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  • Ryan J. Burton

Non-duality vs Nibbana

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

The stateless state, this awareness is not something that dawns through doing. It manifests in the absence of the concept of both a “doing & doer.” In the absence of will and volition, non-dual awareness is recognizable. In dzogchen, mahamudra & chan/zen, once this is recognized, that very awareness is taken as the path & the fruit, which is quite different from Sakyamuni’s approach in Theravada Buddhism.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve concluded non-dual awareness and Nibbana (Theravadin Pali word for enlightenment) are mutually exclusive, yet potentially close. It seems there are degrees of being-ness before you get to total unconditioned non-being, Nibbana.

“Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware. Responding, perceiving, arching your brows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands & feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the buddha. And the buddha is the path. And the path is zen. But the word zen is one that remains a puzzle to both mortals and sages. Seeing your nature is zen. Unless you see your nature, it’s not zen.” - Bodhidharma

Here Bodhidharma equates mind itself with the Buddha. This is the essence of taking mind as the path in dzogchen and the non-dual traditions. Awareness is the gate. This is referred to as the “Gateless Gate” because it’s not a thing, it’s not tangible, you cannot reach out and touch it. Yet, it’s still a gate, purely on the basis that recognition, to be awake, is the only difference between mortals and Buddhas. This is why Buddha is described in various Mahayana Sutras as the “King of Awareness” or “King of Space.”

The words non-duality, or non-dual awareness appear in english translations of the Mahayana texts, but aren’t found in the Pali Suttas. Awareness as path, may be a path, but does it lead to the Buddha’s enlightenment?

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of suffering.” -Buddha "Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding"

Today we see many cases of people who are obviously awakened, in a completely different state of functioning compared to an ordinary person, but even amongst them rarely if ever have I heard a person confirm a post-enlightenment state entirely free of suffering.

Is the Buddha's enlightenment the same as what modern teachers describe in their accounts of awakening? If it is not, should non-dual awareness be considered enlightenment at all? Now, if it is the same, does that mean the Buddha mislead us by teaching enlightenment as the being the end of suffering? I doubt so.

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