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I noticed some questioners on this site using the term "non-duality".

What is non-duality in Buddhism?

This is a well-known idea in Hinduism i.e. advaita. But does it exist in Buddhism?

Is it an official term in Buddhism, or just a convenient Western philosophy terminology to describe a concept just like the terms "ontology" or "epistemology"?

How is it used in Theravada and Mahayana? What are the Pali and Sanskrit terms for it?

AN 10.29 seems to have the word "advayam" which Bhikkhu Sujato translates as "non-dual" but Bhikkhu Bodhi translates as "undivided". Not sure if this is related.

  • In this answer Andrei wrote, "In Mahayana, the focus is on transcending the dichotomy of Nirvana/Samsara" -- perhaps some people call that "non-duality". – ChrisW Jun 29 at 10:23
  • None of the answers look competely satisfactory to me. From my perspective, nonduality (in the Buddhist sense of the word) is a key realization, so I will see if maybe I can write a more complete answer. It's a tough topic though, been thinking about it for two days and still not sure how to explain clearly. – Andrei Volkov Jun 29 at 11:17
  • @AndreiVolkov I wonder if it's what you alluded to in the first sentence of this answer, i.e. "craving" is or causes a "duality" between the daydream and reality -- see also tathata i.e. " no longer a mismatch between'this' and imaginary 'that'". – ChrisW Jun 29 at 14:16
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There's a post here on that subject, which isn't long but difficult to summarise: The Dharma of Non-Duality

In the first (main) part the author says:

  • The word for "non-duality" is advaita
  • The Buddha didn't use that term (because it was already used then to mean "union of soul with God")
  • The Buddha did teach "non-duality" is many ways -- e.g. "neither self nor no-self", "middle way", "form and emptiness" (in the Heart Sutra), and "dependent origination implies neither self nor other"
  • Nagarjuna "used non-duality" in his Mulakarika
  • Etc.

In a second part (posted as a long comment on the first part), Hans Gruber argues that neither Nargajuna nor the Buddha teach non-duality:

  • Non-clinging isn't non-duality
  • Emptiness isn't non-duality, and different things are different even if they are dependently originated
  • Moving towards liberation (by reducing ignorance etc.) isn't non-duality
  • The Buddha didn't teach non-dualism as a metaphysical principle, instead he taught dependent origination (also didn't teach anatta as a metaphysical principle or abstract terms, but only as a "predicate" or "practice instruction" applicable to concrete terms i.e. any and all dhammas).

AN 10.29 seems to have the word "advayam" which Bhikkhu Sujato translates as "non-dual" but Bhikkhu Bodhi translates as "undivided". Not sure if this is related.

Yes I expect it's the same root: a+dvaya ("not a pair").

Looking at advaita compared with advaya reminds me of, I wonder if it's similar to, tatha versus tathata -- where one is the adjective (e.g. "true" or "non-dual, single") and the other is an abstract noun ("truth, suchness" or "non-duality") -- or Suñña versus Suññata i.e. "empty" versus "emptiness".

That might fit with Hans Gruber's saying that the Buddha didn't non-duality as a principle (e.g. as an abstract noun).

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Advaita in Vedic Hinduism means Non-duality. Parallel to that "Advaya" (अद्वय) is also a Sanskrit word that means "identity, unique, not two, without a second," and typically refers to the two truths doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, especially Madhyamaka.

Madhyamaka ("Middle way" or "Centrism"; Sanskrit: Madhyamaka, Chinese: 中觀見; pinyin: Zhōngguān Jìan, Tibetan: dbu ma pa) also known as Śūnyavāda (the emptiness doctrine) and Niḥsvabhāvavāda (the no svabhāva doctrine) refers to a tradition of Buddhist philosophy and practice founded by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 CE). The foundational text of the Mādhyamaka tradition is Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way). More broadly, Madhyamaka also refers to the ultimate nature of phenomena and the realization of this in meditative equipoise. Central to Madhyamaka philosophy is śūnyatā, "emptiness", and this refers to the central idea that dharmas are empty of svabhāva.

Now, Nargarjuna only explained the concept of Buddha's Nirvana in his technical words.

In the Buddhist context, nirvana refers to realization of non-self and emptiness, marking the end of rebirth by stilling the fires that keep the process of rebirth going.

Actually the word "Vaan" means to possess something(like Balvan means who is strong, Dhanvan means who is rich, Purtravan means who has sons) and "Nir" means to reject. Hence, the word Nirvana in a way means to reject all the material things and attributes including mind, body and ego which leads to Sunyata(or emptiness), similar to the concept of Advaya or Advaita, as when every enlightened soul has attained Nirvana(rejection of everthing) into emptiness, they become one in that state. It is called Brahman in Vedas and nothingless is similar to space, in which everything exists but cant be seen. Like in Vedic mathematics, numbers start from 0, similarly everything in the world manifests from 0/Shunyata/emptiness/space and ends in 0 because of death of a person/entire creation.

