This is a guest post by my friend Matthew Wright!
The 9th century Hindu philosopher Shankaracharya is famous for his pithy three statement summation of the teachings of Advaita Vedanta: The world is illusion. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world. We might compare the traditional three movements of the Christian mystical path: purgation, illumination, and union. Likewise, the Islamic shahada, or affirmation of faith (La ilaha illallah Muhammadan rasulullah), as understood by the mystics of Islam, moves through three similar stages: La ilaha (“There is no god”), the negation of the world of idolatry and separation;illallah (“only God”), the affirmation that Divine Reality alone is; Muhammadan rasulullah(“Muhammad is the messenger of God”), the affirmation that the world is not other than Divine Reality. This final insight is not different in essence from the Zen Buddhist realization that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It could also be seen as the deepest meaning of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (in St. Athanasius’ words, that “God became humanity that humanity might become God”) or the koan of a Christ who is both fully God and fully human.
 Muhammad is understood here not only as the Arabian prophet, but as the Nur Muhammad, the Light of Prophecy that shines through all prophets, both the essential name of the whole creation and the fullness of perfected humanity (as a hadith qudsi says: “If not for you, O Muhammad, I would not have created the worlds.”).
Some “nondual” teachers, however, seem to stop short of Shankara’s final affirmation: Brahman is the world. Especially in Hindu tradition, the message can seem to be simply the world is illusion(Sufism’s la ilaha and Christianity’s purgation), with the ultimate goal of moksha, or escape (this is not only the fault of the tradition, but is due, to some extent, to the lack of nuance—and simple misrepresentation—on the part of Western scholars). While we must go further, this insight is nevertheless a significant and necessary one, bringing disillusionment with the world around us and an awakening to the impulses and drives that we have been in unconscious obedience to. We begin to see the web of attachments that has made us selfish and self-centered, separating us from God and from others. We see that practically all of our relationships and actions are tainted with subtle (or not so subtle) traces of egoism. At this stage, we may begin to experience the world and its forms with a sense of disdain or even disgust, seen as so many traps and entanglements. Dissatisfied, we turn to God (i.e., away from idolatry and convention).
Now begins the work of seeing and cutting through the attachments that veil us from naked Reality. Classically, the Advaita Vedanta tradition has formulated this work in terms of “discrimination” (viveka), expressed through the phrase “neti, neti“, “not this, not this”—discerning and negating everything that is not God (that is, everything separating or egoic, temporal or finite). God is the all-embracing and eternal Reality; anything that is not That, is not God. This begins the awakening to Brahman alone is real (or illallah and illumination), our encounter with the “oneness” just beneath the surface of ordinary experience. We touch the unchanging peace, stillness, and love that is our essence. Thrilled to have made the discovery of “what’s real”, we reject the surface and affirm the depth. We retreat to the Eternal.
For a truly nondual spiritual vision, however, we must make Shankara’s final leap, and affirm what Christian language might call radical Incarnation: Brahman is the world. But before arriving there, I want to look at some possible pitfalls along the way. As stated above, one serious error (we might even say spiritual pathology), is ending the spiritual journey at Shankara’s first or second statements, which at their worst can produce the kind of world-denying, dualistic Gnosticism that plagued the 2nd and 3rd century Christian church (or simply a disengaged quietism). But another, and perhaps more dangerous error in the context of contemporary culture, is attempting to start at the third statement (“Brahman is the world”). It is tempting to jump to this final insight from the get-go, but then it is held only as an intellectual concept, not a realization. As a realization, we begin to actually live from this truth, acting differently (that is, less egoically) in the world around us; as an intellectual concept, it is merely words, however lofty and seemingly beautiful. However uncomfortable, we are first required to pass through the necessary stage of negation (in Jesus’ words, “the eye of the needle” and “the narrow way”).
