Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


If you have been practising Zen for even a little while, you have probably encountered the terms “duality” and “non-duality”, and that these concepts have a central role in Zen teachings. Some confusion can arise because Zen is an amalgamation of several Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions. The meaning of “duality” and “non-duality” is not consistent between these traditions, or even between different Buddhist traditions. In this talk, I want to talk about my understanding of what these terms mean from a Yogacara viewpoint, and their applicability to Zen practice.

Zen Buddhism derives from several streams of Buddhist tradition – the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Madhyamika school of Buddhism which is based on the writings of Zen Ancestor Nagarjuna, Yogacara Buddhism, also known as the “Mind Only” school and was developed by Asanga, and Zen Ancestor Vasubandhu (among others), and Hua-yen Buddhism which is a Chinese school of Buddhism based on the Avatamsaka Sutra. From the non-Buddhist side, both Confucianism and Taoism played important roles in shaping the development of Zen in China.

To start our discussion of non-duality, I'd like to mention, that in the broadest terms, suffering, which is the major concern in Buddhist practice, deals with our relationship to our experience. How we perceive and cognize what we experience determines whether we suffer or not. Buddhism maintains that if we relate to our experience from the standpoint of a fixed self, then we suffer. When we relate to our experience from the standpoint of no fixed self, then we don't suffer. It stands to reason that if we want to liberate ourselves and others from suffering, it makes sense to understand how we create and process what we experience.

Non-duality is not a metaphysical problem, and metaphysical notions will not help us in this work. Creating an ontology of “non-duality” will not help us. Adopting a “non-dual” worldview will not help us. Fortunately, there are teachings from the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of Buddhism as well teachings found in the Pali Cannon which are very useful in understanding our perceptual and cognition processes. Being familiar with these teachings can provide a guide for our own liberative work as bodhisattvas. Intellectual understanding is part of the process, but actual experience in meditation is key. Studying and understanding these teachings can validate our meditation experience, and our meditation experience validates our study of these teachings.

In Buddhism, there are six sense gates – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. According to Buddhist theories of perception, when one of our sense gates receives some sensory input, the mind (whatever that is) bifurcates. One branch creates a sense image, and the other branch is set up as perceiving the sense image. This is why the Heart Sutra talks about eye and form, ear and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste, body and touch, mind and object of mind. When you, for example, see someone it is not that you see the person directly, but, rather, an image of them arises in your mind.

This image is not a simply a visual or auditory reproduction of the real object “out there” in the external world. Rather, it is a composite object of not only raw sensory input, but also our own karmic propensities. When experience sensory input, for example, seeing an object, we are literally seeing our own mind. The image created in our mind is not different from our mind. Similarly, in this perceptual process the perceiving created in our mind is not different from our mind. In this sense, this is why Yogacara Buddhism is called “Mind Only” Buddhism as in, “it's only your mind”. In Yogacara Buddhism, the ability to produce these unreal (mental images) of subjectivity and objectivity is called the imagination of the unreal.

At this stage, even though we have imposed a two fold ordering of our perceptual process (that is, the perceiving and the perceived) on a sense experience, we are not being dualistic. This is, according to the Buddhist model, just how our senses operate, and it isn't going change after someone becomes a buddha. This base functioning of the sense gates is described by the Buddha as,

There is present only this amount of disturbance, namely, that connected with the six sense bases that are dependent on this body and conditioned by life. [...] this field of perception is void of the taint of ignorance. There is present only this non-voidness, namely, that connected with the six sense bases that are dependent on this body and conditioned by this life1

What happens next, however, is the kicker. Without going into the gory details of Buddhist perception theory, we grasp the pieces of this two-fold conceptualization. In Yogacarin terminology, this is called the two-fold grasping. We conceptualize and attach to the belief that the perceived object can be grasped or has the property of “graspability”, and we also grasp “the grasper”. We believe the “grasper” or the subject can also be grasped. Hence, the name, “two-fold grasping.” This is where attachment arises, and this sets us down the road to suffering.

According to Zen teachings, which were derived from Yogacara, dualism is delusion or a conceptual superimposition, or overlay, on a moment of experience which is not intrinsic to the experience. Dualistic conceptualization is, as Suzuki-roshi might say, something extra we add to the experience. Specifically, duality, refers to the duality of mentally constructed subject and mentally constructed object. Even more specifically, dualism refers to a mutual exclusion, an antagonism, tension, or sense of resistance between a supposed subject and a supposed object. It is something you can feel. The problem with dualism isn't that it is a two-fold conceptual categorization of experience, but rather the problem lies in our attachment to our conceived subject and conceived objects.

Just to be clear, I think sometimes people can get hung up on over applying “dualism” to any two-fold conceptualized framework, and then try to avoid all two fold conceptualizations. This can lead to a self-conscious cul de sac in our practice. We mustn't forget that Buddhism is about the alleviation of suffering. To put it another away, all suffering is conceptually rooted, but not all conceptualizations are fraught with suffering. Conceptualizations can be very useful when used properly, just as a having a map would be useful when driving to Alberta, but sitting on a map of Alberta doesn't put you in Alberta.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that in Yogacara Buddhism, the definition of emptiness differs from the definition of emptiness that is used in, for example, the Heart Sutra. In the Heart Sutra, emptiness means empty of self-nature or inherent existence. In Yogacara, on the other other hand, emptiness means empty of subject-object duality. The definitions are different, but complimentary, and both definitions are applicable to meditation practice.

