In my teaching ministry, I have encountered strong resistance amongst some meditation enthusiasts against any discourse on mutuality and relationality with the Divine. This is especially true of meditators who have heavy conditioning in Buddhist or nondual teachings, particularly Zen or similar variants. For them, any talk of mutuality and relationality concomitant with a sense of devotion to the Divine seems to be branded as necessarily “dualistic.” While there may be legitimate reasons behind their resistance, there can be something else deeply entrenched and hidden from view happening here. On the surface, this can be termed a sort of “nonduality fetish.” But on a deeper level, there can be psychospiritual wounding or trauma driving the surface manifestation of nonduality fetish. This is not a trivial matter but one that requires sensitive and insightful handling.
Even in Zen, there is often a warning against those who cling to the notion of oneness as a badge of spiritual honour. For example, we hear this piece of Zen wisdom: “If all dharmas return to the One, where does the One return to?” Even if we are to relinquish any reification of the One and tell ourselves that we “resonate with” the teaching on nonduality on an intuitive level, do we really know what we are saying? Do we really know what nonduality really is and how it manifests in our experience? Can there be inchoate clinging to the idea and feeling of nonduality without fully knowing nonduality in its simple naked reality? What if we are using “nonduality” as a camouflage for something we fear or resist?
I think that is eminently possible. This is especially true of those who may be attracted to unitive and cessative variants of nonduality. It is understandably tempting to conflate their unitive and cessative notions (or experiences, though this is very rare) with all there is to know about nonduality. Thus, when they hear or read about alternate ways of experiencing nonduality that are relational or mutual in nature, there is an instinctive tendency to label them as “dualistic.” This is a common but serious error. Relational or mutual discourse on nonduality is intimately connected to devotional praxis (bhakti-yoga) that evinces its distinctive kind of wisdom (prajñā) and insight (jñāna). Without any knowledge or taste of these devotional forms of wisdom-insight, it is easy and tempting to fall into the trap of assuming dualism when in fact there is none. To understand this subtlety, we take an excursion through the different terrains of nonduality so as to get a glimpse at least of their unique features and commonality.
Unitive nonduality is the most commonly narrated and experienced form of nonduality. The world calls this “oneness.” In truth, unitive nonduality is not fully-qualified nonduality. This is because unitive nonduality arises from unification of the mind or attention in a balanced, clear, silent, still, and boundaryless state. In unitive nonduality, all thinking has ceased. Reactive emotions have also ceased. What remains is simple mindfulness and equanimity with singularity of attention, restfully and smoothly abiding in relative coolness. There can be degrees of this singularity of attention and extent of its scope, depending on the kind of focal point of that attention. In deep unitive experience, there can be a loss of body sense, even a temporary stopping of the movements of the breath. There is an experience of oneness, which can manifest as boundless in scope and extent, Consciousness can be so refined and boundless that it feels as if it is almost absent. The attenuation of consciousness reaches its zenith point. Empty space suffused with consciousness that gets more and more refined is all that remains. Here, it is possible that the contemplative emerging from this unitive nonduality might feel that this is their deepest ground of being, the sense of pure existence labelled “I am.” There is no seeming limit to this pure “I am” in unitive nonduality.
Traditionally, we call this mystagogical approach of unitive nonduality raja yoga. The flaw in unitive nonduality is that there is a residue of clinging and grasping. In other words, there is reification (or concretization, densification) of that very consciousness that is hidden from view. This is because the sense of grasping at entity-ness is ingrained and active in the bed of consciousness. This self-grasping ignorance so pervades consciousness that it is not easily discerned as a trouble-maker. In fact, it is this very self-grasping ignorance that is responsible for our sense of unitive consciousness as our pure “I am.” We give this unitive consciousness the label of “I am” or the “am-ness” of our being without full cognizance of its nature of grasping. We can easily develop clinging to this grasped “I am” in the form of our self-talk and discourse to others. Before long, the “I am” that is a result of self-grasping and that evokes clinging manifests as one kind of reactivity or another, and hence suffering. In this way, the root of suffering persists.
Cessative nondualityis the momentous realization that liesbeyond unitive nonduality. This breakthrough realization requires in addition to unitive consciousness three key essentials: one, a sharp and clear degree of penetrating discernment; two, an attitude of utter release and relinquishment without holding anything back; and three, a complete absence of grasping at “signs” which are conceptual and perceptual features that indicate an object’s identity. Cessative nonduality thus requires a degree of clear insight that is able to penetratively cut through the appearances of things to see the way things really are. Here, things as they really are means the true nature of experience as is experienced in the here and now, which is timeless presence when stripped of all conceptual measurement. When, in the highest most refined unitive nonduality, one cuts through that subtle experience to reveal its underbelly, the mind dissolves completely beyond itself into its essential nature. For this cutting through to happen, the mind is completely released from its wanting this or intending that, relinquishing even the smallest trace of clinging. Such a mind is also unconcerned with signs of any phenomenal object and mind state, even of consciousness itself.Traditionally, this mystagogical approach is called jñāna yoga.
Relinquishing all desire completely, penetratively discerning, and unhooked from signs, one enters a “free fall” into the sky of emptiness without a parachute, so to speak. The good news is that there is no ground! Just an unceasing open unknowing where everything of the mind stops, and where nothing of the self remains. Devoid of duality of subject-object in the absence of reification, the mind melts fully into its fundamental nature of primordial consciousness that is nakedly indivisible from its emptiness. This is pristine awareness (rigpa) or buddha mind (dharmakaya) inseparable from absolute space of phenomena (dharmadhātu) — emptiness (śūnyatā) — suffused with primordial energy. It is realization of the timeless cessation of nibbāna or nirvāna.
