By Candice Wang, V Form
“Is there such a thing in this world called ‘paper’? ” Reverend Talcott posed this question one day in her Eastern Religious Thought class as she introduced the concept of non-dualism in Hinduism. Paper is from water, wood, sunlight, nourishing rain, and even the factory workers in the paper mill… This list could continue forever, and in fact, nothing mentioned above is a distinct thing, because each would produce a similar list of components. To explain it from a scientific perspective, all things are constructed from atoms. In other words, they are no more than temporary aggregates of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which all resulted from the same matter after the Big Bang.
Non-dualism is the belief in the essential unity of all. Matter is merely materialized energy, which is the temporal manifestation of an incorporeal, spiritual, and eternal essence that constitutes the innermost self of all things. According to non-dualism, individual humans and all other objects are impermanent manifestations of the incorporeal matter. In non-dualism, there can be no definitive distinction between one thing and another because all are one and one is all. There is even no need to identify the self, because the thought that I am different from the rest is a mere illusion. The world is homogenous and overlapping, and non-dual at its core.
Non-dualism is not merely a concept in Hinduism but also an element in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In monotheistic religions, believers view everything as a manifestation of the divine. This is a comforting belief because it eliminates the necessity to worry. Since there exists an incorporeal, spiritual, and eternal essence that comprises everything, there is a little piece of the divine (Atman and the Brahman in Hinduism) that resides in us too, providing strong emotional support in times of hardship as well as stress caused by the petty concerns of life. Although it is harder to practice than to know, non-dualists believe that “bad” things are indeed “good.” In other words, there is no distinction between what we conceive as opposites. As Kahlil Gibran says in his book, The Prophet, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.”
Despite the primary purpose of religion as a way to connect with something greater than the self, many interpretations of religion have often gone so awry that they become barely recognizable. Fundamentalists of any religion, brainwashed by demagogues, think and interpret their scriptures in binary terms. People are either wholly good or bad, believers or non-believers, going to Heaven or going to Hell (or their equivalents). This reductionist thought process has thus led to oversimplified classifications and divisions of people. From the Schism in Catholicism to hostility among fundamentalist Christians to the recent surge of radical Islamists, people have failed to practice the non-dual, inclusive ways of their prophets and religion, by resorting to violence instead.
Non-dualism extends beyond the realm of religions. As ancient and perennial as religious belief is scientific curiosity. Although science is often perceived as having one right answer, the nature of light as both a particle and a wave is a prominent example of non-dualism. Because light is not two things but behaves both as a particle and as a wave, it is neither two nor one. It is non-dual. The existence of quantum mechanics and general relativity also manifest non-dualism in science. Models and theories in science are paths to the truth, just as practices and rituals in religions are.
However, contemporary ideologies in politics and culture have more uncompromising polarities. Although society has sought ways to create a sense of unity among its members, this sense of belonging is established by simultaneously designating those who do not belong. Communism seeks to establish unity among the proletariat, but it does so by creating an opposite group, the bourgeoisie. The hostility between religions, political systems, and political factions since centuries ago is a result of the lack of recognition of the sameness of humans. Benedict Anderson addresses this contradiction of belonging in his book, Imagined Communities. According to Anderson, nationalism became a prominent force during the era of Enlightenment. It was facilitated by the weakening power of Roman Catholicism, print capitalism, and the rise of vernaculars throughout Europe. Nationalism later spread beyond Europe with the growing demands for organizing a collective spirit greater than kinship ties. While it is a prominent way of fostering a sense of belonging in the modern world, nationalism will eventually fade away because it essentializes the world into binaries.
Many polarities dominate the United States of America: Democrat vs. Republican, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, pro-life vs. pro-choice, not to mention the heated topics of race and religion. History would indicate that we must antagonize an outsider group in order to create a communal identity. Difference is seen as a legitimate reason for distrust and divisions. From my point of view, difference is difference, and difference is transient. We are the same at birth and death; we only differentiate during the impermanent human life span; we fixate on differences that are ephemeral and artificial.
Non-dualism does not inherently solve problems. It helps people to experience the world beyond reductionist, binary perspectives and approach conflicts, whether in personal relationships or religious dissention, more critically. It only takes a little determination to suppress the ego and view the bigger picture. However, as Thich Nhat Hanh says in his fourteen precepts of Engaged Buddhism, one should not be bound by present views or any doctrine, theory, or ideology, not even Buddhist ones. Therefore, non-dualism is not a panacea and should not be taken as the absolute truth. It is just a compass with which to navigate and explore the world.
Candice Wang is a Vth former from Beijing, China, and she is currently a prefect in Pine/Oak House. She reads and thinks for fun.