Insight Journal interviews David Loy, a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He will be teaching “Nonduality” in Buddhist Teachings and Practice at BCBS September 28-30, 2018. Wisdom Publications will be releasing a second edition of David Loy’s book Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy in 2019.
Insight Journal: Nonduality is one of my favorite topics, and there are so many different ways of looking at it. I really loved your book on the subject: Awareness Bound and Unbound. Can you explain to me if there is a difference between nonduality, non-self, or emptiness? There are so many different terms in the Buddhist tradition that seem to me to be the same thing, but I wanted to find out your perspective on the differences.
David Loy: Actually, nonduality was more the focus of my first book, titled — appropriately — Nonduality! That book discusses nonself and emptiness, but in fact the concept of nonduality is much broader than that. It literally means “not two,” that two things we have understood as separate from one another are in fact not separate at all. They are so dependent upon each other that they are, in effect, two different sides of the same coin. But that can describe a lot of things. So whenever we read the word “nonduality,” we should ask “okay, what’s the context? What duality is being denied?”
IJ: So, first determine what you are denying when you hear the term nondual.
DL: To make it less theoretical, one example that we’ll be talking about in the course is the nonduality of bipolar concepts, such as rich/poor, or good/evil. Rich and poor seem to be two different concepts, but if you think about it, they are really not separate — you can’t have one without the other. If you don’t understand what poor means, you don’t know what rich means, and vice versa. This may sound like an abstract logical point, but in fact it is psychologically important as well, because if the most important thing in your life is to become rich, it also means that you are preoccupied with poverty — afraid of being poor.
Another useful example is pure versus impure. Suppose the most important thing for you is to live a pure life, whatever purity means for you. That implies you are going to live your life preoccupied with impurity, because you’ll need to be constantly looking out for impure thoughts and acts. Since the meaning of each of these concepts is the negation of the other, to live purely is to avoid impure things. They only have meaning in relation to each other.
Purity/impurity is a good example of how seeing the world in terms of such bipolarities creates problems for us. It’s one of the ways we “bind ourselves without a rope,” to use the Zen expression. One of the great Chan masters, Hui Hai, said that “true purity is to live beyond the duality of purity and impurity.”
Maybe the most problematic version of bipolar concepts is good versus evil, because, again, you can’t have one without the other. Good is what is not evil, evil is what is not good. Historically, good versus evil seems to be the fundamental polarity of Christianity and the other Abrahamic traditions. If God is all-good, you have to find a separate evil influence in order to explain why there is so much suffering in the world, so you invent a Satan, or an original sin in the Garden of Eden. And then the world can be seen as the site of this great struggle between the forces of good and the evil forces that oppose the good. You end up with heresy trials, and burn witches at the stake, and suppress other religions as demonic — all that kind of stuff.
IJ: Yes, the whole concept of duality frames our world so that we split things up into separate sides.
DL: Exactly. But that’s not the only type of nonduality. There are many other examples, such as the nonduality of samsara and nirvana in some Mahayana traditions. In early Buddhism, this world is samsara – a realm of suffering, craving and delusion – and the goal is to escape by achieving nibbana and not being reborn here. Then the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna comes along and says “the place [koti] that is samsara is the same place that is nirvana, they are not different.” So how can we understand the relationship between what the Pali Canon seems to be saying and what Nāgārjuna is saying?
IJ: Can you say more about who Nāgārjuna is?
DL: Nāgārjuna is one of the progenitors of the Mahayana, and in my view he’s the most important person in the Buddhist tradition, after the Buddha. Nāgārjuna was one of the first to emphasize shunyata, the term usually translated as emptiness. He is most famous for this denial of any duality between nirvana and samsara. What he’s pointing at, I think, is that we shouldn’t be seeking nirvana in some other place — that there are other ways of experiencing this world, right here and now. The way I usually put it is that the world as we normally experience it has been psychologically, socially, and linguistically constructed. As we grow up we learn to see the world in the way that everyone else does, but we don’t realize that’s what’s happening. We think we are seeing reality itself. Nāgārjuna is saying, in effect, “well, actually, you can deconstruct this usual way of perceiving the world and experience it in a different way – realize something else about it.” And that alternative experience involves the non-self and emptiness you asked about.