I give this point special emphasis, as there is a tendency in liberal Western Christianity (and Western spirituality in general), because of our history of negative attitudes towards sex and the body, to overcompensate with talk of “incarnational spirituality” and Ginsbergian shouts of “Everything is holy!” As a corrective to a pervasive negativity, this has its place (and at its best can be an authentic insight into Christianity’s nondual core). In the context of spiritual work, however, it is extremely important to recognize what level of realization we are speaking from when we make such claims. The purified ego can truly recognize the inherent holiness of everything, but a person operating from a lower level of consciousness development will happily (and probably quite unconsciously) use such claims to justify any manner of behaviors, under the guise of “It’s all holy” (perhaps most clearly seen on the level of egoic sexual expression).
Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, and mystical traditions in general, put great emphasis on the place of detachment and renunciation in spiritual life—words that are not generally favored in our contemporary spiritual climate, as they are often heard as world- or life-denying. What is being renounced or detached from, however, is egoism and clinging, which lead to a contracted and selfish life. Renunciation, in its fullest sense, expands life. “Incarnational spirituality”, on the other hand, is too often an excuse for spiritual laziness and a way of baptizing our impulses towards egoic experience (“God’s in everything, it’s all holy!”).
We see this attitude expressed in phrases such as “My life is my prayer.” Indeed, to live a life of prayer is the end goal of all spiritual activity—that we would enter into St. Paul’s “prayer without ceasing.” But this is the end goal, not the starting point. Only the great saints can truly say “My life is my prayer”, because they are always in remembrance of God, seeing only that One Face. Most of us are simply striving towards that state, and to claim it prematurely may actually serve to inhibit our spiritual progress. A more honest statement would probably be: “Sometimes, when I’m lucky, my life is my prayer.” To truly awaken into a greater and more constant state of prayer, disciplined practice (sadhana) is needed. There is little instant gratification on the spiritual path (until we see that it’s all instant gratification), although the work can be joyful. Certainly, in the end, life itself will bring us all of the lessons that we need, and practices and awakening will come as we’re ready. But now is always the moment that we can begin the work of letting go.
With these dangers set aside, the final circling back (or rather, spiraling forward) to Brahman is the world (or Muhammadan rasulullah and union) is the full expression of the nondual vision of Reality. We neither remain in the negation of the world, nor the simple affirmation of God. Having negated all that is impermanent, and having experienced and affirmed the Eternal, we now come to see everything previously negated in new light. All is the manifestation of Divine Reality. Everything that had veiled us from God is now seen to be simply the expression of God. There is only Kali dancing on Shiva, the Divine Attributes dancing in the Divine Essence, Shakti and Brahman, the Relative and the Absolute, a single Reality. There is only Christ, incarnate, crucified, and ascended; judge, savior, and saved. There is nowhere to go, nothing to escape, only God; perfect freedom, total service, One Face.
The world is illusion. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world. La ilaha illallah Muhammadan rasulullah. God became humanity that humanity might become God.
Matthew Wright is studying for ordination in the Episcopal Church at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is also a student of Sufism and Vedanta, working to further religious reconciliation through interspiritual dialogue and contemplative practice. He currently serves as an intern at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC.
Mike’s recommended nondual reading:
One: Essential Writings on Nonduality – compiled by Jerry Katz
Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism – Jay Michaelson
The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey – Bernadette Roberts
The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See – Richard Rohr
If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics – Bruce Sanguin
Other posts in the Nondual Week series:
Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’
Mike, Thanks for posting such thoughtful ruminations. Still, I’m not sure I followed: at the end, he says there is “only” one “Face.” Just Christ. So where is the “the world” the creation? Did I miss something–this just sounds like old school gnosticism. There is God, of course, but in the end there is a renewed creation, and that is being seen, in glimpses of glory, even now. Anything that says there is “only” God just doesn’t seem helpful to me. Or if God is called Reality as if the creation isn’t also real. He even sounds gnostic when he suggests that only some with special knowledge (“a purified ego” whatever that is) can fully “see” that all is holy. I guess when us ordinary chumps say it, it ain’t really so. I appreciate interfaith conversations and glad he says that there is a “nondual core” in the Christian tradition. I’d rather not make is sound so abstract, calling it a core. It just is. God made stuff and that’s a good thing. Anything that diminishes that or tries to skirt it, even if it goes by “nondual” seems to me something other than “for God so loved the cosmos.” I’ll admit I might be missing something, though, in his piece. What did you like about it?
