The Ethics and Practice of Nondualism

Dara Tatray

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, June 2006

A very intelligent philosopher by the name of E.A. Burtt once described universality as the ‘ultimate ethical and social value’. In the moral sphere the principle of universality translates into the idea that ‘every man, just because he is a man, is always to be treated as an end, never merely as a means to another’s end’ (Burtt 1965, p.285). In legal terms it has been taken to imply that ‘impartial justice is the right of every human being, whatever his status in society’ (Burtt 1965, p.285). The idea of equality underlies these notions of universality: the basic idea is that despite appearances to the contrary all human beings are essentially equal. What has made them equal, in the eyes of philosophers since the Enlightenment, is the power of reason that all human beings are said to share. What makes us equal, in the eyes of spiritual philosophers like Plato and the authors of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gîtâ is something that transcends reason altogether. Indeed, in the final analysis reason or thought is probably the only thing that divides us.

Theosophy suggests a deeper foundation for equality in the moral and philosophical spheres: that all human beings are expressions or microcosms of the One life, or, as Herman Hesse might have put it, we are all throws from the depths. The inalienable rights of the individual stem from this universality, from something that is universally diffused throughout life and which therefore unites all living, and apparently non-living, beings. It is also quite obvious, from even a cursory study, that a metaphysic of nonduality permeates theosophical writings. This is perhaps not surprising given that the word theosophy represents a unitive mode of perception and a state of being in which there is no separation between the knower and the known. It may not be immediately obvious, but theosophia and direct unitive perception are one and the same. The wisdom that the gods possess (which is HPB’s short-hand definition of theosophy) is the capacity to see directly into the heart of reality (Blavatsky 1889/1987). It is only through such unmediated or unveiled perception that it is possible to see the nature of reality, or God, or “what is” — face to face.

So nonduality is written into the very fabric of theosophy. In this short talk I would like to explore some of the ethical and practical implications of the metaphysics of nonduality. As already indicated, what mediates perception and brings about separation is thought. So in some respects thought and theosophy don’t mix. But before we try to turn this into some kind of slogan or witticism, I should point out that thoughtlessness and theosophy do not mix well either. As thinking beings our primary task is to go through thought, through meaning, through the Logos and come out the other side radically changed. I think this is what Sri Ram and Radha Burnier have meant by “human regeneration”. But there is no point in trying to return to some golden age in which thought did not interfere with perception, understanding, or love. We have developed into thinking beings for a reason: even if that reason is only to finally transcend thought in some respects.

In contrast to the theosophical view, which is also the Platonic and the Vedantic view, the worldview of scientific materialism, which has dominated thought for the last four centuries or so, maintains that the philosophy of dualism rather than nondualism closely models reality. Accordingly, economic theory, psychology and biology each treat humanity as if we consisted of various ‘collections of individuals struggling for survival, power, and pleasure in a world of material things whose positions in space can be changed or rearranged over time …’ (Gare 2000, P.287). That is how Arran Gare, an Australian academic critical of scientific materialism, expressed it. So according to the worldview of scientific materialism, humanity consists of ‘collections of individuals struggling for survival, power, and pleasure in a world of material things whose positions in space can be changed or rearranged over time …’. I think it is worth examining this outlook in some detail, before going on to consider the alternative.

The first point is that, in the perspective of scientific materialism, the world is peopled by ‘individuals struggling for survival’, a feeling which, in many cases, expresses itself in a “dog eat dog” attitude. It also implies that in a hostile world survival is not a given. We feel that our survival is unlikely, and that it is up to us: that unless we struggle we will go under. Many religious and philosophic views would contradict this, and see survival as part of the natural order of things. It might be believed, for instance, that “Jesus loves us” and that we are cared for, (some would prefer to see this as a metaphor for something more abstract). Or it might be believed that the universe is the body of God, as it was treated by Giordano Bruno. In that case, we could perhaps rely on “surviving” so long as we do not actively work against survival, as presently seems to be the case. Likewise, in metaphysical systems based on the notion of eternity or immortality (it could even be an impersonal immortality), survival is not an issue. The doctrine of reincarnation, for instance, suggests that the soul has a body, not that the body has a soul. Bodily survival, therefore, is not the be-all and end-all of existence (which need not imply a cavalier attitude to life).

Gare also suggested that in the world dominated by scientific materialism, humans tend to struggle for ‘power and pleasure’, in their pursuit of happiness. The question might be asked, however, whether this behaviour is necessary, natural or inevitable. Are power and pleasure the way to happiness? Again, there are many religious philosophies to suggest otherwise, Platonism, Vedânta, and Buddhism to name three. We all desire happiness, but does happiness derive from power and pleasure? It seems to me highly likely that they do not. William Ophuls makes this point in an article once published in The American Theosophist, in which he questions whether human selfishness must be regarded as inevitable (Ophuls 1981). He explains that Buddhism, Yoga and Vedânta regard selfishness and hedonism as ‘the primordial problems that human beings are placed upon earth to solve’; and not as inevitable social facts, which is how they are generally excused (Ophuls 1981, p.142). This way of thinking questions the supposition, common since Hobbes, that our ‘key trait is the lack of virtuous self-restraint’ (Ophuls 1981, p.140). Instead, Buddhism and Yoga regard the lack of self-restraint as a common human trait that must be overcome in the pursuit of happiness, as well as the pursuit peace and intelligence.

