Monthly Archives: February 2021

Dualism / Nondualism: Perhaps a Lenten Journey

These are multivalent terms, and so one has to be careful in their interpretation and in their use.  Basically they are philosophical terms that appear in various contexts that shades their meaning in one way or another.  For example, “dualities” appear in advanced mathematical analysis, and this yields some complex mathematical notions.  Also “dualism” is a common notion in psychology and in the science of human structure:  brain, mind….do these words refer to “2” separate entities or are they one and the same?  Is “mind” reducible to the biology and chemistry of the brain (nondualistic materialism), or is mind (and consciousness) something non-material that uses the brain like you use the computer.  Or, to put it even more radically, are you as a “person” reducible to the biology and chemistry of the body, or is there something more which we traditionally have called “the soul”?  This has been debated for a long time!  From Plato, the ultimate Western dualist, to many modern scientists who are “nondualists” in that matter is all there is, you can see that these terms can be applied in quite a few different contexts and with some very different consequences.  As far as science is concerned, I am definitely a dualist: there is more to reality than just matter.  But as regards spirituality, I am definitely on the nondualism side of the ledger.  And this is something I would like to explore a bit.  Nondualism itself has various shades of meaning, and perhaps different interpretations.  Many westerners are scared away from it because of that pop caricature of nondualism as a drop of rain vanishing in the “oneness” of the ocean.  Therefore they do not seek out any traces of nondualism within Christianity because…well, isn’t Christianity totally dualistic.  I suggest that this is a sadly and terribly wrong notion.

All the great religious traditions have their own approach to this matter, and interpret “dualism/nondualism” in their own particular way.  What you have to be careful about is skipping from the language of one tradition to another and thinking you are referring to the same reality in the same way.  It’s not that simple.  

Consider Hinduism.  It seems to cover all bases.  Whatever form of dualism/nondualism you want, it will provide!  The range of possibilities extends from a strict dualism that matches anything in the West; to a modified dualism (or modified nondualism if you wish), with its own treasure of bhakti, devotional practice that seems very close to Christian mysticism and the Sufis of Islam; to, finally, the total, radical nondualism of Advaita Vedanta, which in its turn comes in several types: from the austere mode of Shankara, to the complex tantric Kasmir Saivism.

Now Buddhism presents a different approach.  We are no longer concerned about relating to an Ultimate Reality.  The focus is on a kind of liberation from a “wrong view” of all reality, including our own self-understanding.  The liberation, or “enlightenment” is a kind of journey from living dualistically to a way of being that is truly nondualistic.  We awaken from this “dream” of seeing ourselves as this isolated individual self that stands in opposition to all other selves and the whole environment.  We discover an awareness of our intrinsic interrelatedness.  But here too there are variants, from Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese Zen to Theravada Buddhism and so on, each with its own nuances.

When we come to the great Western Traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—we encounter a very determined dualism.  Especially in Orthodox Judaism and orthodox Islam, the reality of God as the Wholly Other is emphatically asserted and all praxis revolves around that realization.  Christianity “softens” this dualism in the Mystery of the Incarnation, where the Wholly Otherness of the Divine enters the human reality.  Jesus is fully human and fully the Absolute Wholly Other we call God.  Traditional doctrine teaches this.  In itself it is a type of dualism, but what does that mean?   For sure this is not just a conceptual game of convenience to attribute two  fundamentally different terms to the same person.  These words refer to two different realities, not just concepts; but traditional doctrine also says that here we have reached the limits of what rational thought can do in grasping this Mystery.  True enough.  But we just slid by another very critical part of this doctrine:  Jesus is not some schizophrenic, “split personality;” not somebody divided up into two centers of consciousness; in other words he is ONE person, not two—this is traditional doctrine.  So the dualism of the “two” natures is transcended in the one person.  This points us in the right direction of discovering a very real Christian nondualism within a very dominant dualistic matrix of devotions, theology, self-understanding, living praxis, and ritual.  God is the reality you behold, you pray to, you obey, you seek, you worship, etc., etc.   Most believers never get past this awareness, but there is a deep mystical tradition within traditional, orthodox Christianity (as opposed to some off-beat variants that I am not referring to).  Christian mysticism has always been in a kind of tense relationship to traditional theology and authority.  On a conceptual level there is no way of reconciling these two tracks, but Christian mysticism simply uses the traditional language but pushes its meaning to a much deeper level, discovering its own form of nondualism;  and at the level of lived  religious experience there is simply no comparison.  Christian mysticism, then, does seem reasonably successful in finding its own nondualism while immersed in a totally dualistic religious paradigm.  The only other example of such that I can think of is the Sufi tradition within Islam.