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Non duality is simply a description of when the psychological barriers between subject and object break down. The experience is characterized by a sense of unity. You might hear the sound of a cat meowing and feel like it’s coming from within your own body. Sound doesn’t come to your ear but rather happens inside an emptiness that has no boundaries. Movement happens in a medium that is stationary, etc.

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Non-duality in Buddhism is the Mahayana doctrine. Nagarjuna refutes all positive metaphysical theories and views leaving standing only the neutral or 'middle way' theory required for a doctrine of Unity. This denies the fundamentals status of all distinctions and divisions.

Thus Nagarjuna's proof is able to serve as the philosophical foundation of Middle Way Buddhism, Taoism, advaita Vedanta, Sufism and Christian mysticism as presented by Eckhart, Nicolas de Cusa and their like, and by modern books by authors such as Paul Ferrini, Keith Ward and David Bentley Hart. It is the acknowledged foundation for the monumental exposition of Christian teachings in 'A Course in Miracles' and 'A Course in Love'.

Nagarjuna is thought to have constructed his proof in order to address the divergence of views among the sangha of his time. He couldn't have done a more thorough job, but somehow his efforts didn't work. Yet his proof is unassailable and nobody has ever shown that his result is incorrect. He logically proves the non-dual nature of Reality and there is no reason every Buddhist should not accept this proof.

The topic is something of a can of worms since Nagarjuna's logical argument was designed to persuade everybody to agree on a single fundamental doctrine, and naturally this requires that many people change their views. Generally speaking, looking beyond Buddhism to 'mysticism' as a whole, it seems there is a growing consensus and understanding that the principle of non-duality is required for the knowledge claims of the mystics, such that if Reality is not the Unity of which they speak then their self-avowed knowledge would be impossible.

To confirm the endorsement of non-dualism by mystics across the ages is quite easy and it is actually difficult to miss once we know what to look for. But it is a difficult idea and so it takes time to learn what to look for. Thus it is often missed, It is invariably missed by academic philosophers, who rarely know anything of it.

It's a pity we cannot all agree on this since a denial of non-duality weakens the philosophical and intellectual plausibility of the Buddha's teachings and, according to Nagarjuna, renders them incoherent.

  • I think this can be summarised as, "Nagarjuna refutes positive metaphysical theories which leaves only the neutral theory required for a doctrine of Unity. So it can be the philosophical foundation for several brands of religion or mysticism. If we don't assume Buddhism is a doctrine of unity then we can't defend it in philosophy. He logically proves the non-dual nature of reality. I don't see why not every Buddhist accepts this proof. Outside Buddhism there's a growing consensus that the principle of non-duality is required to understand mysticism but philosophers rarely know anything of it." – ChrisW Jun 29 at 6:21
  • Perhaps the question starts with a premise that there's more than one doctrine of non-duality -- i.e., "The doctrine named "non-duality" (advaita) is associated with Advaita Vedanta: that equates Atman and Brahman (neither of which are Buddhist doctrine, both maybe contrary to Buddhist doctrine). So why do some people associate "non-duality" with Buddhism? Does classical Buddhist doctrine refer to "non-duality" by name (if so is that using advaita or another word)? Or is it "convenient Western philosophy terminology to describe a concept (just like the terms 'ontology' or 'epistemology')"? – ChrisW Jun 29 at 6:34
  • @ChrisW - It is not plausible that there is more than one non-dual doctrine. It's definition in metaphysics is so precise that there's almost no wriggle-room. But certainly there's plenty of room for different presentations and, of course, misunderstandings. Buddhism makes little use of the word but the idea is right there in the teachings. We see it in the Buddha's rejection of all extreme views. The idea that the mystic becomes one with Reality, that the Buddha's enlightenment was a Cosmic level event, depends on the Unity of All, and non-duality is a necessary principle for Unity. . – PeterJ Jun 29 at 13:53
  • Non-duality is the proposition there are not two things, that all distinctions and divisions are conceptual. It is difficult to turn this into a lot of competing ideas. It forces us to normalise on a single doctrine. The words 'Atman' and 'Brahman' would be local and optional. I see no reason to suppose there is more than one non-dual doctrine and cannot see how it would be possible. It seems that Nagarjuna had the same view, and attempted to define the doctrine clearly in order to put an end to heterodoxy. . . – PeterJ Jun 29 at 13:59
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    @ChrisW - I've deleted the offending paragraph, having realised belatedly the point of your summary. Certainly lots of people speak of Zen and Indian religion as monism, but in philosophy it causes problems and doesn't work. It's the opposite of dualism and would be an extreme view to be abandoned. Monism indicates a numerical quantity while non-dualism indicates the transcendence of number and form. – PeterJ Jun 30 at 12:48
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Buddha rejected the two extremes of existence and non-existence and taught Dependent Origination. As far as I understand Buddha rejected an individual soul or universal soul.

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