[Buddha-l] Re: Laughing at enlightenment

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Mon May 9 17:37:15 MDT 2005

On Sun, 2005-05-08 at 22:06 -0700, W. Codling wrote:

> But modern zennies don't talk about the 'middle way', they talk about
> 'non-dualism'. 

Non-dualism is dependent on dualism in that it is a rejection of
dualism. But as you know well, there are many kinds of dualism. There is
mind-body dualism (which most Buddhists accept), good-evil dualism (such
as Manichaeism), the sort of dualism that makes one draw distinctions
between members of one's own tribe and outsiders, and and on. Indeed,
anyone who makes a false dichotomy of any kind will probably have a non-
dualist come along to point out the fallacy involved. 

It seems to me some that sophomores in philosophy, and perhaps some
zennists, have a tendency to absolutize non-dualism. Rather than being
wary of a particular kind of dualism (which takes thinking), they take a
course (which requires no thinking at all) of rejecting ALL dichotomies,
no matter what they may be. Part of rejecting all dichotomies, of
course, is to reject two-valued logic. And, since all words have meaning
only insofar as they partition the conceptual universe into those things
to which a given word applies and those things to which it does not,
language becomes a source of dualism that requires rejection. So
characteristics of this mindless sort of dualism are railing against
Aristotle, Descartes, all logicians but Hegel (who, as Russell pointed
out, was one of the worst logicians in the history of philosophy) and
against language. They tend to talk indefinitely about the inadequacy of
language and the necessity of remaining silent (a necessity that is
often deficient in actuality, if I may borrow a phrase from Whitehead). 

> One of my basic questions has always been, "why insert a whole other 
> vocabulary (that of non-dualism) into something as fundamental to 
> Buddhist thought as the middle way?" (the 'Middle Way' being simply the 
> avoidance of falling into extremes).

Why insert the potentially misleading word "emptiness" into a discourse
that was already doing quite well with its synonym, "dependent"? I guess
people get bored with clarity. The teachings of Buddhism are just about
the most transparent and easy to understand of any in the history of the
world. A child can easily understand them. But how many people are
capable of following them and attaining nirvana? It's a little
embarrassing after a while to understand Buddhism really well and still
to be on the suffering side of nirvana. One of the best ways of dealing
with this embarrassment is to dive into obscurantism. Throw in a few
dozen obscure terms, use them inconsistently, keep saying that nobody
who has not attained the ninth level of bodhisattva training can
possibly grasp what the Buddha said, toss in some gibberish and tell
everyone that they have to pronounce it just right to get the desired
effect. Whenever people show dangerous signs of seeing through the scam,
tell them they are deluded and need a few more sesshins or empowerment
ceremonies, and bring them back into the darkness of manufactured
obscurity. If you keep that up long enough, you can keep people's mind
of the dharma almost indefinitely, thereby giving them an excuse for not
having attained nirvana. But at least they'll have an excuse and won't
feel obligated to feel embarrassed about still being shy of nirvana.

> But even so, I do concede that in meditation it is possible, and even
> common, to have some experience that can be described as somehow
> integrating disparate or contradictory 'extremes' such as subject and
> object or nirvana/samsara.

Yes, I think such experiences are pretty common among people who
practice certain types of meditative exercise.

> And further, that such experiences are quite powerful and often
> pleasurable. 

One could also say of such experiences, accurately I think, that they
are seductive and addictive. This is perhaps why it's helpful to have a
good friend on hand who can help one break through the addiction to
meditative states so that one get get on with more important tasks.

> Dogen called this moment the dropping away of body and mind.

That's an excellent phrase to describe a certain kind of experience that
comes sometimes with certain kinds of meditative exercise. 

> But for many Zen teachers, what they call 'non-dualism' has some
> significant and active component, a better mode of perception, 
> a superior understanding of something.

A lot of people are not very good at thinking clearly, so they need to
find a way of selling their lack of clarity as a kind of profundity.
(Didn't Nietzsche observe that those who are profound strive for clarity
while those who wish to appear profound strive for obscurity?) Although
not all Zen people are obscurantists, of course, a good many are. And of
course those who insist that what they do is superior betray, by the
very claim, that they have no idea what non-dualism means.

> I also thank Angela for her suggestion that 'nondualism' refers to our 
> own inner light which is the nexus of the ten thousand things.

One of my heroes, Swami Vivekananda, explains non-dualism in just those
terms. If I understand him correctly, his claim is that the sort of
dualism one should avoid is the sort that posits the goal of practice as
something outside oneself, something that comes to one through an
external agency. He uses a lot of God-talk, but for him it is essential
to realize that God is nothing but one's own mind. So pleasing God is
just pleasing oneself. And being alienated from oneself as one is is
therefore to be temporarily separated from God. This is not the way I
would choose to talk, but it is a way of talking that speaks to my
condition (as Fox would say).

> Again, I suspect that many teachers are actually talking about this
> sort of experience, but lack the willingness to find a more honest and
> useful way of speaking about it, relying instead on this wishy-washy
> attempt to be evocative rather than descriptive.

Unfortunately, a lot of teachers become economically dependent on their
supporters and so must continue to tell their disciples that they are
deluded and therefore should give the teacher more money.

> I still see no reason to talk about non-dualism in regard to any of
> these notions or experiences. 

It's good you see no reason, for there IS no reason to talk about non-
dualism. Not much good comes of it, but perhaps not much harm comes of
it either. 

> I think it is just confusing, especially within the normative
> 'western' sensibility.  Whatever that is.

Well, people can get confused about just about anything. I know of quite
a few Christians who manage to get seriously confused by listening to
dualistic teachings. So maybe the nature of some people is to be
confused no matter what they are taught, while others manage to remain
pretty clear and loving no matter how you talk to them. (How's THAT for
a dualistic claim, eh?) Perhaps the nature of what is taught has very
little causal impact on clarity and confusion of mind.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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