But now I am thinking of Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality,” and I realize that what I am really looking for is not so much crumbs from the theological table that might suggest a form of nondualism, but more like the intimations of nondualism in the whole praxis of the faith, not just mysticism.  Like I said, the writings from the authentic mystical tradition of Christianity, both East and West, has a lot to offer to these “intimations of nondualism.”  Especially the Eastern tradition with its emphasis on “theosis” or divinization, participation in the Divine Life, rather than the Western emphasis on morality and “being saved from sin.”  But let us push ahead to what seems most common, at least in Catholicism, the practice of the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass.  At first glance this practice looks like a true manifestation of the dualism of Christianity.  But look deeper this Lent.  There’s a reason Abhishiktananda was keen on celebrating the Eucharist even after his deep realization of Advaita!  Don’t get distracted or diverted by an approach to the Eucharist that I call “messaging.”  The celebration of the Eucharist becomes a series of messages.  Even worse is the “thinging” of the Eucharist, which in various ways turns the Eucharist into a thing which we “have.”  Now I do not mean to disparage anyone’s simple faith, practices, or understanding.  It’s just that wherever we are in our faith journey, whatever our state, we are always and everywhere at the gate of something infinitely deeper, and this is so true when we participate in the Eucharist.  But we do need to awaken to it.  Perhaps this is the real point of Lent, the true meaning of “conversion,” that awakening.   Once we realize that, we can freely participate in all traditional practices without anything limiting our vision; astonishingly enough, each practice is truly the “gateless gate” to our own version of Tat tvam asi.  Each practice is not for “gaining merit,” (there is nothing to gain really), not for “pleasing God,” or worshipping God, whatever that means, not for fulfilling an obligation, etc.; but each practice becomes simply a manifest, a theophany of the Divine Life.  It is the Christian “Namaste” to all of Reality.

Ponder also the simple words of the Gospel of John, which are also the most profound words written by any human being.  Yes, at first sight, the focus seems to be on Jesus Christ as the Other, the Wholly Different if you will, the object of our worship, etc.   But without negating any of this, we still need what the professional literary people call the “hermeneutical key” to reading  these simple but unfathomable words of the Gospel.  The hermeneutical key is the interpretive lens through which you understand the Gospel as a whole, and in the case of John you could almost miss this key because it comes to us in very common language:  door, gate, light, bread, way, etc.  You enter by a gate; you see by the light; you live by bread; you walk on a certain way.  (And ponder here Merton’s beautiful reflection on Jesus as the door in the Asian Journal.  It gives you a way to approach these words that uncovers the intimations of nondualism deep within them.)  

Here we begin to find Jesus not so much as the object of our attention, but as one through whom and in whom we exist and live and are connected to all that is Real (a Pauline thought also).  Now we begin to have true intimations of nondualism.  But the basic Christian focus on Jesus is not mistaken.  If you want to see what “living nondualism” is all about, just look at the life of Jesus, the person of Jesus and his teaching.  (Of course you might want to take account of the Semitic accent of the Gospel language; after all it is a language based in a certain cultural matrix.)  It is not some abstract theology or philosophy that is presented.  And from that contemplative gaze at the person of Jesus to our own “Tat tvam asi” THERE IS A BRIDGE, but I cannot tell you what it is because it is your own absolutely unique inner life manifesting the Divine Reality.   Something to ponder for Lent!


There is a need to reflect on this reality of science in all categories of society and human activity:  in every culture,  in classrooms, in politics, in business, in everyday life, and, yes even and especially in religion and the spiritual path.  There is a need to reflect on what this reality is and what it isn’t.  I am not going to do that here, but I am just pondering how and why there is an urgent need to confront a strange hostility to science that appears in some of these areas of our social life.  You see it in climate-change denial; you see it in the approach and attitude of many toward the pandemic; the anti-vaxers, etc.  These you can see almost every day in the news.  What you don’t see very often, or openly expressed,  is the distrust of science or the outright rejection of science, as in the anti-evolution attitudes of many religious people.

This is what I would like to consider now.  And I want to stay within the bounds of Christianity because this is my tradition and for all practical purposes it encompasses probably the majority of Americans.  The problem goes way back, and it is quite complex and multi-layered.  But I would like to begin like this:  long ago  I lived in a formal monastic setting.  It was a deeply contemplative life and silence was a key characteristic of the day- to- day life.  But when we did talk, the topic often pertained to what interested us most: the Christian monastic and mystical tradition and other such traditions.  Unfortunately, however, at times our enthusiasm for “our thing” made us speak critically of the rational, the scientific, etc.  It was as if life could be lived truly in this “us vs. them” duality of vision: the rational-scientific v. the intuitive-mystical.  But to be honest, the “other side” carried its own share of hostility to us “mystics.”  When I was studying theology in a very liberal seminary, one of my theology professors said one day, “Those people over there [pointing to a neighboring major state university] think what we are doing here is just a notch above witchcraft.”  Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but not too much!  I know from personal experience that quite a few of the scientists and intellectuals over there thought most of religion was nonsense, hocus-pocus, make-believe, which most smart people outgrow.  So, admittedly, there was/is a problem on both sides of these human endeavors.  

