About Nondual Inquiry
Prescriptive and Descriptive
The “nothing to do” teaching expresses the insight that the ego doesn’t exist as it seems to, and that any method undertaken by the illusory self cannot possibly lead to the end of this same illusory self. A knife cannot cut itself. The eye cannot see itself.
There are two ways of understanding the “nothing to do” teaching, prescriptively or descriptively.
The Prescriptive Sense — In the beginning, most people interpret this teaching prescriptively. When you do, it’s natural to want to avoid any practice, method, inquiry, any doing at all. Why? Because you see all doings as falling back into those same methods that cannot possibly work. So what happens? When the yearning to search for the Truth arises, it gets blocked by the new faith in this nothing-to-do teaching. Why expect a thief to catch a thief?
This of course leads to a paradox. To take the teaching prescriptively is to take it as a recommendation for or against something to do! You actively decide not to inquire or meditate or read or whatever. You’re still thinking in “doing-mode,” and so you begin to do non-doing! It’s still a doing, but a more subtle and un-noticed kind. This is a natural and frequent misunderstanding of the teaching.
The Descriptive Sense — The descriptive sense, in a nutshell, points to this, that you’re never doing anything, even now. Doings are naturalized. There were never any doings, ever. All supposed doings are actually natural occurrences, analogous to the flowing of water or the falling of a leaf from a tree. So it doesn’t matter how your actions are described – washing the dishes, going to the store, or nondual inquiry – none of these is actually performed by an agent. There are no true actions, events or authors.
The descriptive sense of the teaching focuses on the emptiness (or essence-less-ness or non-independence) of all action and all actors. It is a way to point to your ultimate freedom. That is, you are free from being limited as one who acts or decides. This freedom extends to all actions. It is a powerful teaching, and even a casual acquaintance with it can engender more peace, less guilt and worry. No matter what seems to be undertaken, no matter what the sense of effort, frustration, accomplishment, pride, or shame accompanying an action, these aspects are similarly empty of substance and essence. They are not fixed and nailed down.
This emptiness is wonderfully free and thorough. It is the nature of all things – all events, activities, qualities, the self, and the world itself, are equally freedom itself. Nondual inquiry, along with its results, is free as well. So there’s no reason not to pursue nondual inquiry or any other method that arises. This is freedom and peace.
Two Common Blocks to Inquiry
Block 1 – Fetishizing Enlightenment
One of the linguistic features of the term “enlightenment” is that it stands for the very highest. In this way, it’s similar to the word “here.” When Jane and Susan stand face to face and utter the word “here,” they are pointing to different geographical spots on the ground. Nevertheless, they’re using the word in an identical sense, indicating co-location with the speaker.
“Enlightenment” is similar. Jane and Susan might differ as to just which characteristics constitute enlightenment (Is it to no longer have thoughts? Or to no longer believe thoughts? Does it include the ability to levitate? To see into the future?) But as users of the term, Jane and Susan probably agree whatever the characteristics are, they indicate the highest, the summum bonum. Therefore, as the highest, enlightenment is not something that one would trade away for a gazillion dollars.
This is precisely why fetishizing enlightenment is a misunderstanding. (But it’s almost inevitable, so the misunderstanding gets more and more subtle as inquiry proceeds)) No matter what your conception of enlightenment is, if you desire enlightenment in order to serve a further goal, then you’re fetishizing it. You’re making a tool, a juju or lucky charm out of it. A tool to allow you to remain on the scene with all the comforts of home, but free from fear, insecurity, uncertainty and problems. I’ve known people who have sought enlightenment for many reasons according to their beliefs, including: it would allow them stop their self-disapproval; it would improve their romantic relationships; it would make them famous and sought-after; it would improve their career. Sometimes the reason for seeking enlightenment is explicitly held, as it was for a friend of mine who sought enlightenment because her guru told her it would bring her that hotly-desired record contract.
And sometimes the ulterior reason for seeking enlightenment is not as close to the surface. One very intelligent and experienced person told me he was interested in knowing the ultimate truth of things. He confidently told me he’d had 20 years of Zen training and was well-prepared, closing in on the very end of things. I asked him why he was interested in the ultimate truth. He said he just was, that it was all that was left for him. I asked him how motivated he was, “How bad do you really want to know?” and he said it was the most important thing in life for him. I was starting to get a feeling about his take on it, and asked him, “If you had a choice, which would you prefer, (A) or (B): (A) to feel a life of emotional bliss and neverending pleasant sensation, or (B) to know the truth?” He paused for about a minute, then replied: “They are the same thing.”
He had cleverly fetishized enlightenment by identifying it with his own goals. Accustomed as he was to being in an intense spiritual context, he did the spiritually correct thing by seeking enlightenment. But he “cheated,” redefining enlightenment to suit his purpose: emotional well-being. Being blissed-out certainly isn’t how Zen defines enlightenment!
Not that there is a correct and incorrect notion of “enlightenment.” That’s just it, there isn’t. It’s one of the vaguest terms in the English spiritual vocabulary, probably edging out “God” for the honor! The word is systematically vague. Its very vagueness and socially-constructed nature are required to permit it to serve its main linguistic purpose: to express all of one’s highest spiritual aspirations in a single word. And different people aspire to different things.
Different traditions use the word in different ways. Spiritual schools with an emphasis on psychology will have a mentalistic-sounding definition, yogic schools will have a magical-sounding notion, and nondual paths will have a clever and abstract definition that seems to pull the rug from under your feet. Even if several schools seem to agree on the term, their definitions aren’t really expressing a simple true/false sentence “There’s a cat on the mat.”
A more useful way to think about the word is as a window into the spiritual tradition. That is, the use of the term within a tradition is really a way of telling you what that tradition wants to go on record as advocating, as how it desires to be known. And that’s not all. Sometimes there’s a secondary use made of the word’s primary linguistic function as a superlative. That is, the word is sometimes employed as a spiritual advertising slogan, an ultimate aroma to sell a not-so-ultimate bit of something else.
Sometimes the very vagueness of the term “enlightenment” is taken advantage of. It’s used as a “sizzle to sell a steak.” For example, do a Google search on “spiritual enlightenment” and look at the sites that come up. Many of them are selling some book, technique, teaching or teacher. “Enlightenment” becomes an advertising slogan, capitalizing on the reader’s idealizations and fantasies, aimed at a financial transaction.
OK, so the term “enlightenment” is vague – so it serves a linguistic purpose…. Does this mean it really doesn’t exist as a state, as a real thing? Is there no true referent to the word? This of course is one of the things investigated in nondual inquiry, along with bodies, minds, cats and mats!