Perennial nondualism

I have spent a good deal of time criticizing the idea of a “perennial philosophy”, the idea (expressed by Ken Wilber and others before him) that the great sages of the world have always basically agreed on the really important things. In the past I had said there were perennial questions but with different answers; now I’m not even sure whether that is the case.

And yet I am struck by a particular phenomenon from which the perennialists draw a great deal of inspiration – and that is the pervasive influence of nondualism. “Nondual” is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit a-dvaita, the name of Śaṅkara’s school of Vedānta philosophy. But the core idea of nondualism has been asserted by a very wide range of philosophers around the world – from people who could never have heard of Śaṅkara, to Śaṅkara’s enemies.

That core idea is that the truest, most ultimate reality should not be identified with the many plural distinct things we typically observe and the distinctions between them. Rather the true reality is ultimately one, or at least (a literal translation again) not two, and not more than two either. That ultimate is often (not always) spoken of as ineffable, beyond words, so that to the extent that one can speak of it at all one must speak of what it is not (the famous neti neti of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. But the most important thing that the ultimate is not, is dual or plural. It might not be one exactly, but it is closer to being one (or perhaps zero!) than it is to being two or more.

And the two that it really isn’t, is the distinction of subject and object. Nondualists tell us that we are misled by that core grammatical distinction of the Indo-European languages (languages which many, but not all, of those nondualists speak). Ultimately “you are that”: the distinction between our supposed individual consciousness on one hand, and reality on the other, must collapse.

That is nondualism in a nutshell. And while Śaṅkara was perhaps nondualism’s purest and most famous exponent, it was taken up by many others in various ways – including by very different enemies of Śaṅkara. The later theistic thinker Rāmānuja wanted to assert against Śaṅkara that the plurality of things in the world is real, and yet he accepted Śaṅkara’s basic nondualism: his philosophical system was called Viśiṣṭādvaita, differentiated or qualified nondualism. He aimed to produce a harmonious synthesis: the plurality of the world is not an illusion, as Śaṅkara would have it, but the parts of the divine One.

Now while Rāmānuja could be harshly critical of Śaṅkara himself, he remained in Śaṅkara’s basic camp of loyalty to the Vedas and especially the Upaniṣads. Śaṅkara had much greater hostility to the Buddhists, who rejected the entirety of the Vedas and Upaniṣads. And yet – here is the striking thing – a very large number of Buddhists themselves accepted nondualism. The Yogācāra school had been taking up some form of nondualism since before Śaṅkara’s time, enough that to other Vedāntic thinkers Śaṅkara’s school just looked like the Buddhism they were familiar with; for that reason they even called him a “crypto-Buddhist” (pracchanna bauddha). By Śaṅkara’s time a great deal of Indian Buddhism had itself become nondual – and that Buddhism in turn reached its full flower in East Asia, where it became the dominant form of Buddhism. Thus John Dunne uses the term nondual to refer to the present-centred, nonjudgemental meditation traditions created by these newer sorts of Buddhisms, Yogācāra and beyond. (Ron Purser rightly pointed out, though, that it is harder to see anything “nondual” about the modern mindfulness practices that take up those meditation traditions.)

I often find reading East Asian Buddhism weird because it looks to me so much like the Advaita Vedānta that arose in opposition to Buddhism. But opposed or no, these nominally opposed sides – Buddhists and Vedāntins – could agree on a basic nondual worldview. By the 20th century, the Japanese Buddhist philosopher Nishida Kitarō could proclaim constructively, in his own voice, that “Ātman and Brahman are identical.” (An Inquiry into the Good p. 80) For Nishida it made sense to have a Buddhism that actually took up the Upaniṣads’ worldview.

Centuries before Śaṅkara, in Rome and in Alexandria – the West – a Greek-speaking follower of Plato, named Plotinus, had proclaimed that everything is an emanation from what he called “the One”. Now that’s not quite nondualism per se, because everything comes from the One; it is not identical to it. Centuries later, the pious Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī would insist on that distinction as crucial (“not ‘all is Him’, but ‘all is from Him’.”)

