Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
photography & writings

The wind carves shapes into the beach sand

Search over 5000 pages on Nonduality:

Click here to go to the next issue

Highlights Home Page | Receive the Nonduality Highlights each day

How to submit material to the Highlights

Nonduality Highlights: Issue #3450, Saturday, February 21, 2009, Editor: Mark

Events in time and space - birth and death, cause and effect - these may be taken as one; but the body and the embodied are not of the same order of reality. The body exists in time and space, transient and limited, while the dweller is timeless and spaceless, eternal and all-pervading. To identify the two is a grievous mistake and the cause of endless suffering. You can speak of the mind and body as one, but the body-mind is not the underlying reality.

- Nisargadatta Maharaj, posted to ANetofJewels

Our existence is trapped between desire and fear in the context of time. The core of our problem, then lies in thought, which is the creator of time.

- Ramesh Balsakar, posted to ANetofJewels

Human beings actually have no more independence or autonomy in living their lives than do the characters in a dream. Neither do they have anything to do with the creation of the dream or anything in it. They are simply being lived along with everything else in this living dream of the manifested universe. The entire dream is unreal. Only the dreamer is real, and that is Consciousness itself.

- Ramesh Balsakar, posted to ANetofJewels

The Om of physics - Dalai Lama
From Geilenkotten

One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices.

According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect - turn a key in a starter, spark plugs ignite, the engine turns over and petrol and oil are burned. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events would never occur.

Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are "empty" in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute "being" that affords independence.

The theory of emptiness was first systematically expounded by the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 2nd century AD). Little is known of his personal life, but he came from southern India and he was - after Buddha himself - the single most important figure for the formulation of Buddhism in India. Historians credit him with the emergence of the Middle Way school of Mahayana Buddhism, which remains the predominant school among Tibetans to this day.

One of the most extraordinary and exciting things about modern physics is the way the microscopic world of quantum mechanics challenges our common-sense understanding. The facts that light can be seen as either a particle or a wave, and that the uncertainty principle tells us we can never know at the same time what an electron does and where it is, and the quantum notion of superposition all suggest an entirely different way of understanding the world from that of classical physics, in which objects behave in a deterministic and predictable manner. For instance, in the well-known example of Schrödinger's cat, in which a cat is placed inside a box containing a radioactive source that has a 50 per cent chance of releasing a deadly toxin, we are forced to accept that, until the lid is opened, this cat is both dead and alive, seemingly defying the law of contradiction.

To a Mahayana Buddhist exposed to Nagarjuna's thought, there is an unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new physics. If on the quantum level, matter is revealed to be less solid and definable than it appears, then it seems to me that science is coming closer to the Buddhist contemplative insights of emptiness and interdependence. At a conference in New Delhi, I once heard Raja Ramanan, the physicist known to his colleagues as the Indian Sakharov, drawing parallels between Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness and quantum mechanics.

After having talked to numerous scientist friends over the years, I have the conviction that the great discoveries in physics going back as far as Copernicus give rise to the insight that reality is not as it appears to us. When one puts the world under a serious lens of investigation - be it the scientific method and experiment or the Buddhist logic of emptiness or the contemplative method of meditative analysis - one finds things are more subtle than, and in some cases even contradict, the assumptions of our ordinary common-sense view of the world.

One may ask, apart from misrepresenting reality, what is wrong with believing in the independent, intrinsic existence of things? For Nagarjuna, this belief has serious negative consequences. Nagarjuna argues that it is the belief in intrinsic existence that sustains the basis for a self-perpetuating dysfunction in our engagement with the world and with our fellow human beings. By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while towards others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.

In other words, Nagarjuna argues that grasping at the independent existence of things leads to affliction, which in turn gives rise to a chain of destructive actions, reactions and suffering. In the final analysis, for Nagarjuna, the theory of emptiness is not a question of the mere conceptual understanding of reality. It has profound psychological and ethical implications.

I once asked my physicist friend David Bohm this question: from the perspective of modern science, apart from the question of misrepresentation, what is wrong with the belief in the independent existence of things? His response was telling. He said that if we examine the various ideologies that tend to divide humanity, such as racism, extreme nationalism and the Marxist class struggle, one of the key factors of their origin is the tendency to perceive things as inherently divided and disconnected. From this misconception springs the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent and self-existent. Bohm's response, grounded in his work in quantum physics, echoes the ethical concern about harbouring such beliefs that had worried Nagarjuna, who wrote nearly 2000 years before.