Finally, according to the view of scientific materialism, we live ‘in a world of material things whose positions in space can be changed or rearranged over time’. We may, however, question whether material things in space and time are the most fundamental or the most basic aspect of the world in which we live. Is this the most enlightened, the best that can be said of the world we inhabit: that living is a process of moving things around in space and time? It is according to scientific materialism, but not according to Platonism, the Upanishads, Buddhism and Theosophy. Perhaps we live in a world of thoughts more than of things, a world in which intentions move things around in space and time, using our hands and feet and institutions as their vehicles. As Mahâyâna Buddhism and Advaita Vedânta suggest, intentions may be more primary than things. It is possible to go deeper still and see that consciousness is more primary than thought or intention. Nisargadatta Maharaj had a succinct way of summarising the salient points of Hindu metaphysics, also embraced by the early theosophists, when he said: ‘In pure being consciousness arises, in consciousness the world appears and disappears’ (Maharaj 1973/1981, p.17). The world that appears and disappears in consciousness includes thought, so in this view, pure being is fundamental, consciousness is secondary, and thoughts and things are totally dependent on the former two. Furthermore, the content of our world, and our experience of the world, depend entirely on the state of our consciousness. Therefore, the world we inhabit is primarily the world of consciousness, not of material things at all. The substantiality of material things is in fact an illusion.

Seeing material things as primary, and seeing survival as an issue, promotes self-concern, which in the view of scientific materialism is necessary and unavoidable. Enlightenment ideology has embraced reason as the highest virtue, and the lack of self-restraint as normal, but somewhat schizophrenically it has also promoted universality or equality in the legal and moral sphere. But I think it is quite obvious that universality can never be realised in the context of scientific materialism or Cartesian dualism in which division, separation, and selfishness are the norm. It is only in the context of nondualistic metaphysics that universality and equality can be advanced without contradiction; it is only in that context that we can stop struggling and start living to our potential.

So what are some of the ethical and practical considerations that arise from all of this?

In a nondualistic metaphysic the present becomes very important, and so does each individual day, each individual event and each individual person. All require and deserve our utmost attention. Though many of us may already think along these lines, I don’t know about you, but that is certainly not how I live. I’m still quite choosey. I would prefer some life-situations to others. Who wouldn’t? But there is a higher perception, a higher awareness, which underpins and transcends the field of choice in which most of us live. The ocean refuses no river, as I heard Sheila Chandra sing just the other day. The ocean does not choose, and nor does the ocean of consciousness or awareness. Only thought or the lack of awareness chooses, selects, categorises. The ocean accepts all rivers. Consciousness is aware of all things choicelessly.

Chapter 6 verse 29 of the Bhagavad Gîtâ contains a big clue to the ethic and practice of nonduality. It reads: “He whose self is harmonized by yoga seeth the Self abiding in all beings and all beings in Self; everywhere he sees the same” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1957, p.125). A truly intelligent person, then, sees the Self, the âtman, or God, in all beings. He or she sees the same thing everywhere, and also sees in the same way at all times, that is with the same clarity, the same level of attention. To be harmonised by yoga is to be harmonised by union or nonduality, which is the only way to be harmonised, according to Yoga philosophy. Other than the perception of nonduality all else is separation, division, and conflict. But when we have seen for ourselves, or realised the unity, we will see the unity everywhere, and at all times see in the same way. It seems to me that this is the only circumstance under which Professor Burtt’s vision of universality might be realised; it is only when the self has been harmonised by the unity or yoga that it can truly see that all human beings are equal, and that none should be treated as a means to an end. It is only then that each human being, and each situation, can be seen to contain the whole. In the most basic practical terms a metaphysic of nonduality suggests that we should never want for anything. Everything that we need, everything that exists, is with us always. We only have to open our eyes to see. The fact that actually we see difference wherever we look is more a reflection of our own lack of development, our own lack of inner harmony, than the truth about reality. That is clearly one of the main teachings of the Bhagavad Gîtâ, of Yoga, and of Theosophy.

Works Cited

  • Blavatsky, H.P. The Key to Theosophy. Los Angeles, California: The Theosophy Company, 1889/1987.

  • Burtt, E. A. In Search of Philosophic Understanding. New York and Toronto: New American Library, 1965.

  • Gare, Arran. “Philosophy, civilization, and the global ecological crisis: the challenge of process metaphysics to scientific materialism.” Philosophy Today 44 (3), Fall (2000): 283-94.

  • Maharaj, Sri Nisargadatta. I Am That — Part One. Bombay: Chetana, 1973/1981.

  • Ophuls, William. “Political values for an age of scarcity: Buddhist politics.” The American Theosophist 69(5), no. May (1981): 140-7.

  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore. A Source Book In Indian Philosophy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957.