NONDUALITY AND NIHILSM:
Why “No Person, No Past, No Path, No Me, No You” Is Only Half The Story
“In the beginning, trees were trees,
mountains were mountains,
and rivers were rivers.
Then came a time when trees were no longer trees,
mountains were no longer mountains,
and rivers were no longer rivers.
Now, trees are once again trees,
mountains are once again mountains,
and rivers are once again rivers.”
– Zen saying
People sometimes tell me that they think this message is nihilistic. That it’s life-denying, that it separates the “absolute” from the “relative”, emphasises the absolute and denies the relative. Then again, there are many people who read my books and see that what I’m really talking about is unconditional love and unity and the end of all seeking. Anyway, I’m fascinated by the varying responses.
Sometimes the interpretations of what I write (or more correctly, what gets written!) do not at all match what is being communicated. Somebody recently hit the nail on the head when they suggested that upon hearing and believing the words “there is nothing to get”, someone might just go and commit suicide because life was pointless. It’s possible that the words could be taken that way. And at the same time, that would be to absolutely miss what the words are getting at. Violence – of any sort – is not being condoned here.
The books were written as a confession of what is seen clearly over here: right here, right now, this is the miracle, the divine Mystery. And yes, of course, those are just words, they don’t come close to it at all. When I say things like “I am That” or “everything is God”, of course we’re back into duality again (inside vs. outside, this vs. that, God vs. not-God). It’s unavoidable when using language. What those words are really trying to point to is the ineffable isness that is this … totally and completely and utterly beyond words.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. Over here, there is a knowing that not a single word Jeff writes or says about this could ever be true. The wonder of this, the aliveness of what’s happening, cannot be spoken of… and yet still, as I always say, why not try. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Name, but that doesn’t stop you from writing the Tao Te Ching. When the why goes, all you’re left with is the why not, and that’s the freedom in this expression.
Let me tell you a little story. In the beginning, trees were trees, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers. Then, after years of all sorts of mind-blowing spiritual experiences, thinking that I was God, that everything was Buddha, etc, there was, finally, a falling-away of all of those concepts, of every concept known to man. Finally, after a lifetime of words, there were no more words. No more words for this. What was seen is that everything is One (and yes, of course, not even that, because “everything is One”, well, that would just be another concept too!) There wasn’t even that. Not even “everything is One”. There was nothing. No, actually, there wasn’t even “nothing” but that’s the word that comes closest. For a long while the nothingness of everything was the only reality. There had been a falling into the Void. Trees were no longer trees, mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers were no longer rivers. There was nothing. No me. No you. No world. No past. No future. Nothing to get. No meaning. No point.
But of course it cannot stop there. “I am nothing” or “there is nothing” – that’s still totally dualistic. What happened then is that nothing collapsed into everything, and that’s as close as I can come in words. The emptiness finally revealed itself to be total fullness. The detachment and pointlessness (“nothing matters! Everything is meaningless!”) gave way to a fullness of being, to a joy beyond words, a contentment without a name. You could say that Jeff died. The seeker died. The longing for something more died.
You see, there was a time, before the books and the talks, where I had fallen into the “everything is pointless, there is nothing I can do” trap and, well, for hours and days on end, I would just walk around my home town of Oxford, and there was absolutely nothing in existence, absolutely nothing happening at all. There was no world, no past or future, nothing. Only the Void. And it was all so very grey and lacking in joy. And I was so very, very serious about something called “spirituality” (and, funnily enough, it was at this time that I also believed I was awakened!). In the book Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, this stance is summed up as follows:
“I [find] neither home nor company, nothing but a seat from which to view a stage where strange people [play] strange parts… Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men, belongs nothing.”
I thought I was a real man, not one of those ignorant fools who were still lost in the “relative” world (whatever that meant). Back then, I thought this was what nonduality was all about. But then (and I cannot really say ‘when’ because it doesn’t happen in time), after much agony, there was a collapse of the nothing into everything, and of course, about this I cannot really say a word. Even the absolute detachment from life, even that had been completely dualistic. It takes a person to be detached, and a world to be detached from. The “final” seeing (and I don’t like to call it that, but it’ll do for now) was the death of the person, the person who could be detached or not, and a revelation (for no-one) that it was all a dance, a play, ALL of it, ALL of it, including all the bits that Jeff had rejected, including that nasty “relative” world that was so full of ignorance and people who were unaware of their “true nature” (whatever that meant). There was a plunge into the absolute mystery of it all…. totally beyond words, totally beyond language. For so long there had been a deadness, a lack of joy, a sitting-back and watching the world go by without me. It had been such a denial of the relative, a denial of the “world”. The world had become the enemy, because it wasn’t essentially real. Everyday human interactions had lost their meaning, because there were no others. After a lifetime of misery and self-consciousness it had initially been a relief to be “free” from the world of form. But – and here’s what I couldn’t see then – the nothingness had just become another trap. The freedom I’d initially found in the emptiness had morphed into a prison. Freedom in the formless had become a denial of form. But, as the Buddhist Heart Sutra has been reminding us for thousands of years:
“Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form…”
There had been a resting in Emptiness. But it still had not been seen in clarity that Emptiness was Form. There was still a “me” there, subtly denying life. Pretending he was more “spiritual” or “awake” than others, feeling smug and safe, and somewhat arrogant, but secretly joyless in his Emptiness.
