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Elizabeth Namgyel

The Singular Benefit of Dualistic thinking

Student’s question: I understand the fundamental problem of the dualistic mind (i hope). The idea that as long as something is "good" in our mind, that means something is "bad" as well, which causes us to have a misconception that is damaging to our mind. We can see with our own investigation that this is damaging to our experience of the present and reality. So what about good actions and bad action? Wise speech\unwise speech? Good intention\bad intention? Truth\ dishonesty? I struggle because those are dualistic concepts that are fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching. Are there some dualistic mind states that are helpful? I am most certain that I am confused! I would love some insight.

Thank you so much for your question. This particular question is addressed in a wonderful way in the teachings.

When we are talking about good intention\bad intention, truth/dishonesty and so on, we are working with the world of relationship – or we can say we are working with ‘relative truth.’ Relative truth doesn’t mean that ultimately something is true, but it seems to be so in relationship. In other words, how we understand the workings of cause and effect is undeniably functional, powerful and influences the course of our lives and the lives of others. We can’t deny that some causes and conditions, such as stealing or selfishness cause tremendous suffering, and that some causes and conditions such as loving-kindness or generosity, have a more opening and joyful effect on our own mind and for others who are the recipients of our kindness.

If we don’t examine cause and effect carefully we won’t know how to bring ourselves out of confusion. We need discernment in order to follow a path that leads to freedom. That we have a mind that can conceptualize and guide our actions is our greatest gift on the path. This is why, all along the path, we are encouraged to examine our actions, our motivation and how cause and effect work. Therefore, in all situations we need to always ask, “what serves?” “What serves to bring about happiness and freedom from suffering?” This is what we all want, isn’t it?

So in the world of relationship we are always working with “this in relation to that.” I suppose we can call that dualism in a way. But if we understand that the relational world is always moving and changing we can’t really get hung up on the truth of anything. For instance, stealing is usually motivated by greed. But if we are stealing a gun from someone so they can’t harm others, then stealing could serve to prevent suffering in the long run. So if we hold on to ideas as concrete and true, we won’t be able to respond to life with full discernment and intelligence. So on the path such notions of “good” and “bad” are not good and bad in being “true.” They are good and bad only by virtue of how they cause happiness and suffering, respectively.

Dualism becomes a problem when we forget that our thoughts and the world around us is moving and we get caught in our beliefs, which are stuck and against the flow of life. Let me give another example.

In the teachings they often talk about “pure perception,” which means that we are able to see everything around us like a pure realm. Now we often understand “pure” in a very dualistic way. We think that pure means the opposite of “impure.” And we have a very subjective idea of what these 2 things (pure and impure) mean to us. In fact, each of us has a different view of pure…and even our view continuously changes according to our life situation and so forth. But the point is, we think that purity\impurity is in the object. For instance, our dharma community. And yet, because objects continue to change, and don’t necessarily cooperate with our ideas, our notions of  “pure” are constantly deceived. We will be disappointed. This is the problem with dualistic mind.

The late Mipham Rinpoche said that we struggle with this kind of dualism like an elephant. Elephants roll in the dirt to dry off, and then go into the water to wash off. We think of pure and impure (for instance) in this way. But what it actually means to see things with pure perception is to appreciate that everything has something to teach us…to take everything onto the path. And ultimately, it means that everything we encounter is limitlessly full and free of the dualistic notions we have about them. This is the “absolute” truth. It is not a thing, but a way of knowing life that doesn’t shut down around ideas…that sees that life is bigger than the ideas we have about it.

For example, when we look at the self – ourselves or others – we see that we are not one way. Our thoughts, our motivations, our bodies, the phenomena we perceive, our feelings – they are in constant movement. Therefore, to think “I am worthless” or “I am the best” or “he is nasty” or “she is lovely” is simply a thought – a subjective thought. And that is fine…but it isn’t the truth of who we are. We can’t be summed up…we are always a work in progress. The data will never all be in on who we are. And yet, in each moment we need to respond to life…we need to function and we are always in relationship to others. To stay open and not simply decide how life is, we have access to our discernment. Discernment doesn’t have to be based on beliefs…it can move with life. It can be a question: “What serves?”

In this way, the relative and absolute truths are not at odds. We will see they are in union. The more we learn to utilize cause and conditions to follow the path of awakening and serving others (relative truth), the more we will uncover the mind beyond dualism. And the more we are able to see that things are not limited to the ideas we have about them, the more we will refine our ability to discern and respond in a way that brings about our intention. This is why it is said that the relative and absolute truths are two wings of a bird. This is also why the 2 truths are used to clear up confusion so strongly on the path.

The great Indian saint who brought the dharma to Tibet, Padmasambhava, said: “My view (of the non-dual absolute truth) is as high as the sky. But my actions (relationship with cause and effect or ‘relative’ truth) is as refined as barely flour.”