Thanks for chiming in! To me, a gnostic (in the sense that you primarily mean it, I think – someone who condemns the material world as corrupt or unreal) is someone who only affirms the first part of what Matthew quotes in his opener: “The world is illusion.” This perspective tends to come from the philosophical East. The materialist West tends to echo the last part: “Brahman is the world.” (Well, we Westerners wouldn’t put it that way; we’d say “This world is all there is.”) And many pious Evangelicals would hold onto only the middle part of the phrase: “Brahman alone is real” – or “Christ alone is real,” or “Only what we do for Eternity matters.”
But for me, holding this all in tension is where the juice is – even biblically. To be able to say “The world is illusion. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world” is to me like being able to say (in Judeo-Christian language) “God’s Kindgom is not of this world. God’s Kingdom alone is real. God’s Kingdom comes to earth as it is in heaven.” Or – “God is wholly other than the manifest world [‘No one has seen God at any time’]; God alone is God, there is no other [Isaiah 45:5]; God is one [the Shema], God is All in all [I Corinthians 15] – and Creation is good [Genesis 1-2]”
It’s a matter of perspective: There are tons of passages in Jewish and Christian Scriptures (and – I am told by voices like Matthew, in Qu’ranic and Vedic writings) that have been interpreted by sages and mystics through the ages to indicate that God is the One reality that everything else manifests from, and that our destiny is this vital connection we call ‘oneness’ – I can’t read Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 and come to any other conclusion.
And yet – as you so rightly point out, creation – the manifest world – exists for a reason. Our multiplicity, our plurality, and the sheer tangible-ness of the material world is a solid, *good* thing – and the more esoteric (usually wealth-and-privilege-based) versions of Eastern spiritual paths tend to miss this in my judgement. Creation isn’t a mistake! From one perspective, God is all there is. *Of course* God is all there is – how could it be otherwise? Independent existence apart from God might make for good deistic philosophy but it’s heresy as far as I’m concerned. We exist in a relational uni-verse. And yet, from the ordinary perspective of our day-to-day consciousness, of *course* there are boats and trees and you and me – and knives, guns, and disease, too. Both the One and the Many are true – it’s a matter of perspective.
Our primal narrative of two trees in the garden of paradise tells me something: There is a way to live, reliant on duality, that is unhealthy – the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ And a way to live in wholeness and vital connection – to God, my own presence, other people, and creation – that is LIFE-giving, the Tree of Life. When we stray from this and emphasize The Many over The One, we experience alienation and the effects of missing this mark (‘sin’).
For me, it all begins and ends with the Trinity. God as a loving community of persons spinning out the cosmos as an emergent, nested expression of love. The one God in Triune community demonstrates a way for one humanity and one ecosystem to function harmoniously in all of our distinction and difference. I think the idea of three-in-one Godhead can fruitfully play with monism (‘the One’ of the East) and dualism (‘the many’ of the West), holding it all together in sweet panentheistic nonduality as we learn to eat, once again, from the Tree of Life.
Beautifully and thoughtfully put Mike. This puts words to the swirling solar system of reality where in Christ (sun) holds all together so wonderfully within. In other words your description put words to my lack of confusion in the midst of seeming chaos within my heart where Christ is the only constant.
I’ll just jump in here and say yes to Mike’s comments, which I think are beautifully put and spot-on. I couldn’t agree more with your language of the Trinity (which I think is one of the best dogmatic analogies we have for nonduality), the One and the Many, and always holding all of these angles onto Reality in deep, paradoxical tension–which is what allows the magic to happen.