Some people when starting a meditation practice read Zen phrases like “not thinking” and take it to mean that a meditation practice entails making the mind somehow go blank. This is a mistake, and it can really screw up your practice if you spend a lot of effort trying to make your mind go blank. Uchiyama-roshi made the analogy between stomachs and brains and digestive juices and mental states. A sensible person would never consider trying to make their stomach refrain from secreting digestive juices, because that's the stomach's natural function. In a likewise manner, it is unreasonable to try to make our brains stop secreting thoughts and emotions.

“Not thinking” actually means something more subtle than trying to make the mind go blank. While it allows for thoughts to arise, it means there is no thinking subject, or “the thinker” which can “think” or apprehend those thoughts. So, “not thinking” actually means “non-duality”. As Dogen puts it in Fukanzazengi,

Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

The Hsin Hsin Ming talks about this practice of non-duality,

When discriminating thoughts do not arise the usual mind ceases to exist. When thought-objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes. When the mind vanishes, objects vanish.

In this quote, we can take mind to mean the subject, or subject centric mental activity. The more solid we make the subject out to be, the more solid the objects are taken to be. The more solid we take the objects to be, the more solid our self is taken to be.

In Zen practice, we do not suppress mental states, but at the the same time we don't encourage our habit of imagining that they are more solid than they actually are. Putting it in a more concrete way, we notice the experience of arising and falling away of mental states, but we don't get involved in the content of that state. In some sense, we recognize the arising of consciousness based on sensory input as an actual experience, which is simply the activity of the six sense gates. However, recognize that the content of the thought is purely imaginary. For example, if you visualize a pitcher of iced tea and hold that image in your mind. Most people can do it. That's a real experience, but at the same time the pitcher of iced tea is not a real pitcher of iced tea because it cannot function the way that a real pitcher of ice tea would function in the world. The pitcher of iced tea in your mind is an image, or in other words, it is completely imaginary.

In Yogacara Buddhism we talk about three aspects or natures of (mental) phenomena. There is the other dependent aspect, the imaginary aspect, and the accomplished or perfected aspect. We can apply this to our pitcher of iced tea example – the arising of a thought or image is the other dependent aspect. It's arising depends on various causes and conditions. The content of the thought, that is, the held mental image of the pitcher of iced tea is the imaginary aspect. This is what sets up the dualism. The form in which the other dependent appears is the imaginary aspect and this appearance is always in the form of duality. The 'I' which perceives the pitcher of iced tea, as 'the other', as different from the 'me'. The subject-object duality is imagined. In Yogacara, the accomplished or perfected aspect is simply the dependent aspect without the the superimposition of the imagined aspect.

In the same way, when we “see”someone, it is not that we see them directly, but rather an image of them arises in our mind. The only difference between your image of someone standing before you and the imaginary pitcher of iced-tea is that the ice tea was suggested to you by me, or was conceived mentally by you. In the case of the image of the person standing before you, the sensory input came from the eyes.

There are some who would equate non-duality with oneness. Sometimes we may hear people talking about “oneness.” or “becoming one with everything”. How many of us have heard that joke which goes like, A Buddhist monk walks up to a hotdog vendor in New York City and says, 'Make me One with everything.' It can get confusing because there are non-Buddhist paths as well as some Buddhist paths which do equate non-duality with oneness. Non-duality, in the sense in which I've been using that term, is different from “oneness”. In meditation practice, at least in the way I understand it, we are not aiming to have an experience of oneness. To put it another way, “not two” does not equal “one.” Non-duality in the Yogacara sense has to do with how we cognize perceptual objects rather than asserting some sort of Cosmic Oneness.

The reason why we sit zazen is to see reality as it is. The reality is that there is a plethora of different physical phenomena. Our job, as Buddhists, is not to try to become one with these phenomena, or try to see an underlying Oneness. Rather, our practice is the practice of non-duality – the practice of noticing what it feels like to be mired a subject-object duality and to feel what it feels like when we don't experience subject-object duality. We can start to notice that there is a subtle but real unpleasantness to living in a subject-object dualism. A bit later we can start to notice how much energy it takes to fabricate and uphold the subject-object duality. It is possible, we may tire of it, and resolve to let it go moment by moment. A regular daily meditation practice, as far as I can tell, is the best way to notice and get disenchanted with these subtle dualistic states.

We can experience non-duality only when we stop fabricating duality. Now, this doesn't mean that non-duality exists and is prior to duality, and that somehow duality “covers up” that pre-existing non-duality.. It means when we stop fabricating duality, we are simply more available for a non-dual experience to arise. This is an important point. For whatever reason, humans seem to have a strong tendency of trying to assign a sense of continuity and substantiality to things we experience. Buddhist practice means refraining from this temptation. I think of this refraining as a type of renunciation. Overcoming deeply and karmically ingrained habits of perception and conception is the work of the Buddha Way. Thank-you.

1MN 121.12 The Shorter Discourse on Voidness

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016