Advaita Vedānta, Dara Shukoh, Muhyiddin ibn 'Arabī, mystical experience, Nishida Kitarō, nondualism, perennialism, Plotinus, Rāmānuja, Ron Purser, Śaṅkara, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, Upaniṣads, Wilhelm Halbfass, Yogācāra
I have spent a good deal of time criticizing the idea of a “perennial philosophy”, the idea (expressed by Ken Wilber and others before him) that the great sages of the world have always basically agreed on the really important things. In the past I had said there were perennial questions but with different answers; now I’m not even sure whether that is the case.
And yet I am struck by a particular phenomenon from which the perennialists draw a great deal of inspiration – and that is the pervasive influence of nondualism. “Nondual” is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit a-dvaita, the name of Śaṅkara’s school of Vedānta philosophy. But the core idea of nondualism has been asserted by a very wide range of philosophers around the world – from people who could never have heard of Śaṅkara, to Śaṅkara’s enemies.
That core idea is that the truest, most ultimate reality should not be identified with the many plural distinct things we typically observe and the distinctions between them. Rather the true reality is ultimately one, or at least (a literal translation again) not two, and not more than two either. That ultimate is often (not always) spoken of as ineffable, beyond words, so that to the extent that one can speak of it at all one must speak of what it is not (the famous neti neti of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. But the most important thing that the ultimate is not, is dual or plural. It might not be one exactly, but it is closer to being one (or perhaps zero!) than it is to being two or more.
And the two that it really isn’t, is the distinction of subject and object. Nondualists tell us that we are misled by that core grammatical distinction of the Indo-European languages (languages which many, but not all, of those nondualists speak). Ultimately “you are that”: the distinction between our supposed individual consciousness on one hand, and reality on the other, must collapse.
That is nondualism in a nutshell. And while Śaṅkara was perhaps nondualism’s purest and most famous exponent, it was taken up by many others in various ways – including by very different enemies of Śaṅkara. The later theistic thinker Rāmānuja wanted to assert against Śaṅkara that the plurality of things in the world is real, and yet he accepted Śaṅkara’s basic nondualism: his philosophical system was called Viśiṣṭādvaita, differentiated or qualified nondualism. He aimed to produce a harmonious synthesis: the plurality of the world is not an illusion, as Śaṅkara would have it, but the parts of the divine One.
Now while Rāmānuja could be harshly critical of Śaṅkara himself, he remained in Śaṅkara’s basic camp of loyalty to the Vedas and especially the Upaniṣads. Śaṅkara had much greater hostility to the Buddhists, who rejected the entirety of the Vedas and Upaniṣads. And yet – here is the striking thing – a very large number of Buddhists themselves accepted nondualism. The Yogācāra school had been taking up some form of nondualism since before Śaṅkara’s time, enough that to other Vedāntic thinkers Śaṅkara’s school just looked like the Buddhism they were familiar with; for that reason they even called him a “crypto-Buddhist” (pracchanna bauddha). By Śaṅkara’s time a great deal of Indian Buddhism had itself become nondual – and that Buddhism in turn reached its full flower in East Asia, where it became the dominant form of Buddhism. Thus John Dunne uses the term nondual to refer to the present-centred, nonjudgemental meditation traditions created by these newer sorts of Buddhisms, Yogācāra and beyond. (Ron Purser rightly pointed out, though, that it is harder to see anything “nondual” about the modern mindfulness practices that take up those meditation traditions.)
I often find reading East Asian Buddhism weird because it looks to me so much like the Advaita Vedānta that arose in opposition to Buddhism. But opposed or no, these nominally opposed sides – Buddhists and Vedāntins – could agree on a basic nondual worldview. By the 20th century, the Japanese Buddhist philosopher Nishida Kitarō could proclaim constructively, in his own voice, that “Ātman and Brahman are identical.” (An Inquiry into the Good p. 80) For Nishida it made sense to have a Buddhism that actually took up the Upaniṣads’ worldview.
Centuries before Śaṅkara, in Rome and in Alexandria – the West – a Greek-speaking follower of Plato, named Plotinus, had proclaimed that everything is an emanation from what he called “the One”. Now that’s not quite nondualism per se, because everything comes from the One; it is not identical to it. Centuries later, the pious Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī would insist on that distinction as crucial (“not ‘all is Him’, but ‘all is from Him’.”)
But in between Plotinus and Sirhindī, a significant number of Sufi Muslim thinkers, influenced by Plato and Plotinus, had indeed proclaimed the oneness of everything – while having relatively little contact with the South or East Asian worlds. For them, it’s not just that we come from God, but at some level we indeed are God. Perhaps most notorious of these was al-Hallaj, executed for proclaiming the nondifference between God and a self fully understood. Later ibn ‘Arabī became perhaps the most influential Muslim philosopher in the world by proclaiming the unity of all existence (wahdat al-wujūd). Ibn ‘Arabī’s thought found a natural home in India, and indeed the Mughal philosopher-prince Dara Shukoh sought to create a merged philosophy that blended ibn ‘Ārabī with the Upaniṣads. (It was that very Muslim nondualism that Dara’s contemporary Sirhindī felt the need to write against.)