Manifestive nondualityis the creative and effulgent outflow of cessative nonduality, as the timeless realization of cessation of self-grasping ignorance and its corollary defilements and afflictions shines out into everyday experience. As one emerges from cessative nonduality to re-engage with the world of sensory and mental experience, a radically transformed perspective is the norm. Before the realization of cessative nonduality, a person’s default mode of experiencing the world is one of afflictive reactivity rooted in the autonomous ego or self. Underlying this rigmarole of self-driven reactivity and suffering is dualistic grasping of subject and object, which are the imprints of ignorance that perfuse the deluded mind. Seeds of such reactivity and the imprints of ignorance (which constitute dualistic grasping) veil and filter our everyday experience in a way that conduces to suffering and confusion. But the erasure of these seeds and imprints during cessative nonduality results in a radically liberated and transformed mode of consciousness that views all sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mental objects (thoughts, emotions, perceptions, intentions) as empty appearances of naked awareness. Poetically speaking, these sensorial and mental events are experienced as natural effulgences of primordial consciousness in unity with the absolute space of phenomena (emptiness). As all appearances are seen as blissful sport of emptiness, there is no room for grasping and clinging that lead to reactivity and suffering. Traditionally, manifestive nonduality can be linked to the path of kriya yoga.
Active nonduality continues the trajectory of manifestive nonduality in the performance of every activity and full engagement in our life situations. A sustained flow of nondual consciousness imbue every moment of activity with an uncommon sense of freedom. There is unencumbered fluidity and creativity, laced with playfulness and even wildnesswhen necessary. On most occasions, there is simple sensitivity and open sincerity that touches hearts and stirs the depths of consciousness of beings who are ready to receive the blessings of nondual energy from a person’s field of apparently localised but actually awakened consciousness. Active nonduality is egoless action without accumulation of new seeds and psychological baggage of action. Selfless service and bodhisattva activities powered by altruistic compassion is the modus operandi of active nonduality. There is open-hearted activity and responsiveness from profound inner rest, unstained by self-grasping and self-obsessing. Traditionally, this path is called karma yoga.
Devotional nondualityis the least understood and most easily misconstrued variant of nonduality. This is because the relational and mutual languaging of this mystagogical approach opens it to criticisms of dualistic grasping by those who are by default entrapped in their own self-grasping ignorance. By virtue of such ingrained and unconscious grasping at essentialism, the appearance of relational and mutual language tends to induce notions of inherent self and other that get in the way of proper understanding of devotional nonduality. In devotional nonduality, contemplatively speaking of lover and beloved, creator and created,divine and human, is poetic mystical love language that outpours from the heart of humility and devotion in an attraction of the Great for the little and the little for the Great.
Here, the “little” is the localised field of consciousness that is temporally felt as the limited person magnetized by the loving pull of the “Great” — the ultimate ground of primordial consciousness of the Triune God who in his self-nature is actually no-nature and thus empty of inherent existence either as one “divinity” or as three “persons.” The trans-cosmic and trans-personal God is holographically mirrored and refracted in the visage of a beloved divine-human person who is nearer than one’s own consciousness and more intimate than one’s inner breath. The Silence behind our silence and Being beneath our being is personified as the lover of our souls and the beloved of our hearts. Ultimately, the one whom one seeks, desires, and loves is no other than the one who seeks, desires, and loves. The One we are looking for is the one who is looking. Along the way, we play with the language of love and dance with the poetry of romance in that poignant intimacy of nondual bliss and ecstasy. Traditionally, we call this bhakti yoga (union of devotion) or madhu sadhana (spiritual pragmatics of sweetness). I love this quote from nonduality teacher Rupert Spira: "Our longing for God is God's longing for us. It is the gravitational pull of our being inviting us to return from the adventure of experience to the sanctuary of the heart, to return home. Our longing never finds what it is looking for; it comes to rest in it."^
In conclusion, it is important to experientially know these varieties of nonduality so that we do not misconstrue any of them and do them injustice. Tempting as it might seem, it is best not to try interpreting any of them through the prism of the others. If one is steeped in unitive nonduality, for example as in the Zen mode of practice, it is tempting to view devotional practice as somewhat inferior to Zen at best or erroneous and harmful at worst. Jumping to this conclusion would be premature and mistaken, in my view. For each facet of the diamond of nonduality has its place and needs to be honoured for what it is, and enjoyed for its unique contribution to spiritual richness and beauty.
As contemplatives, it behooves us to each expand our own inner horizons to embrace these multiple facets of nonduality. In so doing, we may have to face up to our own entrenched prejudices and inner woundings from the past. But confront our inner demons we must, for the alternative is either stagnating apathy or destructive condescension. Neither is befitting of a true contemplative worth their salt. Fear not. Throwing oneself into this journey of inclusive pluralistic nonduality is an enriching process and part of an ever deepening spiritual maturity. Our cosmotheandric reality and evolution requires nothing less. Will we be up to the challenge of mystagogical expansiveness and inclusivity?
^ Rupert Spira (2023). The Heart of Prayer. Oakland, California: Sahaja Publications, p. 14.