IJ: So how would a person apply these teachings in their life? The readings and concepts are fascinating to think about, though the application a bit more complex, it seems.
DL: How do we actually transform our usual way of experiencing the world? This is where meditation comes in. My understanding of the spiritual path is that it involves deconstructing and reconstructing how we experience the world, including ourselves. The world (including our sense of self) is constructed by the ways we think about it and act in it, so when we let go of the ways we’ve learned to think about it – which can happen when we’re meditating — we can experience it differently. The reconstruction touches on what I think is the true meaning of karma. It involves transforming our motivations because they are crucial in causing us to experience the world in a certain way.
IJ: Of course, our motivations affect our perceptions.
DL: Buddhism teaches that if you’re motivated by the three poisons (greed, hatred and delusion) you’re creating bad karma – and ultimately dukkha, suffering. In effect, someone who is motivated by greed, hatred and delusion lives in a different world than someone who is motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. A pickpocket sees peoples’ pockets; a spiritual teacher sees peoples’ Buddhanature. By transforming our motivations, which determine how we relate to other people and the world, we come to experience the world differently.
IJ: What is the role of nonduality in our meditation practice?
DL: Dogen famously wrote that to study the Buddha way is to study yourself, and to study yourself is to forget yourself, whereupon we realize our intimacy with – our nonduality with – the ten thousand things of the world. In Zen practice, focusing on a koan such as Joshu’s Mu can be a way to forget yourself. As my teacher Yamada Koun put it, the goal of our practice is to forget ourselves in the act of becoming one with something, such the sound of Mu. By concentrating wholeheartedy on Mu, repeating the sound Mu over and over, ceaselessly, the dualistic sense of a self that is doing it can become attenuated. This can lead to kensho, letting go and opening up to non-self and emptiness.
But there’s another way to meditate – which involves another kind of nonduality! Dogen also emphasized the nonduality of practice and awakening. He says that zazen is not a means to the goal of enlightenment, for if it is done in a non-grasping, non-gaining way then meditation is itself a manifestation of the enlightened mind. The duality that we tend to get caught up in is between the practice and the goal, the means and the end, yet with shikantaza (“just sitting”) there is not that duality. This is quite different from working on a koan such as Mu.
IJ: In Awareness Bound and Unbound you also discuss how nonduality is described in other traditions. Maybe this could help people understand the relationship between religions. Could you speak a bit about that?
DL: Once we get some sense of the different types of nonduality in Buddhism, we start to notice that other spiritual traditions seem to be saying some similar things. For example, the Nonduality book is mostly a comparison between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta and Taoism, because, viewed from a non-dual perspective, they seem to be pointing to the same alternative way of experiencing the world.
IJ: It feels very unifying to know that many of the religions have the same human concern to approach life nondualistically.
DL: I don’t want to oversimplify here. It would certainly be misleading to say that all or many religions are teaching the same thing. But nonduality is a “master concept” that can help us to resonate and communicate with what important figures in other spiritual traditions teach. In the Abrahamic religions, for example, the teachings of Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi, among others, are very suggestive. And an important part of this is that other traditions have their own vocabularies, different ways of pointing to the moon. We can become too identified with the terminology of our own religion, and end up mistaking that finger for the moon itself. When you have other traditions that seem to be expressing something similar but in a different language, that can be very helpful, leading to a lot of insight.
IJ: It seems that if you held this nondualistic perspective while reading teachings from different traditions, you might be able to access more of their wisdom. Are there other examples of nonduality that you work with?
DL: Many! One that I love to talk about is the duality between things, including you and me, and time. We usually think of time as something external to us that we are “in.” That way of understanding time is a social construct, often necessary – that’s how we coordinate with each other – but also a source of suffering, because we can feel trapped by what time is doing to us. All I have to do is look in the mirror to be reminded of my aging – and the inevitable end that implies.
