if I understand correctly, Buddhism is opposed to dualistic concepts: Us vs. them, beautiful vs. ugly, pain vs. pleasure. We should rather realise the emptiness of those constructs in order to see the things in the way they really are, i.e. see their real nature.

How then, does that translate to the concept of good and bad? Because I think every Buddhist tradition teaches us that certain behaviours, acts or ways of thinking are beneficial and create good karma, whereas others are detrimental to our spiritual progress or to our own well-being and that of others and create bad karma. Examples of good vs. bad behaviour abound in many texts like the Vinaya rules but also in the Noble Eightfold Path itself. Right speech for example is considered good whereas the opposite - lying, denouncing, spreading rumors, careless speech in general are surely to be considered bad, detrimental, whatever you want to call it.

How can I accept the duality of good vs. bad while accepting that other dualities are just hollow projections of the untrained layman's mind that keep me from seeing the true nature of things?

I would also be greatly interested if somebody could shed a light on the different traditions' views on the subject.

Thank you!

  • Famous Quote: Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
    – user2341
    Oct 7, 2016 at 18:01

5 Answers 5


Even in Zen, the tradition at the forefront of non-duality, there's a famous saying, something like: "Before studying Zen, one saw mountains and rivers as mountains and rivers. After gaining deeper knowledge, one saw mountains and rivers as no mountains nor rivers. But now at last, one sees mountains and rivers once again as mountains and rivers" So basically, there's a gradation or stage of cultivation. At the beginning, whether one wants to experience non-duality or not, it's still only a theoretical abstract concept which one is yet able to experience for oneself. That's why there's a need to clearly differentiate what's wholesome and what's unwholesome. That's why there're the Vinaya, the Five Precepts, Eight Precepts, Ten Precepts, the 8NP's Right Speech, Right Livelihood, so on and so forth. Any serious Dhamma practitioner has to go through this training first until observing precepts no longer something one has to strive for but has become second-nature. Only until then will the truth of non-duality becomes fully manifested and one can fully live and experience it for oneself.

  • Thanks for your answer! I actually came across the Zen saying before and couldn't make much of it. Now, in this context, it seems to gain some clarity. I would have liked to give you a votes-up but I first have to gain 15 experience points. :-)
    – tigrefurry
    May 12, 2016 at 6:50
  • No worries friend. As long as the info. is useful to you that's all that matters..
    – santa100
    May 12, 2016 at 14:36

The original Buddhist teachings do not include a doctrine of non-duality. The Buddha's enlightenment came from ending craving & attachment rather than from ending dualistic perceptions & thoughts.

Understanding good & bad for moral/social purposes is one kind of knowledge.

Seeing & understanding the true nature of reality for liberation is another kind of knowledge.

The Buddha taught: (1) avoid evil; (2) do good; & (3) purify the mind. Purifying the mind means ending egotistic attachment towards good & bad rather than giving up the understanding of good & bad.

'See evil as evil.' This is the first Dhamma discourse. 'Having seen evil as evil, become disenchanted there, dispassionate there, released.' This is the second Dhamma discourse. These are the two Dhamma discourses that the Tathagata — worthy & rightly self-awakened — has given in sequence.

Itivuttaka 39

  • I have actually taken non-duality for granted as being at the core of the Buddha's teachings. But I think I have misunderstood the concept. If you equal non-duality to Sunyata then it certainly is a substantial part of Buddhist teaching. But if I understand the Wikipedia article on Sunyata correctly then the Theravada tradition, the one that I feel most attached to, does not even stipulate their intrinsic vacuity, but just says that we need to let go of the attachment to the five aggregates, as opposed to the Mahayana tradition: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%9A%C5%ABnyat%C4%81#Theravada
    – tigrefurry
    May 12, 2016 at 7:16
  • Yes. It can be difficult for Pali & Mahayana to reconcile or communicate at times. Non-duality is an attractive teaching to many and Mahayana is the 'great vehicle', in that it offers a greater variety of teachings for a greater scope of people. May 12, 2016 at 8:59

It's not that complicated. Mental states that lead to suffering are bad and the mental states that lead to or conducive to freedom from suffering are good. In other words; craving, aversion and ignorance are bad; whereas non-craving, non-aversion, non-ignorance are good.


Nonduality is not taught in the Pāli literature. Bad and good are.

Throughout the canon we find the Buddha dividing things into good or bad both in the conventional sense as found in the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and in the absolute or ultimate sense in the Abhidhamma literature. The Dhammasangani (the first book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka) begins with a chapter of states that are good followed by a chapter of states that are bad. In both senses states that are good lead to happiness and release, states that are bad lead to unhappiness and further becoming.


Non duality is a conceptual tool, and like all tools you need to know when to use it.

Of course you should have moral standards, otherwise its impossible to practice the Noble Eightfold Path. This requires a discerning mind.

Where non duality shines is when you encounter obstacles. For example anger because you despise someone, you reflect and realize he isn't so different from you after all and apply compassion. In fact usually as people practice morality, they often becomes judgmental of people with less stringent morality because the discerning mind is very active. Same goes when you experience revolting environment (perhaps a dirty toilet), instead of emotionally repulsed, they calm the mind and accept it, allowing them to clean it without disturbing their inner peace.

When encountering craving they also use non duality to detach themselves. Monks use meditation on corpses to realize that the human body is actually a living breathing corpse. The attractive human bodies are realized to be impermanent and unsatisfactory.

Sure it's not mentioned in the Pali Canon perhaps because they wisely didn't want to get into a whole philosophical debate, but aspects of it are definitely already there.

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