To better answer the last part of your question, Byron – to me, Matthew’s closer of “There is only Christ, incarnate, crucified, and ascended; judge, savior, and saved. There is nowhere to go, nothing to escape, only God; perfect freedom, total service, One Face” is equivalent to the biblical Christian confession that “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, emphasis mine of course as there were no italics in ancient Koine Greek) It’s a profoundly mystical idea when you think about it – all the while being eminently practical and affirming the reconciliation of apparent opposites in this world of diversity.
I’ve not heard your spiritual story, Byron, but my backgrounds are Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, and PCA Presbyterian. Then I spent a decade in a house church stream that’s highly influenced by ‘post-Brethren’ teachers like China’s Watchman Nee & England’s T. Austin-Sparks. There is a little book of Nee’s entitled ‘Christ: The Sum of All Spiritual Things‘ that was *hugely* influential. That link goes to a full eBook version of it. I’m curious if you’d find it gnostic or consistent with biblical ideas of Christ’s all-pervasiveness.
I’m pretty sure Rob Bell would blush if he read this.
Then he’d have to agree with it. 🙂
Of course, we still know where that leaves me.
One of the key attractions of non-dualism is its universality. Non-dualism is the shared experience and even the primary identifying trait of mature people from every culture and religion. All the really cool adults are non-dualists, and have been for millenia. And now we’re even starting to see Americans hankering to embrace the all as everything.
I’m not one of them. I do not see any common ground shared by the gospel and non-dualism. Take the “narrow gate” quote from Luke 13, for example. Here we see the disciples asking whether many would be saved, and Jesus’ extended answer ends with the Master of the house telling those outside, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’
I don’t know any non-dualists who would say such a thing.
I see two big questions in non-dualism so far, then. Wherein does it improve upon, “love your neighbor as yourself.” And what does it do with the immense finality of death.
I actually touch on Jesus’ reference to “the narrow way” in this piece, and I don’t see any conflict between an ultimately nondual vision of Christian spirituality and phrases of Jesus such as “I do not know where you come from.” First of all, I think it’s always important to remember that the parables are just that–parables–they use the language of metaphor and analogy to try to express profound spiritual truths.
That said, when Jesus talks about “the outer darkness” and “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” I think he’s pointing to a very significant existential reality that people can find themselves participating in. Nonduality doesn’t mean that on the relative plane people cannot reject the love of God or that no experience of “separation” is possible (although it is never *ultimately* possible). It does mean that the deeper truth is always our oneness with Divine Reality–we are expressions of That whether conscious of it or not. The gate to that awakening is narrow, and very few of us do it fully in this life.
But with our friend Rob Bell, I would have to posit that grace does not end with biological death, and that we are always being called back into that awareness. With St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:27-28), I am optimistic in seeing the evolutionary trajectory of creation as that point when all things will be consciously “put in subjection to Christ” and God will become “all in all” (which on the vertical dimension is *always already* the case!).
And I also don’t think it’s insignificant that at the end of the Lukan passage you site, Jesus looks beyond “I don’t know where you come from” to “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Regardless, however, of whether or not there will “always” be those in the manifest dimension that play the “game of separation,” nonduality remains the ultimate truth–it is not overcome by “hell” or “separation” or “rejection.”
Oh and for your last two questions!
>>I see two big questions in non-dualism so far, then. Wherein does it improve upon, “love your neighbor as yourself.” And what does it do with the immense finality of death.<<
I don't think nondualism can improve on "love your neighbor as yourself"–I think that IS nondualism! It is seeing beyond our usual egoic, dualistic take on reality that says our neighbor has ever been other than our very own self–which is never possible!
And as for "the immense finality of death"–I don't believe in it! 🙂
Wow, this is really something – the article and the comments. Why do you guys think the term nondual is used rather than some form of Oneness or One? from the perspective that nondual is a negative and Oneness is positive.
