Meta Enlightenment

IX. Horizontal And Vertical Dualism

By Alex Bunard, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

To be able to better grasp the above mentioned outrageous claims regarding the lack of any need to save ourselves, we should try to understand the problem of dualism. Dualistic thinking is at the very center of all our troubles, and it is therefore helpful to be aware of all of its numerous facets. To begin with, we should recognize that, in order to use any language, we must use dualistic thinking. It is impossible to utter a statement, or to formulate a thought, that will not be dualistic. The difference, however, is in whether or not we are aware of this underlying dualism while we are formulating and uttering the sentence.

Typically, we are all aware of what I would like to call the horizontal dualism. The examples that illustrate this type of dualism would be: gain and loss, day and night, left and right, true and false, tall and short, full and empty, etc. In short, these are the pairs of the so-called opposites that comprise the complete gamut of our experience and thinking. I say that they are the "so-called opposites" because they are not necessarily opposed to each other. It is only when we apply an extremely narrow view of our experiences that the constituent elements of such dualistic pairs appear as if opposed to each other. For instance, when we turn the light on in a dark room, we may conclude that the darkness has been eradicated, destroyed by its "enemy" (the light). But that's viewing things from a very narrow standpoint (both from the spatial and from the temporal point of view). The broader view reveals to us that darkness never gets eradicated, no matter how much light is shone. The same is true for light -- it is not possible that it ever be obliterated by darkness. However, if we deliberately narrow our perspective, and conduct an experiment in a minuscule replica of the totality (i.e. a tightly sealed room), then, yes, it may appear as though the darkness has completely wiped out any trace of light. Of course, similar reasoning may apply to any other pair of dualistic concepts, but in some cases it gets harder to make such blanket statements. For example, when I turn to the right, it does not mean that I have eliminated the left. Wherever I may turn, I will always be facing both the left and the right side. Same applies to such pairs as up/down, hot/cold, here/there, etc. It is obvious that we carry our dualistic ways of perceiving and reasoning with us, no matter where we go.

It comes as no surprise, then, that we feel torn apart inside, seeing that every experience we may imagine is soaked up in these "opposites". Usually, upon realizing this, we develop a tendency towards trying to reconcile such opposites. A mature person will typically have an inclination towards resigning him/herself to the ulterior justice of the reality (as explained above when we were discussing the "middle ground" approach). The rationale for doing this is based on the conclusion that, on the average, life's calamities tend to even themselves out with life's pleasantness. Generally speaking, for every bad thing that happens to us, there may be something good in store for us at a later time (and vice versa, of course). Rather than fighting, such mature person finally agrees to accept life, imperfect and flawed as it may appear to be. But, this is not true acceptance. As we shall see later on, to truly accept something is not to resign to it, but to embrace it.

Leaving the horizontal dualism aside for a while, we can now turn our attention to that other proposed type of dualism -- the vertical dualism. This type of dualism is not, to my knowledge, something that has been explicitly mentioned nor discussed in the literature, so it will be quite difficult to give it a fair exposure here. The difficulty is twofold: a.) this type of dualism seems to be very rarely used in everyday situations, and b.) even when it gets mentioned, it is so similar to the all-pervasive horizontal dualism (that we've discussed briefly above), that it is sometimes almost impossible to realize that we have switched from the horizontal to the vertical dualism. But the distinction between the two is a very important one.

While the horizontal dualism reveals itself by implying the opposites that are at the same level of abstraction (i.e. happiness/misery, negative number/positive number, inside/outside, boring/interesting, known/unkown, etc.), the vertical dualism is peculiar in that it brings together the opposites that are at different levels of abstraction (hence the vertical adjective, implying the stretch between the levels). We must further qualify this definition, because it is prone to a whole range of misinterpretations. An example might prove useful in illustrating the potential pitfall regarding the pairs of opposites that are at different levels of abstraction: while it makes sense to present an elephant and a mouse as being in a way opposed to each other (the largest dry land mammal and the smallest dry land mammal), it wouldn't make any logical sense to try and present an elephant as being opposed to a square root of 2. That would not qualify as a case of vertical dualism, although an elephant an a square root of 2 are, indeed, at completely different levels of abstraction.

