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Guide Review: David Loy’s "Nonduality: A Study In Comparative Philosophy"

The Common Thread Of Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism & Advaita Vedanta


I love that David Loy opens the acknowledgments section of Nonduality: A Study In Comparative Philosophy with a bow of gratitude to his Zen teachers, which he follows immediately with the caveat:

“... neither is a philosopher: these ideas have not been discussed with them, nor have they read the manuscript. So they cannot be held responsible for the conceptual proliferations that follow.”

Though it would be hard to deny what the author himself has affirmed, namely that the book -- when it comes right down to it -- might well be characterized as being 300-odd pages of “conceptual elaboration,” I also think it fair to say that, on numerous occasions, Loy breaks through to what he would refer to as “nondual thinking”: truly creative and insightful ways of utilizing the human capacity for thought. And to this aspect of the work I say: well done!

Five Flavors Of "Nonduality"

As the title suggests, Mr. Loy’s most general purpose in writing this book is to explore what is meant by the term “nonduality,” specifically in the context of various eastern traditions (though along the way referencing various western philosophers and traditions), one of which is Taoism. He begins by identifying five different aspects or “flavors” of nonduality. In other words, when someone says “nonduality,” they’re most likely referring to one (or more) of the following:

1. The negation of dualistic thinking. The Taoist sage Zhuangzi, for instance, refers to this form of nonduality when he writes: “It is because there is ‘is’ that there is ‘is not’; it is because there is ‘is not’ that there is ‘is.’ This being the situation, the sages do not approach things on this level, but reflect the light of nature.” Our habitual way of thinking is based upon pairs of opposites, conceived as mutually exclusive. In transcending this dualistic way of thinking, we enter into the terrain symbolized in Taoism’s Yin-Yang Symbol.

2. The nonplurality of the world. Though the phenomena of the world (the ten-thousand-things) appear as varied and numerous, the deeper (and/or only) truth is that they are “of a single cloth.”

3. The nondifference of subject and object. This is the meaning of nonduality that Loy considers to be most surprising, counterintuitive (or at least counter-habitual) and profound, and which becomes his primary focus for the book. The way in which we humans habitually constitute ourselves as “subjects” (as egoic “selves” -- “actors” or “perceivers”) in relation to the “objects” of the “external world” is thrown into question.

4. The identity of phenomena and the Absolute. In Mahayana Buddhism, this form of nonduality is known as the identity of samsara and nirvana, or the “nonduality of duality and nonduality.”

5. A mystical unity between God and man.

~ * ~

Three Nondual Traditions: Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism & Advaita Vedanta

By way of further exploring the nonduality of subject and object, Loy chooses to focus on three traditions -- Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta -- each of which asserts, as central to its doctrine and practice, this particular “flavor” of nonduality. In going forward with his analysis, he makes sure to point out that “none of these three completely denies the dualistic ‘relative’ world that we are familiar with and presuppose as ‘commonsense’: the world as a collection of discrete objects, interacting causally in space and time.” Having said as much, his own primary interest is in teasing out the differences between and similarities among these three traditions, in relation to their nondual view.

The first half (Part 1) of Nonduality is devoted largely to defining what Loy refers to as nondual perception, nondual action and nondual thinking. A key point here is that perceptions, actions and thoughts are not in and of themselves a problem, nor are they to be denied or rejected. Instead, their “actual nature” is to be realized. When they are allowed to arise in a way that is free from conceptual overlay, their nondual nature reveals itself.

Nondual Perception

Dualistic perception assumes a distinction between “perceiver” and “sense object.” Such a distinction, according to the nondual traditions, is not inherent in “reality,” but rather is the product of a kind of conceptual overlay, in which “language and thought distort perception by reifying nondual percepts into an objective world distinct from the perceiving consciousness.”

But, once again, sense perceptions themselves are not the problem, “rather, Reality is staring us in the face all the time, but somehow we misperceive it.” Nondual perception, on the other hand, is a kind of sense-perception that reveals -- or more accurately -- is Reality.

So what exactly is this “nondual perception that reveals/is Reality”? It’s a kind of perception in which there is no (experienced) distinction between the “internal” (mind) and the “external” (world), nor between consciousness and its object. Paradoxically, this kind of nondual perception can be experienced both as “only-perception” and as “no-perception.” It is “no-perception” in the sense that there is no separate perceiver or object perceived. It is “only-perception” in the sense that the experience of perceiving is vivid (or naked) and complete: all-consuming, if you will.

In a theme that is repeated throughout the book, Loy describes how practitioners of both Buddhism and Vedanta manifest similar nondual perception, though the traditions tend to access it in different ways: Buddhism by denying the existence of a (separate, egoic) “subject” that is perceiving; and Vedanta by denying the existence of an external, objective world to be perceived. [This was a point at which I wasn’t in complete accord with Loy’s analysis, since -- at least in Mahayana Buddhism -- “emptiness of phenomena” is just as much a focus as is “emptiness of self.”]

To further illustrate the difference between dualistic and nondualistic perception, Mr. Loy offers the distinction between sa-vikalpa (Sanskrit for: “with thought-construction or effort”) and nir-vikalpa (“without thought-construction”). This analogy felt a bit confusing to me, since I wasn’t sure if he was referring to two forms of samadhi (savikalpa and nirvikalpa) -- or to some other more general way in which these terms are used. Though savikalpa samadhi still maintains or at least relies provisionally upon a subtle duality, it certainly -- as a form of samadhi -- is a far cry from the coarse forms of habitually dualistic perception that is the primary focus of the book’s critique.

In any case, and to repeat: nondualistic perception reveals and functions via the not-two-ness of perceiver and perceived.

Continued in Part Two: Nondual Action & Nondual Thinking


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