The reality is that we are not in time because we are time. Our nature is temporal which means we are not things, we are bundles of physical and mental processes. And when we become nondual with those processes, the past is not something that falls away, and the future is not something that’s coming. Then we live “in” what is sometimes called the eternal present. Etymologically the word “eternity” means without beginning and without end. What is without beginning and without end? It’s always now. But we usually overlook that and experience the present as something that is constantly falling away, becoming past, because we are always reaching for something that is not now – that is in the future. We’re habitually grasping at something that we think is going to fill up our sense of lack, always rejecting what is now for what will be in the future, and missing what’s here. This nonduality between things (including us) and time is what Dogen is pointing at when he talks about uji “being-time.”
IJ: The most inspiring sutta that I came upon early in my practice is the Heart Sutra.
DL: It’s the most important sutra for Zen, and it’s all about nonduality. “No old age and death, and no end of old age and death.” I gave a Dharma talk about that recently. What would it mean to become nondual with your own death? There are some koans about this in the Zen tradition. How do you free yourself from birth-and-death when you’re about to die? Maybe we’ll get into this one in the course!
For me, the most important and interesting example of nonduality is the nonduality of self and other, subject and object. The Indian sage Nisargadatta said it best: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life flows.” Our basic delusion of separation – the sense that there is an “I” that is inside and the world is outside — is the most fundamental and problematic duality, which causes the most suffering.
There are different aspects to this duality/nonduality. Taoism has the concept of wei-wu-wei, literally “the action of nonaction,” which describes what it’s like when you forget your sense of self and become one with an action. For example, basketball players who sometimes get “in the flow” and score almost every time they shoot. They’re one with their body. There’s no longer the sense of a self inside that’s manipulating the body. That spontaneity is a kind of physical nonduality.
Take dancing. When you’re self-conscious, dancing is difficult, trying to make the right moves, avoiding wrong steps. But then you might have a drink and relax and suddenly you’re not doing the dancing, the dancing is doing the dancing. One of William Butler Yeats’s poems says: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can you tell the dancer from the dance?” You forget yourself and become one with what you’re doing – for a little while, anyway.
Another example of subject-object nonduality is what I call nondual thinking. Thinking can be problematic in the Buddhist tradition because it’s often considered “bad” – after all, concepts are what you should let go of when you meditate. And there is an important truth to that, because it’s our usual ways of thinking that construct and maintain our usual way of experiencing the world.
But what about creativity? So many great composers, for example, say the same thing: the melody or theme just appeared to them, they did not consciously compose it. Many poets and other writers make the same point about the words and metaphors that spontaneously arise. The deepest creativity is not the product of a sense of self that is laboriously trying to create something. It’s when you forget yourself and the thinking takes on a life of its own. This is an important example, because it clarifies something often misunderstood: the goal of our practice is not to get rid of thinking but to liberate thinking – to think more deeply and creatively.
IJ: So, closely investigating some of these dualities in your own life can bring you closer to liberation?
DL: And if we understand and experience some of these nondualities, it’s more likely that we’ll experience other types of nonduality as well. They are all connected.
Let me conclude with one final example – a particularly important one today: our collective nonduality with the earth. The basic problem now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just a collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of nonduality?
After the Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara appeared and challenged him by asking: who confirms your awakening? The Buddha didn’t say anything, just reached out and touched the earth. What did that mean? Well, I’m reminded of an old problem in Buddhism: if there’s really no self, who or what becomes enlightened? Can we say that it is the earth that wakes up and becomes more conscious? We are part of the earth, our bodies composed of the same chemicals that compose its other living and nonliving beings. Our species is just one of the many ways that the earth manifests. We need to wake up to that truth and what is implies about how we live.
Today the eco-crisis is really challenging our whole civilization at some deep level to wake up to our nonduality with the earth, which is our mother as well as our home.
IJ: I agree, and believe that is a great voice to bring forward. So many of us are into practice for ourselves, but we forget that “ourselves” includes the earth. It’s another way we can bring our attention and care to awakening.
DL: The earth needs us. In these difficult times, I think it’s asking all of us to become eco-sattvas.
IJ: Indeed. Thank you so much for your time and wisdom. We really look forward to having you back here at BCBS.
DL: Me too. Thanks for this interview.