Nondualism may well be the single most popular philosophical theory in human history. I’m not sure I can think of any other major philosophical idea that flowered so much in so many different places, more or less independently. I think that gives us prima facie reason to think the nondualists were on to something important. In that, at least, I am cautiously with the perennialists. But the perennialists typically take this too far, in that they tend to assume that this nondualism must have come out of mystical experiences. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, in that mystical experience often involves a perceived transcendence of subject-object distinction. But it is crucial that most of the thinkers I’ve named here do not cite experience as the ground of their claims. Wilhelm Halbfass in India and Europe reminds us that Śaṅkara never refers to any experiences of his own; Chinese nondualists like Zhiyi didn’t either, according to John McRae and Robert Sharf. But if anything, I think that nondualism’s non-experiential provenance gives it more plausibility. That is, nondualism’s exponents did not merely see it in an altered state of consciousness, but viewed it as somehow a logical necessity.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Thanks for this brief tour of the many varieties of non-dualism. I might add that additional varieties of nondualism also make their appearance in Spinoza, in Chinese Daoism, in Walt Whitman’s pantheism, and in the modern process philosophies of Gendlin and Whitehead. I agree that these nondualisms do not derive directly from mystical experience, but they do arrive from some larger partially-grasped intuition that precedes rather than proceeds from logical thought.
Since Seth mentioned Eugene Gendlin, a few words about Gendlin: If the core idea of nondualism is, as Amod said above, “that the truest, most ultimate reality should not be identified with the many plural distinct things we typically observe and the distinctions between them” because reality “is ultimately one, or at least (a literal translation again) not two, and not more than two either”, then I wouldn’t classify Gendlin as nondualist. Gendlin always said that there is more complexity and intricacy than what we typically observe and distinguish, not less.
For Gendlin, as for some other modern critical realists, our best thinking about reality is based on careful progressive interaction within reality carried out over a period of time, a period of time which can include what we call the history of science, or as an earlier era called it, the history of natural philosophy. Gendlin wrote in 1991 in “Thinking beyond patterns”:
“The scientific order is not just imposed. It can seem so, because in current philosophy the empirical character of science is rejected as seemingly representational. But, while science does not just read off what it ‘finds’, neither does it just impose a postulated order…. The progression of science is itself a special instance of a non-Laplacian progression that involves functions of implicit intricacy and its demanding precision. That is why scientific findings are hard to get, and precious.”
I see Gendlin’s philosophy as a rich resource for criticizing perennialism, because Gendlin’s philosophy emphasizes how both our questions and our answers change. This is not to deny that some questions and answers may recur, but to emphasize that they recur within a historical context that is more complex and intricate than the questions and answers themselves.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Thanks, Nathan. What a deligjht it is to find someone else who has read Gendlin the philosopher and not just Gendlin the therapist! Strictly speaking you are abosultely right.
But when Gendlin writes about the component systems of living organisms in A Process Model (2018), he writes about them being “interaction first” with the component systems being just our way of schematizing the intricate complexity that is initially a holism. He also talks about everything within the organism that “occurs” as being the result of what he calls “eveving,” or the interaction of everything with everything. So he talks about an undivided wholeness when it comes to living organisms. He also thought that organisms and their environments (EN2 and EN3) were also a holism, and there is an implication from this that the separation of organism from environment is a schematization that creates a separation where none needs be made—its just one way of schematizing things and schematizing them that way in some ways precludes our ability to better understand biological processes.
He doesn’t speculate about whether, in regard to the world beyond living organisms, that (as Aristotle might say) “everything is like this.” While Gendlin never extended his theory to non-organic processes, other process theorists have—for example, Robert Parker has explored using Gendlin’s theory of implying into occuring and eveving to understand quantum theory at a deeper level. How did Gendlin regard this kind of extenison of his theorizing to non-living processes ? His attitude was, “go ahead and see whether what comes from it turns out useful.” So there is something about Gendlin’s process view that encourages looking at all of existence as a holism that is “interaction first” before we schematize it as separate “things.” That’s why I, perhaps unfairly, included him on this list.
Thanks, Seth. I’ve read a lot of Gendlin but not A Process Model. Fortunately that book is online, so I can quickly see by searching how he uses the word “whole” in it. Interestingly, I can only find one occurrence of the term “holism” in it, chapter 7b section f-12 (citing chapter and verse): “While no person is totally unified, I call this whole system the interactive life context, knowing that it might actually have some disconnected places (empirical holism: it is an empirical question whether ‘all’ or some are mutually implicit in all or some others).”
In this only occurrence of “holism” in the book Gendlin says that it’s an empirical question how much something is relevant to any given system. Personally I would not call this “holism”, because if Gendlin is talking about “interaction first” then there is already more than a whole: “interaction” implies more than one. And methodologically the nature of whatever it is that we are calling a whole has to be investigated empirically and analyzed. It can’t be known through reasoning alone: hence Gendlin calls it an “empirical holism”. There’s much “more” to say about this.
