Thursday, 14 February 2019

Nothing Beyond

I want to consider another difference between non-dualistic forms of spirituality and those that see this world as not sufficient in itself and ourselves as incomplete. (Note that in a logically consistent non-dual system this world is perfect when perceived correctly and we are perfect now if only we knew it. That is why enlightenment is potentially open to anyone at any time in such systems). Previous posts have gone into this difference but approached the question from the perspective of individuality which is effectively discarded in non-duality, a fundamental misconception in my view even if based on something real which is the shifting of the centre of identity. However, here I wish to look at the matter from another angle.

There is nothing beyond. There is nothing beyond this world and there is nothing beyond ourselves. Earth is heaven when seen with the eye of vision. We see as God sees when we know ourselves to be pure consciousness. Now, I do not doubt that Earth can appear heavenly in vision or ecstasy or any kind of peak experience but this is not the same as saying it is heaven. The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, as the poet has it. But still this world is not heaven. There is something much more real behind it, something of which this world is only a dim reflection even if that reflection can partake of the divine in certain modes of awareness. But if non-duality means what it says it does, and if the implications of its claims are understood, then there is no possibility of attaining to a higher state of consciousness than is attainable here and now. The very idea of qualitative difference is meaningless. There may be worlds beyond this one but for a true non-dualist these cannot offer anything more.

Is that not a dispiriting thought? There are not greater and greater vistas of glory. There cannot be if everything is here and now. There is not something more and better than this world or, even if there is, that does not mean our participation, our joy, in it can be any greater. Non-duality means nothing is better, nothing is higher, nothing is more. It is ultimately a sad and sorry philosophy which negates the beauty of life.

Of course, most people who subscribe to this philosophy don't think like this but that's because they have not fully thought through the implication of their belief system. It's all very well, as far as it goes, if you take it simply to mean that the world is not fundamentally separate from us. But when you really think it through, you find that, so keen is it to avoid any kind of separation, it destroys any kind of difference. It may deny this and say that created things are real on their own level but as it effectively regards that level as one of ignorance, this is not much use.

Far better to return to the traditional Western idea of God and creation, both of which are fully real. Non-duality takes the trinity of spirit, soul and body and reduces it to spirit alone but a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding sees them as all having a role to play in the totality of what we (and the universe) are, even if there is a hierarchical ordering to this group. But the fact of hierarchy does not negate the lower levels of the order, all of which combine to make something greater than just the highest on its own. The interaction of spirit and matter produces something more than spirit alone, both for God who can share his life with other free beings, and for us who can enter more and more deeply into the endless mysteries of existence.


Chris said...


My own view definitely leans in the direction that you (excellently) defend.
Nevertheless, I'm not sure if you are giving the non-theistic position a fair telling.

Trying to "explain" nonduality is a strange task at the very least- some would say downright impossible. But there is a logic to it, a dialectic that emerges when reflected upon.

"at first mountains are mountains
then mountains are not mountains
them mountains are mountains again"

At first form is form and emptiness is emptiness. Then form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Then form is form again.

First we begin at a point on the bottom of a circle, life in the world. Then, second, there is the path of return to the Source, emptiness or the "formless Brahman". This is the "upward" arc on one side of the circle moving toward the top of the circle, toward the transcendent absolute. Then, from this point at the top of the circle there is the "downward" arc and movement back to the bottom of the circle, back to the world as world, as it were.

edwin said...

Nonduality (advaita vedanta) does not speak of a return to the source, for movement of any kind involves one entity approaching another or undergoing an internal change, which would require a catalyst, i.e. an external cause, and duality thus raises its troublesome head again. The most radical and clearest text of Vedanta is the Mandukya Karika of Gaudapada, and it does not mince words: there are no mountains and never could be. The logic of Vedanta ends in absolute illusionism, but it is a flawed logic. Its principal explanatory exemplar is that of the snake and the rope: a traveler at twilight mistakes a coiled form on the road for a snake and suffers fear and paralysis until another shows him that it is a rope, not a snake. The world of ignorance (duality) is supposedly the rope-snake, which has no existence. To talk about the nature of the rope-snake is meaningless, for there is no such thing. Such is the case with the world of our perceptions and our thoughts and feelings: they are all consciousness alone, without addition of any kind. To talk about empirical reality is to discuss the nature of the non-existent rope-snake. The problem, however, is that the traveler saw something, even if he mistook its nature. Ignorance of the rope is not simply a negative condition, but a mistaken perception of something real. There are snakes and there are ropes and there is the ignorant traveler and none of them disappear when the mistake is cleared up. In the end, the explanation fails, except as an exercise in logic: if the premise, "a snake is in the road" is wrong, all that follows will be wrong. Perhaps I am going on for too long, but it took me some time to work my way out of Vedanta and that experience might be helpful to others. The notion that there is the formless and form does not accord with our experience, where all that we perceive and think has form. To make something we never experience and can never know the be-all and end-all, the source of form and its destination, is questionable, to say the least. Best to start with who we are and where we are and what we know, rather than trying to dissolve all, including ourselves, in some imagined formless consciousness which, for mysterious reasons, produces illusory beings given to seeing a world of illusory forms.

Chris said...


Thanks for the succinct and (yet)thorough response. It was worthy of Vadiraja or any of the great Dvaita logicians. Question, do you think that what you said would apply equally to the various forms of Buddhism? There are many who seem to take the view that Advaita and Buddhism ( at least in its Theravadan form) are only nominally different.

William Wildblood said...

