Quora Answer: What’s the difference between conceptualizing nonduality and directly experiencing nonduality?
I would like to note that I am answering this question based on my reading of Dogen Kaigen’s Shobogenzo. It could be answered from may nondual perspectives with different answers.
Basically the presumption of the question is that we can conceive of Nonduality and that we can experience it. My answer to this question’s presuppositions is that emptiness cannot be experienced or conceived. Nondual means to me Not One. Not Two. Not Three. Not Many., i.e. non-cardinality. Zero is non-cardinal, and all basic approaches to nonduality start from ground zero. But Zero of Existence can be interpreted two ways, as Emptiness of Buddhism and Void (Wu Ji) of Taoism. The void of Taoism is empty space of nature, and that can be experienced indirectly as things that are physically missing leaving space itself there. But emptiness is within the mind, and cannot be experienced directly nor conceptualized properly. If we take that position that Emptiness cannot be either represented conceptually, i.e. it is non-representational and also it cannot be experienced because experience is always of something, then we need ways of approaching emptiness that are different from what we might have expected, which was an answer that we cannot conceptualize it except abstractly but we can experience it in mystical or spiritual states. If in effect we deny experience of emptiness then we suddenly step into a whole new realm of explanation. It is in this direction that we will be following Nagarjuna who defines Emptiness with the tetralemma (A, ~A, Both, Neither) as something different from any of those logical possibilities. Since all experience falls also within the logical possibilities then we must exclude emptiness from not just conceptualization but also experienceability. In order to do this we must develop a nondual way of thinking about things and this is what Dogen does in the Shobogenzo. it is the most accessible form of nondual thought for us moderns that I know of. Even though he lived in the 13th century his thought seems today still very contemporary, if not postmodern.
If we take the point that we cannot experience nor conceptualize emptiness then there is in fact no difference between conceptualization of Emptiness and experience of emptiness because they are both impossible. But why orient toward an impossibility as a criteria for understanding experience? Well that is a way to orient toward the absolute. Enlightenment is the embodiment of an absolute. It is a strange absolute because it is utterly relative it is the fact of change changing everything at all times. Buddhist orient toward that change changing itself in every moment. We experience change only if we take a reference point and then see the flow in relation to the reference point. But if there is no reference point, then there is nothing to hold on to to even see the changes. If there is only change changing itself then there is no concepts we can hold onto from moment to moment just as there is nothing in experience we can hold onto except knowledge. Knowledge is the only stable thing in experience, but knowledge of knowledge is very unstable because that depends on reflexivity and thus ultimately knowledge thought it seems to be stable has the same problem as Change, because knowledge that knows itself (Prajna) which is wisdom is inherently unknowable and unstable as well.
In Buddhism everything is pure flux within aggregates. It is actually more radical in its view of change than Heraclitus who notes that we cannot step into the same river twice. Buddhism believes that we cannot step into it even once. In other words between the changes in the river streams and the river flowing though us of life, we cannot hope to have a unified and stable experience of stepping into the river, and when we realize that then we are suddenly free of many of the causes of suffering in this world which comes from clinging to things like concepts and experiences and relating them to an imagined self.
One of the corollaries of this radical interpretation of Buddhist emptiness as non-conceptual and non-experiential is that enlightenment itself is a kind of an illusion too. Enlightenment is an ideal that we set before ourselves. We put everything into trying to achieve it. But at some point we realize that it does not exist, and at that point we become enlightened because the self itself which was wrapped up in that idea is deconstructed by this disillusionment. This interpretation sees enlightenment as an interesting kind of ruse which actually does transform consciousness pragmatically. In this way Buddhism uses the nihilism of the Indo-European tradition against itself. From this point of view we cannot conceptualize enlightenment nor experience it because it does not exist. But neither did the illusions of our self that we are caught up in. Thus when we entangle our illusions that don’t exist with an ideal of enlightenment that does not exist then that has the practical effect of dispensing with our illusions.
Really when things get interesting, is when as in China with Fa Tsang of Hua Yen Buddhism and with Mipham and Manjushrimitra in Tibet with respect to Dzogchen the tradition starts to realize that in fact there is a difference between emptiness of Buddhism and Void (Wu Ji) of Bon and Taoism, and that they are in fact dual nonduals, and based on that they begin to point toward deeper utterly nondual matters beyond these entry-level concepts of nonduality. DzogChen is a heresy of Buddhism that rejects the two truths and sees them as extremes. DzogChen basically applies the logic of Nagarjuna to Buddhism itself and ultimately says that there is a higher state where we can distinguish between emptiness and void but that they themselves point to a deeper nondual state. In China this was discovered by Fa Tsang who recognized that deeper nondual state as interpenetration. In Dogen Kaigen we get talk of states beyond enlightenment or non-enlightenment.
From this point of view if we see the difference between conceptualization and experience as a duality, and we see both as empty and then we compare that to our direct experience of spacetime in the external universe so that we see that the two experiences are basically the same, then we suddenly see that there must be a state beyond conceptualization and beyond experience that is utterly nondual. I call that manifestation. It is a state where everything interpenetrates and intrafuses including ourselves where we are empty and external reality is just spacetime that is void (Wu Ji). Our bodies are what is in the barzak (Interspace, note Arabic term) between these two realities in which we find ourselves dwelling. And Dogen emphasizes the role of the body, just sitting in Shikantiza (meditation). Dogen is very rigorous in his way of thinking in a nondual manner that is to say suprarationally. And there is enough of the Shobogenzo that we can get the idea from reading his lectures. There is also the Extensive Record. So there is a lot of material to immerse ourselves into to try to learn how to think nondually about things like the difference between conceptualization and experience, or as Dogen calls it body-and-mind that engages in practice-and-experience by just sitting but with dignity in the way that the Buddhas and Patriarchs sat.
If you sit in Shikantiza, i.e. methodless meditation, then your body-and-mind will eventually forget idea that emptiness is something that you can conceptualize or that you can experience. Dogen scholars dispute the fact that Dogen’s own enlightenment was sudden and that it came from an experience associated with the “dropping off of Body and Mind”. Evidently this only appears in a biography. But the reason for disputing this is that it suggests that emptiness is an experience, and it suggests that it is achieved by a conceptualization that goes with the phrase “dropping off of body and mind”. This creates a false impression that the student too can learn to conceptualize nondually and experience enlightenment. But if both of these are impossible then that impression actually blocks our actually achieving enlightenment. Dogen suggests that we need to be very rigorous in our commitment to researching and studying what the Buddhas and Patriarchs have said and done and to emulate them. Only by breathing new life and meaning into the tradition that we make for ourselves can we make it our own and achieve our own enlightenment. He suggests that the best way forward toward that goal is methodless meditation on a regular basis and adherence to the principles of Buddhism which is what puts you in the nondual stream within which the lotus may then flower.