The question, then, must be formulated in the following manner: which things could be paired as opposites, while being at different levels of abstraction? The answer is not as straightforward as with the horizontal dualism. In attempting to answer this question, it may be easier to begin with an example from a field that deals with many of the crucial issues related to enlightenment. Here is the expression that touches upon the problem of vertical dualism, found in the tradition of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism:

                        Liang Chiai

These are truly profound words. In a few short, succinct sentences, Liang Chiai has succeeded in depicting the indescribable. For now, we'll be focused on the vertical dualism expressed in there, but we should keep in mind that there is much more to be found in these verses.

From the very outset we are made aware of the innate dualism of the situation revealed by the author. There is "I" (subject) and there is "he" (non-subject). Although the author goes alone, he is keenly aware that there is someone else present at all times. Who is that someone? He is no different than the subject (hence the dualism is resolved -- "He is what I am now"), and yet surprisingly, the subject is not identified with the "otherness" ("But I'm not what he is.") The dualism is reinstated in the last sentence. However, this dualism is not the ordinary (or, horizontal) dualism. This verse depicts a typical case of vertical dualism, exposed here in all its glory. The subject (the author) and the non-subject (the other someone, or "he") are obviously portrayed as occupying different levels of abstraction.

Another, less cryptic expression of vertical dualism belongs to the same spiritual discipline (Ch'an): there is a well known saying that was popular with many Ch'an adepts, which states that a person seeking to be liberated is like someone who is

At first, this doesn't seem like dualism at all, because the subject of a sentence is a donkey. However, there are actually two donkeys mentioned -- one that a person is riding on and the other one that a person is searching for. Formally viewed, such a construction makes it immediately apparent that the two donkeys are somehow opposed to each other (one is here, at hand, while the other is at an unknown location). Nevertheless, the implied meaning of the sentence is that the two are not different. A person uses a donkey to search for a donkey, not realizing the error; once the error is recognized, that person will stop the search, because the donkey has been found underneath the person. So, from the very beginning, there was only one donkey that started this whole confusion. In a way, our initial hunch (that there does not appear to be any other donkey to be confronted with the first one) was correct. However, what is important here is to recognize the fact that this situation depicts a clash between two levels of abstraction -- on one level of abstraction we have the so-called real level (a person who is mounted on a donkey), and on another level of abstraction we have the so-called interpretative level (a person erroneously interprets an event, or a stream of events, as "the donkey is lost"; consequently, the search for the donkey ensues).

This situation is similar to the comical situation where someone can't find his or her glasses (although the glasses have been on that person's head for the whole day), and launches a search for that object, using the glasses to be able to see better. As with riding a donkey in search of a donkey, two levels of abstraction are brought into the focus, resulting in much wasted effort.

It is important to note two additional aspects of vertical dualism:

Both of these aspects are not always easy to discern. The self-referential aspect of vertical dualism is easy enough to detect in the above examples (i.e. "using a donkey to look for it" and "using a pair of glasses to search for it"), but in some other cases may not be that easy to discern. The error in understanding the situation, on the other hand, is the hardest thing to recognize and eradicate -- if it wasn't so, there wouldn't be any need for the spiritual or religious discipline.

The less obvious examples of vertical dualism would include the controversial phenomenon/noumenon pair of opposites. In a way, this pair is somewhere on the borderline between the horizontal and vertical dualism. From the ordinary perspective, it is clear that a phenomenon is utterly different from the noumenon (the phenomenon, of course, being that which is formal, while the noumenon being the unfathomable, informal). Naturally, they are perceived as being on the same level as any other horizontal dualistic manifestations (something/nothing, activity/rest, etc.) However, in many of the spiritual, religious, philosophical and other cognitive disciplines, the phenomenon/noumenon pair is depicted as being not so plainly dualistic. For example, if in Christianity God is considered to be the noumenon, and the world that the God created to be the phenomenon, then the two are not really different, because the phenomenon is the outcome of the act performed by the noumenon. The phenomenon is imbibed, so to speak, with God's presence.

But accepting the above equality between the God and the creation does not have the power to dissolve the phenomenon/noumenon dualism. It merely manages to delegate it to the realm of vertical dualism, where the self-referential nature of this combo suddenly becomes much more apparent. Also, it now points to the original error in perception and interpretation -- by using the phenomenal to search for God (the noumenal), or, by using the noumenal (the God) to search for the phenomenal (the creation), are we not riding a donkey in search of a donkey?

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