Chris, the problem as I see it is that things that sound poetical and profound are often, when analysed, pretty meaningless. Take the "first there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is" idea. What does it mean? We go behind form to emptiness then go back to form again though seeing that it is really no different to emptiness? I really don't think this corresponds with what we actually experience life fe to be. It's perilously close to being just word-spinning though there is some kind of sense to it in that when we first discover the spiritual path we may reject the world only to see it in a new light as we become more balanced. But really the concept of emptiness seems to me to be materialistic because it is looking at things from the position of matter. Emptiness is not a helpful concept since it expresses a positive (spirit) by a negative and that leads to the wrong way of looking at the truth that lies behind appearance.

I do understand what advaita and Buddhism are trying to say but the simple fact is that they are attempts to describe reality from below, that is from the unaided human position. Basically they lack Christ.

edwin, thanks for your comment. It elucidates the shortcomings of advaita Vedanta excellently.

edwin said...

Both advaita and buddhism dismiss the material world as maya, that is, either illusory or a temporary manifestation of awareness due to a transient karma with no lasting importance other than to urge one to abandon the world as a place of misery and ignorance and to seek the dissolution of thought into the absolute by one means and another, one upaya or another. I've never quite understand the rationale for compassion in buddhism as it denies that there is even a self, only bundles of thoughts of which the self is but one more among many. Compassion for whom by whom for what purpose? I suspect that Christianity has affected Eastern thought and softened the hard edges of its logical reductionism. There is no reason to divide the world into matter and spirit and then choose one over the other. If the Word became flesh, then spirit is in the world, penetrating matter and elevating it. Indeed, matter - the human body included - is a vehicle used for spiritual growth, not something to discarded as a hindrance to nirvana. If the ego can be spiritualized and can them imbue matter with spirit, it need not be seen as the enemy of enlightenment. The ego can express itself in self-sacrificing love or in self-seeking desire. It is the latter that advaita and buddhism seem to consider principally. The notion of the bodhisattva has a distinctly Christian flavor at odds with the metaphysics of buddhism.

William Wildblood said...

edwin, you've fleshed out the bones of my original post beautifully. Thanks! It has long been my feeling that the bodhisattva idea is down to an influence from Christianity either directly or indirectly. It's so at odds with early Buddhism that it must come from elsewhere.

The problem is that you then have to try to reconcile two contradictory things.

edwin said...

William, your posts about nonduality helped me greatly to clarify my doubts about Vedanta and to address them. It seems to me that Vedanta and buddhism urge us to think our way out of the world, out of our own skins, and the impetus for the effort rests on a kind of spiritual hedonism: a rejection of pain as absolutely useless and a desire for peace at all costs, even the cost of abandoning the individual life we have been given. There are two images that are instructive: Christ on the Cross with His blood falling on the Earth and Buddha with his eyes closed immersed in nirvana. Christ is in the world; Buddha is out of it. To follow Buddha out of the world is an option, but in doing so we retract spiritually and miss the opportunity to grow into Christ, into our true, highest ego. Thanks for your work on behalf of all of us.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks edwin. I agree that the difference in imagery of Christ and the Buddha is striking. The Buddha has left this world behind him but Christ draws it up with him and thereby sanctifies nature through grace.

Bruce Charlton said...

What an excellent series of post and comments!

It is the same 'argument' put differently, but (for what it's worth) my concerns with nondualism and Zen (some 35 years ago) took the form of wondering why there was any illusion in the first place. Where did illusion come from? - if the world simply *was* (to begin with)?

Then I kept returning to the idea that if suffering was the worst thing, then suicide was the 'logical' answer to suffering (because it both cures present suffering, and prevents future suffering).

And if suicide would be helpful, so would be universal homicide - for the same reason. (This had become very worrying!)

From which the next step was to realise there was never any reason for being born in the first place.

So the reality of my life (or anybody else's) seems to refute the theory; except that presumably my life is an illusion too...

The end result of all this was a kind of bewildered, nihilistic despair - and then giving-up the whole 'spiritual' thing and joining-in with the prevalent materialistic hedonism - on the basis that I could not be sure I hadn't made an error in my reasoning, so I might as well make the best of things in the short term.

William Wildblood said...

I would agree, Bruce. All these world-denying systems ignore the reality of creation and therefore the reality of love which is inseparable from creation. Consequently they end up rejecting God, the soul, goodness and even purpose. Sometimes they try to deny this and shoehorn at least love into their systems but, as edwin points out above, this is logically inconsistent with their fundamental position.

I have come to the conclusion that, to the extent matter and the created world can be regarded as feminine, there is something of a spiritual misogyny to them.

Chris said...

The argument against unqualified nondualism succeeds if it is true that we are forced to conclude that differences are illusory. But, I'm not sure if that is the case.
I think , perhaps, what makes the principle of nondualism difficult to grasp is that it is neither monism nor dualism because because monism is actually just another form of dualism. Now of course that sounds like mumbo jumbo, but it seems to me that non-Christian thinkers attack the Trinity on similar logical grounds- that one and three are mutually exclusive concepts. To avoid non-contradiction, God would have to be composite or collapse into polytheism.

For what it's worth, I still find theism to be more spiritually efficacious. Perhaps it would be wise to stay centered on the one thing needful.

William Wildblood said...

One can get oneself tied up in intellectual knots with this. The question is, is creation real? If it is then advaita is false. And we intuitively know that it is and that we are. For if that were not the case then everything is pointless and meaningless in any true sense.

William Wildblood said...

Including (I meant to add) love.