Then one day, it all collapsed. The denial of form could not hold itself up. I cannot put it into words, but if I could, it would be something like this. Jeff, after another day of walking through Oxford, after another day of absolutely nothing, another day of detachment from the world, collapsed on the grass in Christ Church Meadow, and looked up at a shaft of sunlight coming through the branches of a tree.
And Life said “LIVE, DAMN IT, LIVE!”
The emptiness collapsed into the form. The form collapsed into the emptiness. And then there was neither form nor emptiness. There was just THIS, with no way of knowing anymore what this is. The person dissolved into wonder. Trees were once again trees. Mountains were once again mountains. Rivers were once again rivers. Everything fell back into its rightful place. A chair was allowed to be a chair again (whilst at the same time, of course, it was the divine expression, it was Oneness playing the game of being a chair.) A cup of tea could be a cup of tea. There was a plunge back into the world, even though it was only an apparent world, even though it was all a dream, even though there was no me, and no others. Suddenly, after years of being detached and wanting to be detached, there was a relaxation into what is. The whole thing collapsed back into a very ordinary life. But the seeking was dead.
What is was seen to be the miracle. And it was always enough. The very idea of “spirituality” went out the window. That concept was no longer needed. Concepts of “nothingness” and “awakening” and “nonduality” went out the window. Concepts of practices and goals and future attainment went out the window. Why? Because the grass was enough. The tree was enough. The ground beneath my feet was enough. I fell in love with solid ground, or solid ground fell in love with itself, and the seeking of a lifetime was at an end. As Ramana Maharshi said:
“The world is illusory. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world.”
Brahman was the world, and it was all over.
Or, as Zen master Joho exclaimed:
“Fathomed at last!
Ocean’s dried. Void burst.
Without an obstacle in sight,
When I write things like “there is nothing to get”, it is not a teaching. It is an attempt to share this seeing. I am not a teacher, I could never see myself as that, because there is no longer any reference point here. I have no way of knowing who I am, because it is not possible to separate myself from myself, look back at myself and say what that is. Because I am nothing, I neither teacher nor student. I am whatever you say I am. And so I am everything too. Call me teacher, call me friend, or call me nothing at all. You are what I am, and I am what you are. And it all ends there, in an intimacy that’s beyond words.
“There is nothing to get”. It’s not a teaching. It is a confession [read Jerry Katz on nonduality.com for more on the idea of confession vs. teaching]. What is seen here (and I can only ever speak about what is seen here) is that there is nothing to get (because THIS is the miracle). There is nothing to do (because THIS is the miracle). Yes, that can be heard in the wrong way. But there is also the possibility that what is really being communicated, what is really being pointed to by those words, will be heard. That resonance, that recognition is possible. Perhaps that’s why the sharing happens. I don’t know.
No, I cannot see myself as a teacher. I just offer the words in the books and talks and nothing more. I just sing my song. The bird tweets, the cat miaows, and this mind-body organism (or whatever the hell it is) sometimes blabs on about nonduality. There are many who will take one look at those books and turn away. There are others who will read them and love them. I love that people walk away, and that people stay … that’s their freedom. Freedom to stay, freedom to go. Freedom to listen, freedom to walk away.
When you are talking about nonduality, you are always talking about something that cannot be spoken of. If I say “this is already complete and there is nothing to get”, I get accused of falling into the absolute. If I say “there is a practice, there is something you can do to get closer to this”, I get accused by the nonduality fundamentalists (those who have turned nonduality into their religion, the “religion of no practice”) of falling into the relative. The Buddha himself said:
“…Discard, not only conceptions of one’s own selfhood and other selves… but also… all ideas about the non-existence of such conceptions.”
When we cling to ideas of self, or ideas of no-self, we are falling into duality. After years of falling into this and so many other conceptual traps, what is now seen in absolute clarity is that nonduality cannot be contained by any concept, by any philosophy, by any system, not even the most refined, the most researched, the most tried-and-tested ones.
You see, there used to be a ferocious, violent intellect here, a mind that could never rest until it had exhausted every possibility, every possible permutation of thought. It would settle for nothing less than absolute freedom. Over the years, so many traps were seen through. So many heavy thought structures were shattered from their very foundations, and seen to be made of nothing but light. My goodness, there were somany traps, so many subtle ways in which I was kidding myself. There are so many ways in which the mind can settle on a concept, on a thought structure, on a belief system, and at the same time (and this is how ingenious it is) proclaim freedom from all concepts and beliefs. The ego can find a million different ways of making it seem like there is no ego.
“I’m free from ego! Me, I’m free from ego!”