Granted, strictly speaking, science does not deal with questions of ethics and value judgements, but the fact remains that science, being a human endeavour, is still connected to the basic question of the well-being of humanity. So in a sense, there is nothing surprising about Bohm's response. I wish there were more scientists with his understanding of the interconnectedness of science, its conceptual frameworks and humanity.

- The Dalai Lama, from The Universe in a Single Atom

There is a particular snag in the spiritual investigation that must be unhooked, that must be unraveled. It's not a new one. You've certainly heard of it before. It is the tendency and the habit to look for truth or perfection or realization outside of oneself. It's important to understand how this comes about. Then maybe that understanding will be the means of unraveling this very tight snag. An exquisite and important moment in a lifestream occurs when one recognizes the disgusting habits, the addictions, the horror, the violence, and the filth that one has called oneself. It is a great shock, a great shaking, and it is very important, otherwise, the horror and filth just continue to accumulate in the name and the exultation of "me" and "my story." This recognition is a spiritual shock, and there can be, and usually is, a great trembling, and then a desire to find what is true, what is real, what is pure, what is holy, what is free. So, the search begins "out there."

We have many exquisite examples of "out there." There have been sages and saints, messiahs, god women and god men throughout time who we can point to and say, "Ah, there it is. Why can't I get there?" Then there are many attempts to fix what was seen as disgusting and limited so that it can be like what is imagined to be pure and holy. All of you have tried this. Certainly this is not news, right? There is striving and working, a sense of gaining ground and sense of losing ground, until finally, there is another great spiritual shock. I call it "the great disillusionment." When it is recognized that all of the fixing of the character or the personality or the habits or the addictions still has not touched that seeming gulf of separation between who you are and the perfection itself, there is a great disillusionment. Such a gulf appears there. This is the soul's longing for God. And you see clearly that all of the scrambling and gaining and climbing up the ladders still hasn't touched the depth of this longing. This is crucial. This is the dark night of the soul. It is the recognition;

I will never be able to do it. I've tried, I've worked, but I will never be able to do it.

There are many, many avenues away from this moment. You might encourage yourself with thoughts like, Yes, you can do it. Just wait, God will come for you. Try harder. Stick to it.

But I invite you, rather than taking any of those avenues, to actually allow yourself to fall onto this double-edged sword of disillusionment and longing. Fall right through the middle so that the sword rips apart this sense of a gulf of separation. Fall right into the gulf.

Refuse to take any avenue of comfort or hope or at this point, even belief. Actually be willing to meet the sword, to have it rip open your heart.

This is the true invitation of satsang. It is a radical invitation. It is an acceptance of not moving from the longing, from the disillusionment, to see, Who am I, really? What is really here? It is an acceptance to see what is deeper than what is perceived, what is deeper than what is sensed. It is an acceptance to die. All of the conditioning is not to die. All of the support and the hope and the belief is, I won't die, or If I die, I'll go to heaven where I'll meet my grandmother, or my friends who went before me. Under all of these hopes and beliefs is this longing. I invite you to fall into that longing. Not into the story of the longing, but into the longing itself. It is not separate from the disillusionment. True disillusionment is holy. Illusion is wiped out. What cannot be imagined, what is not subject to the mind's simulation, reveals itself.

While it is awesome to meet some person or some moment that can shake loose the illusion, and while that cannot help but be revered, it is very important to see how the individual mind creates a gulf of separation. All of the greatest teachers have said, "You and I are one," or "I and my father are one," or "All is the one Self." It is ironic how the mind takes that and makes it into an illusion of separation; He and his father are one. She and they are the same. All is one, except for me, and I am left out. It's familiar, isn't it? These habits of thought are strong, and even with the best intentions, they get reinforced. In the willingness to stop feeding these habits of thought, the longing and the disillusionment are faced directly, much as Christ on his cross faced the apparent abandonment of God.

This is open to everyone. Somehow, to some degree or another, you have accepted the invitation. There is always more. Come in more deeply, more deeply, until finally, you can find no distinction between in and out, between the father and the child, between God and soul, between you and me. This is the possibility that the invitation to satsang reveals. This is your possibility. It is not limited to Buddha or Christ. It is not limited to Ramana. It is not limited to Gangaji. It is not limited, and that is the greatest teaching. It is limitless. God's presence is omnipresent, everywhere, every time.

This is the promise of all great teachings. It is the message that my guru's guru transmitted to him. It is the message that my guru transmitted to me. It is the message that is freely transmitted to you. It is the message that comes from the core of your being. To simply receive what is already in the core of your being is the willingness to come in. Not some other time, but now, always now. So I welcome you. I welcome you in. What appears to be out is also in.

- Meeting with Gangaji, San Diego, California - March 7, 1997

top of page