Regarding the extension of life-like processes to the larger universe, I recently learned of the evo-devo universe community, which recently published an edited collection titled Evolution, Development and Complexity: Multiscale Evolutionary Models of Complex Adaptive Systems (Springer, 2019) with chapters like “Cosmological Natural Selection and the Function of Life”, “Evolutionary Development: A Universal Perspective”, and “Universal Ethics: Organized Complexity as an Intrinsic Value”. I’m not sure what I think of all this yet; it all seems very speculative, but they are certainly thinking big, which I like.
Christopher Faille said:
Thank you for this. It reminded me of Arthur Lovejoy’s book, THE REVOLT AGAINST DUALISM (1930). Lovejoy wasn’t talking about the subject/object distinction exactly, but of the percept/object distinction in the philosophy of perception. And he thought THIS was, if you will, the perennial philosophy. He thought, if I understand him at all, that we’re stuck with it and the rebellions against it have been futile. The fact that we make mistakes, misjudge distances, see train tracks converging when they don’t, and so forth, requires is to distinguish between the percepts (the tracks that converge) and the objects (the tracks that don’t.)
But of course if everyone must be right than Lovejoy must be right, and there must be something to be said for the dualism that he thought indispensable.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Christopher, and welcome. Certainly nondualism has its critics and they have a point. Śaṅkara in particular has a basic problem: even if everything is one we still perceive it as many; there is an illusion of manyness. But how can illusion be of the one – at least if, as I think Śaṅkara sometimes claims, the one has no parts?
Advaitha made available path for MANY ( each and every empirical self ) to become ONE ( and only one ) metaphysical self , thus making all questions about the ONE-TO-MANY paths irrelevant and meaningless.
The duality focuses on giving equal importance of reality to both empirical self and metaphysical self.Non-duality tries to eliminate that duality by establishing both are essentially one and same.(This is the meaning of advaitha.)
Sorry to post this twice – I wasn’t sure if it got through:
I wonder, Amod, if you are using the word “experience” in a way which perhaps does not help us understand what the non dualists describe about their – may we say “realizations?”
For example, in one of your essays you say Ramana Maharshi never (or perhaps you said rarely, I don’t recall) talked about his experience.
But what would you call the famous “awakening” in his teens, when he “experienced” that the body was (as if) dead, yet his Awareness remained vivid?
James Swartz makes a very strong – and credible, I think – case that the word “experience” is extremely misleading when speaking of a non dualist, because it ALWAYS implies a subject and object.
Certainly, if you trust Maharshi’s reports of his realization, and trust also that it was consistent throughout his life, then he was never speaking of an experience in the sense Swartz refers to.
But if we are a bit looser with the English word “experience (which you correctly note, for example, is not appropriately used to refer to satori or kensho, since – again – “experience” usually implies a subject-object relationship), perhaps there are writers who are not so precise and when they speak, of “experience” they are NOT talking about a subject reporting on phenomenological experience but are actually talking about a recognition.
Here’s another example:
Sitting here, letting thoughts settle, until a pervading Silence is recognized (it doesn’t emerge or suddenly “occur” – it is simply recognized as present; and it must be added, “present” not as a segment of “time”).
The Silence is further recognized as all-pervading, completely “intermingling” (difficult word since it implies “two” things) with all that is perceived.
At the same “time” (Timeless time?), there is no “place” where there is no vivid, undulating movement. Even the desk, the computer, the cup next to the computer, etc are “seen” (more properly, ‘known’) to be luminous, undulating….).
So we have Silence and Movement, which are co-existent. They cannot be said to be “One” but are not-Two either.
Now, if “you” join “me” in this recognition, we may colloquially use the word “experience” to convey the sense of what is happening, while recognizing that the subject-object mode does not apply (because both “you” and “me” are simultaneously recognized to be equally infinitely still Silence and infinitely undulating movement.
Amod Lele said:
Don, just a quick note that both posts did get through, so I trashed the first one and kept the second.
Don’s example above (on silence and movement) sounds like hypnotic induction. Similarly, psychologist Michael D. Yapko, in his 2011 book Mindfulness and Hypnosis: The Power of Suggestion to Transform Experience showed how guided mindfulness meditation can be considered a kind of hypnosis. Hypnosis often uses imagination to induce experiences or ideas that, while not necessarily true, can have beneficial effects: pain reduction, etc. Amod addressed some of the epistemological issues related to this in his recent post titled “On delusions and their pragmatic efficacy”. Calling this “awakening” or “recognition” or “realization” is begging the question epistemically: it presumes that what is imagined or interpreted is true. But what is imagined or interpreted could be beneficial or successful without necessarily being true, which is, for example, the medical rationale for hypnosis.
Above Amod said: “I’m not sure I can think of any other major philosophical idea that flowered so much in so many different places, more or less independently. I think that gives us prima facie reason to think the nondualists were on to something important.” But here too Amod seems to overlook that ideas can be successful without being true. See, for example, Francis Heylighen’s “Objective, subjective and intersubjective selectors of knowledge”, Evolution and Cognition, 3(1), 1997, 63–67. Heylighen lists and describes a variety of criteria by which an idea could be successful despite not necessarily being true.
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