Alfred Lord Tennyson, the nineteenth century English poet wrote this famous passage in his Memoirs.
“A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from my boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me through repeating my own name three or four times to myself silently, til all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.”
There many such accounts of people who somehow seemed to have transcended ego to confirm their oneness with all existence. Our seeming separateness from the rest of the universe which the ego is keen to promote is the essential primary dualism.
The philosopher/mathematician, G. Spencer Brown, wrote:
“..we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order to see itself. But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself into at least one state which sees, and at least another which is seen.”
Perhaps to simplify matters let us do a little thought experiment here. Let us imagine two universes, Universe A and Universe B. Imagine also, for whatever reason Universe A is able to view and know Universe B in its entirety. Provided Universe A has the capacity to do this, then all of Universe B is potentially knowable to Universe A.
However this is not the universe we know. To all intents and purposes there is but one universe, or if there other universes we do not seem to have the capacity to know them. Therefore it seems our capacity to know our universe comes from within our universe. Hence there is some of our universe we can know and some of our universe that is doing the “knowing”. Logically then, we can only know that part of the universe that is not doing the “knowing”. Consequently when in this divided, separated state our knowledge must of necessity be incomplete.
That we can never have complete knowledge of our universe in this way is affirmed by our mathematics and our physics. The mathematician Kurt Godel, in 1931, proved that in mathematics we could have formal systems that were complete but contained inconsistencies or that were consistent but were necessarily incomplete. Similarly in physics Heisenberg proved at a subatomic level if we defined the position of an electron its momentum was indeterminate. This is the so-called Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. There is a fundamental limit to our knowing which results from the dualism described above.
As Ken Wilbur, the American writer on spirituality states:
“In other words, when the universe is severed into a subject vs. an object, into one state which sees vs. one state which is seen, something always gets left out. In this condition, the universe will always partially elude itself. No observing system can observe itself observing. The seer can not see itself seeing. Every eye has a blind spot. And it is for precisely this reason that at the basis of all such dualistic attempts we find only: Uncertainty, Incompleteness!”
These are understandable outcomes when you go back to our thought experiment. Here we have a part trying to understand the whole. There are naturally two dilemmas, viz:
• Is the part that’s doing the observing of sufficient capacity to understand the rest
• The part that’s doing the observing is itself outside the scope of what’s being observed and therefore won’t be observed
Zen Buddhism asserts that the core of dualism is merely words. Whenever we name something we are trying to assert its separateness. But in doing so we gloss over some of the essence of its being. This is famously illustrated in the following Koan:
“Shuzan held out his short staff and said: ‘If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?’”
No doubt Shuzan held something that by convention was called a “short staff”. But classification in it’s desire to simplify the world, always excludes something. In our haste to name the “short staff” and so classify it, we think we have described its essence. Yet the naming does not tell us:
• Its composition, presumably it’s wooden but from what species of tree, or indeed from what particular tree,
• Its size, length, width, weight,
• Its shape, uniformity, straightness,
• Itshistory, who has owned it, what has it been used for,
• Its age, etc.
We merely know it is a “short staff”. The paucity of description becomes even greater when we start using abstract nouns.
Perhaps we are beginning to see as we stated in last week’s blog, “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”
But more than this, naming is an act of separation. When I name trees I have automatically separated the universe into “tress” and “non-trees.” So successful is this mapping process of language that our lives are largely spent in drawing boundaries. Every decision we make , our every action, our every word is based on the construction, conscious or unconscious, of boundaries.
But the bifurcation of the universe goes much farther than the simple example above of “trees” vs “non-trees” it creates more problematic divisions, eg:
• Good vs Evil
• Light vs Dark
• Inside vs Outside
• Life vs Death
• Pleasure vs Pain etc.
Let me share a Zen parable with you that illustrates the above.
A master was asked the question, “What is the Way?” by a curious monk.
“It is right before your eyes,” said the master.
“Why do I not see it for myself?”
“Because you are thinking of yourself.”
“What about you; do you see it?”
“So long as you see double, saying ‘I don’t’ and ‘you do’, and so on, your eyes are clouded,” said the master.
“When there is neither ‘I’ nor’You’, can one see it?”
“When there is neither ‘I’ nor ‘You’, who is the one that wants to see it?”
Obviously the master wants to impart the idea that an enlightened state is one where the borderlines between the self and the rest of the universe are dissolved. Ultimate transcendence depends on overcoming dualism.
Lao-tzu’s successor, Chuang Tzu took up the theme of reconciling opposites.
“Thus those who say they would have right without its correlate, wrong; or of good government without its correlate misrule, do not apprehend the principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of Heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly impossible.”
Here then resides the greatest problem for humankind. Because we are conscious beings we are able to share in the act of knowing of the universe about itself. However, because we are human and have to contend with ego, we tend to want to maintain our separateness, indeed our specialness. If possible I try to extend that specialness to everything that is associated with me because they are the props ego uses to differentiate me from others. Hence not only am I unique and special, but by association I want my partner to be the same, my house, my car, my nation, my religion, my profession and so on. I particularly learn to identify with this body, these thoughts, these feelings and so on. This quickly morphs into a world view of Fear. I must protect my specialness. I can’t have the props of my specialness threatened.
But when I understand the true nature of the universe, and can put dualism aside, then remarkably I am merely a part of the one universe, neither special nor unique. I can then identify with the whole and transcend my separation. And this is of course the world view of Love.
Let me leave you with the thoughts of Dogen Zenji, the medieval Japanese Zen master.
“To study the Way is to study the Self.
To study the Self is to forget the Self.
To forget the Self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to forget the barrier between Self and Other.”
In this way we overcome dualism and realise transcendence.