A Pragmatic View Of Dualism

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

When we apply a rigorous study of contemporary pragmatic philosophy to Buddhist thought we find a new way of reconstructing notions the ancient mind had of their worldview. Chief among some of these ideas was the tendency to interpret the world and personal experiences in terms of dualism. These included not only the idea of mind and body functions but also to objects, nature, actions, and human essence, to mention just a few. Their belief was that all these concepts of what was happening around them involved two fixed entities that, when clearly understood, totally excluded each other. The Buddha applied a pragmatic frame of reference and saw the error in their approach when he came to realize that the elements of these so-called pairs all coexist with each other both in the world and in our validated experiences, so that thinking of them as mutually exclusive makes this actual coexistence into a kind of mystery. When we apply the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination (or Dependent Co-arising), as well as the modern lessons science provides, it helps clear up some of this ambiguity.

What is needed, from a pragmatic point of view, is a reexamination of dualism for the purpose of overcoming this mystery. A useful approach is to consider first that thought and conscientiousness are not individual elements of brain function and that the concrete reality is that human beings think in a single stream of functionality as a living organism. Ideas of a dualistic nature of the thought process are no more than abstractions taken out of their physiological context and turned into fixed and independent parts. A second step in undermining dualism is to shift attention away from understanding objects, nature, actions, human essence, and so on in terms of their having a fixed essences that defines them in terms of the characteristic ways in which they function, and the roles they play in the concrete processes of the intent of their actions. We learn not to make distinctions. Take the act of thinking for example. There is no idea devoid of a thought and no thought without some conscious content. Concept of thought and its subject become a dualism when they are abstracted from the thinking process and each is viewed only as a separate entity excluding the other.

The Buddha came to the pragmatic reality that even the nature of our human expression is devoid of a dual nature. The doctrine of not-self recognizes that there is no permanent and everlasting nature that is know as ‘self’. Although, as expressions of the Universe, the elements that define our form return to express themselves in new ways. This is the interconnected and interdependent nature of the Universe which is void of any dualistic aspects. Name and form have no self-nature and are void of a duel-nature. This is what is meant in the Heart Sutra as emptiness. (I now prefer to use the term “unity”) We can say that this world comes out of Universal unity and eventually returns to that same reality. Viewing the foot as separate and distinct from the body is not logical. So why do be try to find the duel nature of what we see as individual things. Our Buddhist practice ultimately comes to awaking to the reality that everything is the all encompassing.

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