But, like I said, I will stick to “my side,” the religion side.  Even as I say this, however, we must remember how religion of any and all traditions is embedded in a very real cultural matrix and a real quagmire of historical facts.  The fact is that there is a long anti-intellectual strain in American culture that forms the basis of the anti-science attitude.  Just for a starter, there is the universal tendency for the less educated to distrust, even dislike the more educated.  You’ll hear the word “intellectual” used in a derogatory way in many segments of American society(this is not to deny that there can be a nasty snobbishness in “smart” people).  There is a whole political dimension to this also, but we won’t get into that.  Where we really hit the wall, however,  is with a certain American religious sensibility, both the Catholic and Protestant kind.  

What you have to remember is that basic New Testament Christianity somehow got transformed into an authority and power greedy machine called the Church.  This sought to dictate to the whole of the human reality what is and isn’t true.  Note the Galileo affair; note the torture and burning of witches and heretics; note the banning of books; note the alliances with reactionary monarchies instead with emerging democracies; etc., etc.  Needless to say there was a reaction to all this, and one effect was the eviscerating of the authority of all Christianity.  Rational philosophy and science became dominant, and it seemed like there were two worlds: the religious, the spiritual, the mystical; and the rational, scientific.  Both claimed a kind of priority or dominance over the whole; neither was right.  On one side, fundamentalism and conservative religious movements emerged; on the other, atheism or just pure secularism, a detachment from all religious considerations, as if religion was merely a matter of “feeling” and not thought.  

When I was a young boy, my initiation into religious experience was through science.  I was engrossed and fascinated by the awesome nature of the universe around me.  Science was a window on something utterly mysterious, absolutely beautiful and truly majestic.  When I looked through my small telescope at the Andromeda galaxy, I was seeing this fuzzy glow that was over 3 million light years away, meaning that light had been traveling for over 3 million years….I was looking back into time before the dawn of humanity.   And this was the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way!   How immense and incredibly vast this world was!   And then just think of the intricate, complex, perfectly harmonized body chemistry going on in our bodies to keep us alive moment to moment.  Go outside and you see in the mountains the enormity of tectonic forces at work under the earth’s surface—John Muir thought he was in God’s true cathedral when he was in the Sierra’s and Ansel Adams sensed the transcendent in the presence of the mountains.   Or look into the face of any living creature and you will see that mysterious spark of life in each and every eye.   The Real is the true icon of the Transcendent, and true science is the handmaid, the servant of the Real.  Science does not obscure or diminish the transcendent; it brings it more to our sensibility.  When ancient people stared at the night sky, they mythicized what they saw and did not realize the enormous reality that was so apparent, so THERE.  When science emerged and we began to understand this incredible world embracing us, it should have only enhanced true religiosity and true spirituality.  (But the Church was more interested in controlling people and missed its true calling.)  People who want to use science to diminish religion have not really opened themselves up to what science brings to the human heart.  And people who fear that science destroys religion, have neither true religion nor true science in view.

One last point:  when science and rationalism became a major paradigm in Western culture, seemingly threatening the spiritual (and why that was so was largely the problem with the ongoing religiosity), there were many different kinds of reactions as I mentioned.   One of these, which was at least interesting and had something authentic about it,  was the Romantic movement in the arts; another, more radical attitude, was manifested in Russian Christianity (among many other places), the radical Slavophiles and religious philosophers.  Their attitude can be summed up like this:  if the choice is between the truth and Christ, then I always choose Christ.  One is tempted to say that this is an absurdity, but in fact these folks explicitly said that the embrace of “the absurd” was essential to faith.  In other words, if 1+1 =2 is against my faith, I reject that 1+1=2….why can’t 1+1 equal 3?  In this worldview faith and reason are in a hostile relationship, and reason and scientific evidence are a threat to my faith.  (There is a long history of a misinterpretation of Tertullian, seemingly saying “I believe BECAUSE it is absurd.”  This is a gross error in historical transmission; not what he meant at all; but this misinterpretation traveled through history and entered certain existentialist writers of the modern era.  Also, another gross misunderstanding is one of attributing this attitude to Zen, wrongly seeing Zen as an embrace or irrationality when it is emphatically a transcending of the rational scope of our minds.  You don’t get a lobotomy when you take up Zen!)

In any case, what is sad about these people is that they don’t realize that any and all truth, all that is true, no matter whether grand and profound or trivial or miniscule, whether utterly clear or faint, each and every truth is a messenger of the Transcendent, a window on the Absolute.  Yes, even 1+1=2, in its own trivial, tiny way is a messenger of the transcendent….if you know how to read the message.  And so is the chemistry of that blade of grass, and the nose of the bear that can smell your sandwich from a mile away, and so are the billions of galaxies with each one carrying billions of stars, and so is Aristotle’s analysis of the political community, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity  and the beautiful mathematical symmetry of great architecture, and so is …… but you have to learn how to read the message.