A Sufi teacher once said to me that she hates the term nonduality–because it took her forever to understand it! First, you have to figure out what duality is–and then negate it! “Why not just go for the affirmation–Oneness?” Makes sense 😉 While “non-dual” literally means “not two,” some folks finesse the phrase to mean, more subtly, “not one, not two”–which I think is actually more accurate. The term is a translation of the Sanskrit “advaita” (a [non] + dvaita [dualism])–and I think it’s often just used out of deference to tradition. In Islam, the closest term is “tawhid”–which points to the affirmation, rather than the negation (also “wadhat al wujud”–the oneness of being).
> I think he’s pointing to a very significant existential reality
Yes, but why?
I understand your perspective, but I can’t come up with any scriptural basis for it. You’ve told me in your reply what you think, but not where Jesus says what you say.
In this chapter Jesus says:
+ Unless you repent, you shall likewise perish … twice
+ If it bear fruit OK, and if it doesn’t then cut it down
+ Many will seek to enter, and will not be able
+ I don’t know you or where you’re from
+ Depart from me all you workers of iniquity
+ There shall be weeping and gnashing when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in and yourselves thrust out
Sure, Jesus is speaking in parables, but the parables have to mean something and something within the context of the people listening. He speaks in the future tense and fails to say the things you say. He doesn’t say a thing about being “all in all” to workers of iniquity, or them being on any evolutionary trajectory of creation.
Jesus moves back and forth during this discussion between describing Israel’s future and the futures of the people listening, but at no point does He say anything about an invisible reality they’re currently experiencing or that may be temporary and happily overcome in the future life. He says they will be thrust out, then contrasts their fate with those to be allowed in. People from every compass point will be allowed in even as they weep and gnash their teeth.
There’s nothing in Jesus’ words but finality here.
I try to situate Jesus’ words in the wider context of Scripture and Christian tradition. I draw a lot from the “big picture” of Paul and the “oneness” that Jesus calls us into in John’s Gospel, as well as the developments of later Christian mystical tradition (not to mention other spiritual traditions). I see Jesus’ parabolic language in this case as pointing to the utter seriousness/gravity of life lived out of communion with God, rather than finality (although taken literally, it can definitely be read that way).
Have you encountered Thomas Talbott’s excellent book “The Inescapable Love of God”?–he lays out a beautiful, logical, and profoundly scriptural defense of Christian universalism that better tackles the questions you raise here than I have the energy for at the moment. 😉
Seems to me the kind of “non-duality” that folks seem to be gravitating towards (at least in this post) is the kind that intrinsically exists within the tension between, say, a king and his kingdom.
A “dualist’s” mindset might profess that there is a wide gulf between the king *himself* and that which belongs to him and which he has full authority and reign over, while a “non-dualist” would say, “No, the king is the full expression of the kingdom and the kingdom the full expression of the king.
There is both “the one” and “the many”, “the head” and “the body”, the “Creator” and the “created”…. the same but different…. diversity *and* unity, etc…
“Who can know the ways of God…?”
Wonderful conversation…thanks! Thought I would jump in with a few thoughts:
Kevin mentioned: “but at no point does He [Jesus] say anything about an invisible reality they’re currently experiencing”
I would heartily disagree with this…it seems to me that Jesus tells those around him constantly that “The Kingdom [or Reign] of God is among you [or within you]”. Presumably the people weren’t “seeing” this Kingdom of God, but here is Jesus, telling them that it is “among them”.
Another thought…Jesus actually asks us to go even further than to “love our neighbor as our self”, difficult enough as it is, but then we are supposed to “love our neighbor as I [Jesus] have loved you.” Whoa! Now this is a stretch, and how are we ever to accomplish such a thing? Perhaps here a connection can be made with the so called “nondual” experience (remembering always that our ‘words’ are a poor expression of what the actual experience might yield), which, if we are to believe the descriptions, opens us up to a level of reality where we can actually love others in a divine way, thereby fulfilling Jesus’ dictate. This may be part of the “putting on the mind of Christ” that St. Paul asks of us.
