of these formations look like nothing. Yet from the perspective of samsara, nirvana looks like nothing; it has no characteristics, and while it is present right now, it goes undetected except by those who have purified their minds enough to let go of absolutely everything.
Compare this perspective with that of the Hasidic masterpiece called the Tanya. According to the Tanya, from God's point of view, all of what we see as yesh (something) is actually ayin (nothing), whereas the only real Something is what we see as nothing -- it has no characteristics, and it goes undetected except by those who have purified their minds enough to do bittul on absolutely everything. This isn't similar to the Buddhist view; it is functionally identical to it.
The two traditions' conceptions of the "problem" is similar as well. In Theravadan Buddhism, the problem is the illusion of the ego and its grasping onto impermanent and selfless phenomena. In nondual Judaism, the problem is the illusion of the ego (yetzer hara) and its turning away from the truth, i.e., grasping onto the unreal. It's not that the absolute is any more real than the relative -- but there's a lot less suffering in God's point of view. Consequently, the solution to the problem is similar as well: in Theravadan Buddhism, the three trainings of wisdom, concentration, and virtue; in nondual Judaism, the three paths of contemplation, ecstasy (which brings about bliss states quite similar to the Pali canon's concentrated absorptions), and fulfillment of the commandments.
Realization is not merely the "going beyond," for that concept still bespeaks a dualism of liberation and non-liberation, attainment and non-attainment. Thus the sage must go beyond even the idea of beyond, beyond even the notion that there is any going beyond at all. From the perspective of Ein Sof, there is no distinction between the world before it was created and the world after it was created: both are totally empty. And yet, the Absolute transcends and includes the relative; it is not the complement of the relative but the totality of the relative and its opposite. Especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, one does not escape from samsara so much as reinterpret it. A similar understanding is essential to Tantra, in which, as David Loy describes it, the "ultimate goal . . . is the perfect state of union-union between the two aspects of the reality and the realization of the nondual nature of the self and the not-self." Or, as a Kabbalist might put it, l'shem yichud ... for the sake of the Unification of the masculine and feminine, that is, the hidden and the manifest, that is, Absolute and the Relative, the one and the many.
Image by wonderlane, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet