On the Reality of Distinctness

Some Neo-Advaitists claim that distinctness of appearance (phenomenological distinctness) is false, unreal.  Nirguna Brahman (formless awareness) alone is real, they say, and the distinct differences between a nutritious food and poison, birds and humans, water and mercury, etc., are all false.  There are many problems with this viewpoint.  Not only is it an example of dualism from an apparently nondualistic perspective, but while these Neo-Advaitists claim this, they do not live it; we see them choosing between foods, modes of transportation, clothing, actions, etc.  Their very lives count on the reality of distinctness.

While I agree with them that ‘separation’ is a conceptual illusion, I suggest that anyone can directly experience the reality of distinctness. Brahman, the nondual reality, appears in countless distinct forms to itself – these are not mere ‘conceptual’ forms, they have real being.  A tree is real; a human is real; an ocean is real.  They all are expressions of the nondual reality, but they retain their unique value as distinct beings with distinct properties. This means that there is a difference between destroying a whole species and recognizing its intrinsic value and acting to save it, between compassion and cruelty, and between liberty and oppression.

Not only do the lives of all beings count on the reality of distinctness, not only is this reality directly experienceable, but rejecting it as ‘false’ can cause great suffering.  Consider the implications of the Neo-Advaita viewpoint, which says that distinctness is false.  If that were true, then one could easily rape women, sexually abuse children, steal from one’s neighbour, kill one’s own family, etc. without penalty since the distinct appearance of all of these affected beings would simply be illusory.

Moreover, one could freely exterminate human peoples (e.g. Jews, Armenians, etc.) or whole species, since they too, would have no distinct reality; thus, why preserve them? We would have no grounds for criticizing these actions or any of those mentioned above whatsoever; it would be one and the same to us whether a person chooses to scratch their finger or exterminate the whole of humankind.  Not only would these horrible actions be permitted, if not encouraged, by the spiritual tradition, but it would be impossible to make decisions in daily life.  If we regard cyanide and cheesecake as equally unreal in their distinct appearances, then how do we determine which we should eat, and which avoid? We cannot. Therefore, not only direct experience and awareness, but also reason, emotion, and the requirements of daily life all agree that while separation is illusory, distinctness is real.

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