One more interesting point on the Trinity, this “trintarian relationship” has been discovered in almost every tradition. Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and others all describe “Reality” in a trinitarian fashion, in one form or another, so it would seem to be something intrinsic to our human experience of this greater Reality, rather than simply a Christian intuition…interesting huh?
I resonated with Matthew’s thoughts on many levels, in many ways and will explain why.
In a context of inter-religious dialogue, Matthew uses terms and phrases like lack of nuance, simple misrepresentation, tainted, serious error, dangerous error, spiritual pathology, pitfall, danger, egoism and spiritual laziness. He also discusses insight, meaning, seeing, awakening, journey, encounter, realization, corrective, development, states, stages, striving and practice. One take-away might be that the first list is associated with either improperly dualistic or short-circuited nondual approaches while the next reflects the properly nondual (often involving the strategic use of a “thirdness” of some type).
Implicit in these diagnoses and therapies are answers to such questions as 1) What and who is wo/man? 2) What is reality’s basic stuff? 3) What do we value? 4) How do we get what we value? and 5) What and who is God?
One could think of these questions in a manufacturing metaphor which would include, respectively, 1) the end user 2) raw materials 3) end products, by-products & waste products 4) processes and 5) the producer. Alternatively, one could employ these categories: 1) people or anthropology 2) relationships or phenomenology/ontology 3) values or axiology 4) methods or epistemology and 5) hermeneutics or theology.
In Matthew’s excellent essay as well as his recommended nondual reading, I would challenge the reader to further disambiguate each use of the term, nondual, because, in jumping from one category to the next, it can take on very distinct meanings.
— When talking about people, it can refer to theories of consciousness: Is consciousness another primitive alongside space, time, mass and energy or somehow emergent therefrom? It could also refer to our conceptions of the soul: Is the soul physical or nonphysical, temporal or immortal?
— When talking about ontology or metaphysics, it can refer to the nature of reality: Is all of reality natural, physical, material? Does reality also include the supernatural and immaterial? Does reality include one, two or even more kinds of thing, substance or stuff?
— In axiology, what are the categories of value? What about disvalue and evil?
— In terms of epistemology, is there more than one way of knowing reality? How does science differ from culture, philosophy and religion?
— And, theologically, what might be dual or nondual about God?
Another reason we don’t simply use Oneness in the place of nondual is that, in addition to the different categories where it can take on distinct meanings, there is also more than one way, by strict definition, to be nondual: Threeness, for example, works, as well as an infinity of other numerical approaches. A nondual way of playing jacks, then, would be to only skip “twosies” and nothing else! One needn’t play only “onesies.”
At the same time, who would want to abandon the dualisms of axiology as if true & false, beautiful & ugly, good & evil, free & bound were simple illusions? However much anything “belongs” does not negate the need for either its transcendence or transformation?
In my view, to realize reality’s values, one needn’t get to the bottom of all of these non/dual riddles anthropologically, ontologically or even theologically.* note below. We already know enough from evolutionary epistemology and our, more or less, universal human values to live in relative abundance! So, in that regard, I believe we can seriously overstate the perils, dangers and pitfalls that might result from our metaphysical errors and ignorance. (As I see it, our problems more so result, rather, from epistemological mistakes or what it is that we erroneously imagine that we just positively know, thus frustrating our journeys from “is to ought,” the given to the normative, the descriptive to the prescriptive.) What is at stake, rather, is our possible realization of superabundance, which is to suggest that the onus is on religious practitioners to demonstrate that they can journey toward transformation (human authenticity) much more swiftly and with much less hindrance precisely because of their formative spiritualities.
Finally, a sufficiently nuanced universalism, in my view, need not be heterodox. One can embrace it, theologically, as a “for all practical purposes, eventuality” without affirming it as an “in-principle, theoretical necessity.”
* note – Not to be coy, my survey of the inter-religious landscape does lead me to a tripartite anthropology, triadic phenomenology, trialectical axiology, trialogical epistemology and trinitarian theology (panSEMIOentheism), which is beyond our present scope.