The other day I had an exchange of views with someone who saw all spiritual matters from the standpoint of a rigid non-duality and would not allow any other approach. I did not dispute that from the perspective of the absolute he was right. After all, it is self-evident that God is one and there is nothing but God. What else could there be? But we do not live in a world in which the absolute alone exists. If the relative world, which includes individual souls, had no meaning and no purpose it would never have come into being, and so we cannot just dismiss it in totality as nothing but an illusion or appearance to be seen through by the wise. The fact that our real being is in God does not mean we have no conditional being.
Here is what I consider to be the truth. It derives from my own experience and understanding, but also from impressions picked up from my teachers who generally preferred to imply rather than state outright. I like to think this approach goes a little way towards reconciling the insights of Christianity and Buddhism for, as things stand, and despite ideas about the inner unity of religions behind outer doctrines, these are actually quite different. The modern Western intellectual who is not religious but is attracted to mysticism will often regard the Christian view as a rather naive form of spirituality which is superseded by the non-dualistic Buddhist approach, but I think matters can equally well be seen the other way round. In fact, the Buddhist position is almost the obvious one in that it takes things to a logical extreme. Reductive and simple, it can seem the last word on the subject and almost unarguable, but, critically, it lacks something that the Christian vision has, and that is an awareness of the purpose of creation. For Buddhism there is no transcendent God and no individual soul. Everything ends up in the Void, the ground, the emptiness behind form etc. And logically this sounds perfectly reasonable. Everything can be reduced to nothing or one thing. Moreover mystical experience certainly allows us to access a state in which consciousness returns to its formless source. But what if this is not the whole truth? What if the soul is not an imaginary construct but has its own reality? We may experience non-dual states in which the self is absorbed by a boundless oneness but this just means that there is a state beyond self or, if you prefer, that is there when the self is no more. That is not at issue. We must go beyond, or out of, identification with self to find spiritual wholeness, but, in doing that, does individuality still remain as our expressed self, something that has a certain unique quality which nothing else in the universe has, or is it just seen to have been always non-existent? Surely the latter would be to deny God real creative power and reduce creation to the level of a conjuring trick. The truth is that the Universal Mind created individual souls so that life could expand and grow. In effect, God multiplied Himself to become more. Souls were not created to be dissolved back into universal oneness as though they had never been, but to add to the wholeness of life.
Buddhism recognises no God and no soul. Therefore it can see no point to the world of appearance which, in classical Buddhism, is seen as something to escape from. But simply to return to primordial oneness is to ignore the purpose of creation, and I repeat this because it is fundamental to the debate between an absolute non-duality and an approach to oneness that recognises the legitimacy, relative but real, of the individual soul. We were not created just to return to where we came from but to go through the manifested world, absorbing the fruits of experience and building up the individual soul. Then we are required to relinquish selfhood and become consciously one with the whole of life, to recognise that we are the whole of life, but in such a way as includes individuality which is not lost but transformed. No longer the centre of consciousness, it becomes that through which consciousness is expressed. The Masters told me to forget the personal self and merge with the Universal Self. The personal self is the separate self and it is this that is the illusionary construct of the mind. However the individual self is different from this and is that which merges. There must be something to merge with the Universal Self and that is the soul. When it merges it loses its own identity in the absolute, that is true, but the greater awareness includes the lesser which, as I say, is not lost but changed from the focus of identity that conditions consciousness to the vehicle of expression that can give form to it.
The purpose of the spiritual path is that we cease to identify with ourselves as individuals. However that does not mean that the individual self is an illusion. Individuality is the gift from God that enables us eventually to know ourselves as God. Without ever knowing ourselves we could never know anything.
Non-duality has many profound insights into the nature of reality but I part company from it in certain matters, principally concerning the way it views God and the individual soul though even here the differences are mostly to do with emphasis. Let me now summarise a few of these points of disagreement, and make further observations on modern interpretations of non-dualistic thinking.
- The individual soul exists. It is not unreal or an illusion but a creation of God, born out of His love. This soul must eventually be given up but only after it has been brought to spiritual perfection, symbolised respectively by the transfiguration of Jesus and his crucifixion. Then it is taken up into spirit as demonstrated at the ascension. It is, one might say, divinised.
- God is a not a person but He has personhood or 'I'ness. The impersonal Godhead and the personal God are not different, and one is not 'higher' than the other. They are two sides of the same coin, relating to reality in its inactive and active modes, and this 'two-in-oneness'' is reflected in the enlightened soul. In him the universal and the individual are brought together and made one. That is to say, his being is in absolute oneness but his activity, which includes understanding, is expressed through individuality.
- Non-dualists talk of God in a way that implies that He (or it) is life but is not actually alive. This is to limit God to the impersonal absolute, but He encompasses the unexpressed and the expressed equally and inseparably, and the moment there is the slightest movement away from pure being you are in the realm of the personal living God.
- While non-dualists understand oneness they tend to undervalue multiplicity. Thus their non-duality can blind them to the truth of the created world. Advaita, for instance, like anything else, can become a belief system but life is larger than any belief system even one that may be true. It is both non-dual and dual at the same time which gives it its richness and its capacity to grow. This also explains why there is something rather than nothing.
- The experience of oneness or no self, often called awakening, is usually just a preliminary step on the mystical path, but is regularly taken by the unwary for enlightenment. This leads to all manner of errors of which the main one is mistaking the relative for the absolute.
- There is an old definition of reality as life-quality-appearance. If you focus on only the first of these without appreciating the part the other two have to play in the significance of the whole you have an unbalanced view. Human beings are made of spirit, soul and body where spirit is the divine spark in us, the aspect of uncreated pure being. The soul is the quality part of that definition which evolves through a series of lifetimes and eventually, together with the fruits of its experience, becomes subsumed into spirit thereby combining the individual with the universal. Appearance, of course, is the outer self necessary for function and expression in the phenomenal world.
- Non-duality would be the whole truth if life were completely passive (which, incidentally, might be why the Buddha is usually depicted with his eyes shut). But life is not just like that because it includes creativity and the capacity to grow. Hence philosophies which only concern themselves with pure being lack completeness. The instant a being does anything, or even knows anything, it is acting through a self. That is, through a self if it has transcended identification with form, but from it if it has not
- I do not believe that even those generally acknowledged to be enlightened in the non-dualistic sense such as the Buddha or, more recently, Ramana Maharishi have reached some kind of ultimate state. To realise your being in God does not mean you have become God. Life continues ever upwards. The Masters who came to me were God-realised beings but they told me of higher Masters and beings beyond even them. The fact that we cannot conceive of spiritual states beyond the enlightened state does not mean that they do not exist.
Notwithstanding anything I have written above I still agree that the fundamental truth of life is non-dualistic. My disagreement with non-dualistic systems is not with the basic premise but with the confusion of levels. In absolute terms non-duality is the truth, but reality is made up of the absolute and the relative together, and the relative has a more important role to play than it is usually allowed in many forms of non-duality where it is dismissed too easily as maya or samsara. Without it there would be no love, no beauty, no joy, no anything in fact. There would be pure being alone with no capacity to become more. The Unmanifest becomes the Creator who creates in order to express Himself and grow. What He creates is real even though ultimately it can be none other than Himself.