But in between Plotinus and Sirhindī, a significant number of Sufi Muslim thinkers, influenced by Plato and Plotinus, had indeed proclaimed the oneness of everything – while having relatively little contact with the South or East Asian worlds. For them, it’s not just that we come from God, but at some level we indeed are God. Perhaps most notorious of these was al-Hallaj, executed for proclaiming the nondifference between God and a self fully understood. Later ibn ‘Arabī became perhaps the most influential Muslim philosopher in the world by proclaiming the unity of all existence (wahdat al-wujūd). Ibn ‘Arabī’s thought found a natural home in India, and indeed the Mughal philosopher-prince Dara Shukoh sought to create a merged philosophy that blended ibn ‘Ārabī with the Upaniṣads. (It was that very Muslim nondualism that Dara’s contemporary Sirhindī felt the need to write against.)
Nondualism may well be the single most popular philosophical theory in human history. I’m not sure I can think of any other major philosophical idea that flowered so much in so many different places, more or less independently. I think that gives us prima facie reason to think the nondualists were on to something important. In that, at least, I am cautiously with the perennialists. But the perennialists typically take this too far, in that they tend to assume that this nondualism must have come out of mystical experiences. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, in that mystical experience often involves a perceived transcendence of subject-object distinction. But it is crucial that most of the thinkers I’ve named here do not cite experience as the ground of their claims. Wilhelm Halbfass in India and Europe reminds us that Śaṅkara never refers to any experiences of his own; Chinese nondualists like Zhiyi didn’t either, according to John McRae and Robert Sharf. But if anything, I think that nondualism’s non-experiential provenance gives it more plausibility. That is, nondualism’s exponents did not merely see it in an altered state of consciousness, but viewed it as somehow a logical necessity.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

6 Replies to “Perennial nondualism”

  1. Hi Amod

    Great post. Really informative for me. I was unaware of how much you had written against the perennial philosophy, and I would like to read it and engage it. I am currently working on panpsychism in classical Indian and 19th and 20th century American philosophy. And I am starting in on reading some stuff on perennial philosophy, such as Huxley’s work. But I am very curious about your critiques of it, and would love to examine it. Can you post a link?

    Thanks so much 🙂

    • Thanks for your interest, Anand! The detailed critique I’ve made of perennialism has been directed at Wilber, especially in the article I wrote for the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (a Wilberian journal), which I also linked to above. I’ve also written a post critiquing the soft perennialism in Ninian Smart and made a more general critique on Love of All Wisdom. As you’ll see, I’m particularly concerned to critique the perennialist idea that a universal truth is founded primarily on mystical experience, though the critique does go beyond that point.

      This is stuff I focused on a decade ago, and haven’t thought about much since, but it’s becoming more relevant to me now as I begin to think about whether there’s something to nondualism. I’d be interested to hear your reactions.

      • Hi Amod
        Thanks so much for this. I don’t know much about this. I am really only working on panpsychism and realism in Indian philosophy and American philosophy, but people keep pushing me to read more widely and I really feel like I should learn more.

        The issue of justification based on mystical experience is one I have touched on in a recent paper I wrote, but this is not my primary interest, nor is the claim that it is a universal truth. Rather, I am just interested in the combination of two things: (a) a panpsychist account of consciousness that facilitates (b) a naive realism about perception. This combination is not common from what I understand. But I find them independently attractive. So, I am curious about their joint consistency.

        I will look over your stuff. If I get some ideas out of it worth discussing. I might post up here about it. Thanks for you work.

        • No problem. Hope it’s helpful. Wilber does come somewhat close to a naïve realism about perception at times. I don’t think I’d say he’s a panpsychist, though he may be somewhat tempted by it. His earlier stuff probably leans a bit more toward panpsychism and the later stuff more toward naïve realism, so I’m not sure whether they really go together for him. He is certainly a prolific thinker who at least tries to engage seriously with Indian thought. The article might help you get a quick sense of whether engaging with Wilber’s thought would be of any help to your project.

  2. Ken Wilber’s script comes pretty direct and entire out of Sri Aurobindo’s Letters on Yoga, including the way he reinvented himself, like Aurobindo in the 1920s . . . but he seems to work *backwards, into intolerance and violence, not out of it! That would come from taking Aurobindo second-hand, from the popular echoes, and aiming to work “back to the source” in the manner of Plotinus.
    Porphyry, in his biography, which was the Preface to the Enneads that he edited, tells us plainly that Plotinus was diagnosed by a diviner with what we call a dissociative disorder: possessed by the spirit of Apollo. The naive realism is a mix of the ascetic fatalism of the Ajivikas and early Visesika, where the Buddhists recruited at first, on the trails that lead thru Tibet into China.
    There you connect with the caravan route through Samarkand, which also carried Chinese influence into Arabia, on the trails followed by the Mughals into India. They were really cruel. and got horribly corrupted in India in a form of resistance, playing on the illusionism in Indian philosophy. The Communists then took over the whole racket. and Aurobindo started out there.
    But the logical kernel in it all is due to ancient Samkhya, known only from the cryptic Tattva-Samsa. and fragments preserved in commentaries, which I have now collected. Kapila rallied the resistance to incursions from ancient Mesopotamia. There is a reflexive principle there that is worth a second look, corresponding quite closely to the Hebrew I am that I am. And some curious residues in Hebrew custom, noted by Richard Garbe, writing in The Monist. So this is now very relevant to recent developments in Middle East policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *