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Nonduality in Buddhism and Judaism


All three of the
"vehicles" of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, contain
nondual teachings, that is, expressions of the view that reality is essentially
unitive, and that both unity and multiplicity are irreducible truths of our
experience.  Here, by way of
introduction, I will focus on how nonduality is presented in those traditions
which have had the greatest impact in the West.  By way of comparison, I'll also make a few references to
Judaism, my other contemplative tradition, to see how the same view is gestured
at by two very different systems.

surprisingly, the tradition which is perhaps most well-known in America is
Theravada Buddhism, the "way of the elders" based primarily on the
Pali Canon of Buddhist sutras.  In
a sense, this tradition should be the least appealing to Westerners, as it is
primarily monastic, and can often seem disinterested in the cares of
householders.  Yet this path has
been the primary entry point for many Jews exploring Buddhist practice,
including this one — I have sat six week, nine week, and twelve week vipassana (insight) meditation retreats
in the Theravadan tradition, in both Asia and the United States.  One reason for Theravada's appeal, I
think, is the dichotomy between contemplative and devotional practice.  Vipassana is primarily contemplative;
its central objective is jnana,
wisdom, not bhakti, devotion.  Thus it is compatible with secularism, atheism, and also with
religions such as Judaism, because it has relatively little emphasis on
worship, ritual, and faith in the religious sense of the word.  As transmitted to the West, Theravadan
Buddhism is scarcely a religion at all.

Yet it is
resolutely nondualistic. First, the principle of nonduality flows directly from
the insight into anatta, or non-self,
one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena.  The insight into anatta is necessarily an insight into nonduality; if every thing
lacks separate reality, what else is there?  If Vedanta dissolved the "object" of the world
into the ultimate Subject — You are All — the doctrine of non-self dissolves
the subject entirely, leaving only the All.  (Judaism has a bit of both: bittul ha'yesh, annihilation of the sense of self, more like the Buddhist
model, whereas the statement that God memaleh
kol almin
– fills all the worlds — more like Vedanta.  Obviously the Endpoint is the
same.)  Likewise the realizations
that all things are anicha,
impermanent, and dukkha, unable to
ultimately satisfy us.  As these
insights take hold, not intellectually but intuitively, a letting-go of the
unreal naturally evolves.  And for
a nondualist, this subtraction of the illusory is the most important step
toward realization of the true.

In the Pali Canon,
these doctrines are of relatively little interest as ontological
principles.  The Buddha's teaching
in these texts if primarily about suffering and the end of suffering, not the
nature of reality, and as such is conveyed in relative terms, not absolute
ones.  However, the two subjects
are of necessity intertwined, for what we call the "ego" is where
suffering occurs, and when the delusion of a soul is erased, then phenomena
like pain, sadness, and anger are merely phenomena which arise and pass, often in
an instant.  Look closely, and you
will never see the "self" doing anything at all; you will only find
mental factors and material forms – never a self.

The notion of anatta, non-self, may seem diametrically
opposed to Vedanta's conception of the Atman, or Self.  However, the two are more alike than
they seem, because in both cases, the small self – you, me – is more illusion
than reality, and that is what matters. 
For Theravadan Buddhism, what's left when the self is taken away is
Nothing.  For Vedanta, it is Everything.  For Nondual Judaism, it is God.  But it is the subtraction that really

In a sense, the
only question dividing these nondual traditions is whether everything is One,
or Zero.  And despite years of
intensive practice in all three of these traditions, I am hard-pressed to tell
the difference.  Here are the
nondual conclusions of one of the core texts of  Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra:

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness
and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does
not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is
emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses
and consciousness.

Here, Sariputra, all dharmas are
marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or
immaculate, not deficient or complete.

Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness
there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes,
touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we
come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of
ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no
extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no
stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment…

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone
altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!

If we were to translate the Heart Sutra into Hasidic
language, boldly and ahistorically, I think it would run something like this:

Yesh [something]
is Ayin [nothing] and Ayin is
Yesh.  Everything that appears to
be Yesh is actually Ayin.  From the
perspective of the Ein Sof [infinite], there is nothing: no creation; no body,
heart, mind, or soul; no sefirot and no worlds; no life or death; no sin or
righteousness.  Higher, higher,
higher even than the idea of higher, YHVH, Halleluyah.

with the Hasidic view, the "emptiness" of the Heart Sutra refers to the
intrinsic emptiness of all things. 
For example, as we saw in chapter one, while a table certainly exists
according to our usual definition of "exists," there is no intrinsic
table-ness.  All its properties
come from without: strength, color, shape, atomic structure, whatever.  Take these "other" things out, and
nothing is left.  "Table" is really
a convenient label only for a temporary set of conditions which, in the
Buddhist view, are impermanent, empty, and ultimately unsatisfying.

the perspective of nirvana all of these formations look like nothing. Yet from
the perspective of samsara, nirvana looks like nothing; it has no
characteristics, and while it is present right now, it goes undetected except
by those who have purified their minds enough to let go of absolutely

this perspective with that of the Hasidic masterpiece called the Tanya.  According to the Tanya, from God's
point of view, all of what we see as yesh
(something) is actually ayin
(nothing), whereas the only real Something is what we see as nothing — it has no
characteristics, and it goes undetected except by those who have purified their
minds enough to do bittul on
absolutely everything. This isn't similar to the Buddhist view; it is
functionally identical to it.

two traditions' conceptions of the "problem" is similar as well. In Theravadan
Buddhism, the problem is the illusion of the ego and its grasping onto
impermanent and selfless phenomena. In nondual Judaism, the problem is the
illusion of the ego (yetzer hara) and
its turning away from the truth, i.e., grasping onto the unreal.  It's not that the absolute is any more
real than the relative — but there's a lot less suffering in God's point of view.
Consequently, the solution to the problem is similar as well: in Theravadan
Buddhism, the three trainings of wisdom, concentration, and virtue; in nondual
Judaism, the three paths of contemplation, ecstasy (which brings about bliss
states quite similar to the Pali canon's concentrated absorptions), and fulfillment
of the commandments. 

is not merely the "going beyond," for that concept still bespeaks a dualism of
liberation and non-liberation, attainment and non-attainment. Thus the sage
must go beyond even the idea of beyond, beyond even the notion that there is
any going beyond at all. From the perspective of Ein Sof, there is no
distinction between the world before it was created and the world after it was
created: both are totally empty. And yet, the Absolute transcends and includes
the relative; it is not the complement of the relative but the totality of the
relative and its opposite. Especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, one
does not escape from samsara so much as reinterpret it. A similar understanding
is essential to Tantra, in which, as David Loy describes it, the "ultimate
goal . . . is the perfect state of union-union between the two
aspects of the reality and the realization of the nondual nature of the self
and the not-self."  Or,
as a Kabbalist might put it, l'shem yichud …
for the sake of the Unification of the masculine and feminine, that is, the
hidden and the manifest, that is, Absolute and the Relative, the one and the


Image by wonderlane, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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