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About the Objection that the Teachings are Dualistic

July 23, 2018

 

 

An objection I occasionally receive about the manner in which I present the teachings asserts that it is dualistic in nature: that I oppose Life or Center to conditioned mind in a way that places them upon an equal footing and makes them out to be a pair of opposites. I'd like to clear this up if I can.

 

The reason that this objection is significant, of course, is that duality is the primary building block of conditioned mind. Within conditioned mind we divide everything up into opposing pairs: good and bad, right and wrong, inside and outside, and so on. A world divided into opposites has no center, and so in this world we have no access to Center: everything is perceived as being on one side or the other, and we must choose between the two rather than inhabiting the transcendent place of clarity and compassion that includes all experience without distinctions.

 

Life as it is (it appears) has no divisions; there is no this or that except in the interpretations we force upon our perceptions. What we see as "good" and "bad", for example, is but one thing seen from two different points of view, and this one thing is not truly distinct from any other. As humans we have evolved such that we are able to make distinctions (such as good versus bad), and this has given us a power over our environment that non-rational animals do not have, but this does not mean that the way we perceive things is real. There is a level at which our perceptions are "real", certainly--you are one person, for example, and I am another, and we appear to inhabit different bodies in different spaces--but there is a broader level, one that transcends our animal nature, where these distinctions disappear. As humans we are able somewhat to see from that more transcendent place. From here we cannot know what truly is, we cannot perceive from a level that surpasses our human capacity, but we can see into the illusion of the human point of view.

 

If you want to build a piece of furniture you're going to need to include at least three supports. A two-legged stool will fall over, but if you add a third leg it will become solid and firm. Conditioned mind is constructed in a similar way. Within conditioned mind the opposing sides of a duality make up two of the supports, two of the three aspects that allow it to appear solid and real. The third is self-consciousness. Let's say for example that I need to go either to the left or to the right (stay in or leave my job, accept or decline an invitation, embrace or avoid an opportunity...). This is a dualistic way of approaching the situation: in Life there are an infinite number of choices, not just two opposing ones. As yet, however, there is no problem: it never truly matters if we go left or right, and so if I just choose one and let it go at that then all will be well. There is no suffering here, in other words, because I am unaware of myself as the decision-maker. Once I become aware of myself as the decision-maker, however, and the need, from this point of view, to make the "right" decision, then I will likely waffle back and forth, or become paralyzed, or choose and then regret what I have done, and so on. No matter which decision I make conditioned mind will assure me that it was the "wrong" one and I'll take a beating for it. Conditioned mind always has this three-part structure: a perceived world of opposites in relationship to a self-conscious "me".

 

The way that I commonly present the teachings fits exactly into this framework, thus the objection. Here, I say, is conditioned mind, and there is Life/Center, and we must learn to choose between the two. Why, then, would I present things in such a way? I do it because this is helpful to people. People typically live within conditioned mind, and so that's the place where we need to begin. At the beginning, and for a long way past the beginning, practice does seem like the effort to see the choice between conditioned mind and our authentic nature, and it's helpful to look at it in that way. The danger of avoiding such distinctions in favor of a "non-dual" or similar approach is that it could result in a lack of understanding about process; if you can't see the difference between conditioned mind and center there will be a tendency to slide into conditioned mind. We have to be able to see distinctions in order to access choice; we have to be able to play the game of awareness with conditioned mind in order to transcend conditioned mind.

 

In themselves, however, the teachings are not dualistic. Center and conditioned mind are not two sides of a duality: they are two completely different things that have no relationship with one another. One exists, and the other does not; they are not present within the same reality: they are not equal, and as such cannot stand on opposing sides of anything. A time comes, then, when we need to leave the game behind and simply turn away from conditioned mind in order to attend to the beauty and the clarity of the moment instead. This is the point of that old Buddhist story about the raft that leads to the far shore--when you reach the far shore, the Buddha reportedly said, you need not to put the raft on your head and carry it around with you. You need to leave it behind. Practice leads ideally towards a life focused on the exquisite perfection of the moment, without suffering. It's easy to become mired in a perpetual striving, however: in a never-ending contest with conditioned mind, forgetting that the point of practice is freedom. It's necessary to see this choice in order to make the choice, and we cannot see the choice without, for a period of time, making distinctions that will eventually prove themselves to be illusory.

 

This likely sounds like a linear process (from entanglement within conditioned mind to a place free of conditioned mind), but it's not really like that, at least for me. It's always been my experience that I go in and out of identification. Sometimes I'm at Center, and sometimes I am not (dualistically speaking--in fact there is nothing that is not Life/Center). If I'm at center then there is no reason to have a relationship with conditioned mind: my attention can just be on the experience that fills my senses, as well as the peace and joy that accompanies pure experience. When conditioned mind is triggered, however, then I do need to be in relationship with it, watching it, questioning it, and letting it go, until Center happens once again and I can return my attention to the wind, the water, the light, and the trees. The perceived reality of conditioned mind comes and goes as I believe in it, or not.

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