And so these days, when I say “there is nothing to do” what is also seen is that the moment that turns into a belief, it is no longer true. That is why the guy who believes that “there is nothing to do” and stays in bed all day has not really been listening. The pointers have become concepts for him, they have hardened into beliefs, and led to stagnation. This is such a common trap. I know, I’ve been there. There are people out there who truly believe that there is no person, no self. They truly believe that there is nothing to get. They truly believe that there is no future, no Africa, no planet Earth. The belief is the problem. Once it’s turned into a belief, it’s stagnated. It’s a person with a belief. It’s my belief versus your belief. And there’s no end to it.
In the clear seeing that there is nothing to do (because THIS is already complete), stagnation goes out the window. What I find is that there can be a springing out of bed, the heart fully open to another day of not knowing. “Nothing to do” – just a concept. “Something to do” – another concept.
To say “it is” is to grasp for permanence.
To say “it is not” is to grasp at nihilism.
Therefore a wise person
Does not say “it is” or “it is not”.
“Whoever knows that the mind is a fiction and devoid of anything real knows that his own mind neither exists nor doesn’t exist. Mortals keep creating the mind, claiming it exists. And Immortals keep negating the mind, claiming it doesn’t exist.”
Mind exists, mind doesn’t exist. Nothing to do, something to do. Practice, no practice. Past, no past. Self, no self. No need to stick to either polarity, or even negate both polarities. It happens so often: people go to see nonduality teachers (or non-teachers), and hear that there is nothing they can do, so they give up and sometimes get very depressed. But look: part of the dance is that on this astonishing planet there are a million things to do, or so it would seem! This world – as every child knows – is an adventure playground. It neither exists nor doesn’t exist, but either way it’s a play. And so the whole thing ends in the absolute paradox of it all. Nothing to do, lots to do. Nothing, something. Self, no self. There is nobody, there is somebody. The opposites collapse into each other, and what is seen is that nonduality could never be understood. Run a million miles from anyone who claims to understand this! This is a plunge into the mystery, totally beyond words. That is what all the words in all the books are really pointing to.
And then, far from being depressing, words such as “this is it” and “there is no path” are all seen to be pointing to this liberation, this unconditional love. And it’s seen that they always were pointing to that – we just couldn’t see it at the time. Yes, nothing to get, because it’s all HERE. The intimacy and unconditional love that was always sought are seen to be right HERE.
Until then, yes there is the danger that those words could be taken the wrong way (“you’re saying that it’s all Oneness, so murder must also be Oneness, so I could just go and kill someone and that’s okay because it’s all Oneness, right?”). And I am very clear about this in the meetings (only recently we went into this at great length in one of our London meetings). Yes, there is that danger, but there is also this possibility: that what is being said will be heard, really heard. It is that sharing (not teaching, remember, because I cannot see you as separate from me) that is being pointed to.
And then the whole duality/nonduality paradox is resolved, and it is seen that there never was a paradox in the first place. The seeing is that Oneness manifests itself as apparently separate beings. Things go on appearing to be separate, whilst at the same time they are all manifestations of the whole. It’s the divine dance, it’s the cosmic entertainment, it’s lila, it’s nothing being everything. And yes, that could all remain on a purely intellectual level. But what is being pointed to here is the seeing (not just intellectual understanding) of this in clarity, and in that seeing, all questions (which always point towards a future that never arrives) dissolve and what is left, you have no way of knowing.
When this was first seen, there were no words. I couldn’t say the first thing about this. Not a bloody word. It has taken years for the words to return. There was a time I could not even use the word “I” because it felt like a lie (an “I” separate from the whole! How absurd!). But in time (yes, the so-called ‘relative’ world is honoured here!) the words came back, and there was talking and writing about this… all done with a deep knowing that the moment Jeff spoke about this, people would misinterpret and misunderstand, and that it would even anger and frustrate some people, but that was part of the play too. The Tao cannot be told, and, well the moment you speak about it, you’re into the world of words, the world of interpretation and misinterpretation, the world of truth and falsehood, the world of a thousand things. You’re into the world of time and space, and you and me, and yin and yang. And that, perhaps, could become a good reason to never speak about this, ever again. But “not speaking about this”, well, that could become another religion. The religion of silence. But this embraces both silence and noise, and, as the story goes, one day, for no good reason, Jeff began to write and speak about it…
This has always been seen as a sharing, in openness and friendship… and of course I’m only ever sharing with myself. So the mirage of separation goes on, but all the while it is known: there is no separation at all. Yes, it all ends in the mystery, in absolute love. How can I communicate to you the intimacy and freedom and peace and emptiness and fullness of just sitting on a chair, right now? Of just breathing, just sounds happening? The isness of this will never be spoken of, and yet it continues to shine, moment by moment, although there are no separate moments at all.
And so the paradox is resolved here, in the absolutely simplicity and wonder of what is. In breathing happening, in noises in the room, in the warmth of my mug of tea, in the crunch of the biscuits, in the crumbs falling onto my trousers. The search of a lifetime ends here, and there is only gratitude for the mug of tea, for the biscuit, for this, as it is. Nobody drinks the tea, nobody eats the biscuit, and nobody is typing these words, but still, what a miracle it all is, and how crazy (and innocent in my craziness) I was all those years, looking for something more than this, when everything I ever needed was right here. Right here, in the place where I am not.
© Jeff Foster – December 2008