Reflections on talk by Venerable Chi Chern - Non-Duality 不二

“Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.” Does this phrase make any sense to you? If it does not, then you are just like me at the beginning of the esteemed Ven. Chi Chern’s talk on non-duality, which took place at Dharma Drum Singapore last Wednesday, 26 October 2022.

And even though the topic the talk would be on non-duality, an esoteric subject for most, the hall was packed to the brim. Indeed, there was little room even for standing in the hallway! What kept my interest going strong was that Ven. Chi Chern encouraged us by sharing that this profound topic was worth beginning to understand to help us progress along the Buddhist path.

Acknowledging that many audience members would need a gradual introduction to the topic of non-duality, Ven. Chi Chern started by slowly introducing us to the concepts of duality and the self, two concepts essential as scaffolding to develop further understanding later on. As is a rule in this world of conditioned phenomena, there is always a phenomenon and its opposite – full versus empty, clean versus dirty etc. In Buddhism, a particularly important concept of duality is the view of a self versus the view of non-self or emptiness, for it is only by clearly examining what we take to be the self then we can understand the truth of non-self. For us to start along the Buddhist path, it is also imperative to first have a clear understanding of what good and evil actions are, with the right view that good actions and thoughts lead to good fruits and bad actions and thoughts lead to bad fruits. Developing the skill to distinguish between what is good and bad would allow us to build a strong foundation from which to develop wisdom and reduce delusion.

Building on a clear knowledge of what is good and bad, we can next add on the experiential stillness that comes from meditation. Such meditation boosts the impulse to practise to be liberated from the cycle of delusion and suffering. Adding on this stillness from meditation will next allow us to see deeper and deeper fundamental truths about ourselves and the human condition – particularly the truth that all conditioned phenomena, including even those that point the way out of suffering, are non-self and empty. Another is that the nature of the mind is clear and bright, and that the layers of defilements that obscure this cannot in any way distort the mind’s fundamental nature. Once these truths are perceived directly, one’s views naturally transcend the limited view of duality and expand into the liberating understanding that all phenomena are conditioned, hence non-self and empty, and that what the mind used to consider opposites are not fundamentally different from each other. It is at this juncture that one sees that “mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters; good is not good, and evil is not evil”, and that everything is an interplay of conditioned phenomena according to the law of cause and effect. Ven. Chi Chern emphasised that this is exactly why the Buddhas and the great Bodhisattvas are able to stay part of this world and yet not be a party to the world’s suffering at the same time.

While Ven. Chi Chern shared many stories and anecdotes, one of the things that struck me throughout the talk was Ven. Chi Chern’s emphasis on the development of wisdom for progress along the Buddhist path. The presence of wisdom is required to aid us in properly distinguishing between good and evil and refraining from evil; it is again there when one wants to cultivate stillness in meditation. Quoting Hui Neng, the sixth Zen patriarch, he reminded us that “stillness and wisdom are one and the same body”. This cautions against the stereotype that we get a single “Eureka!” moment after practising meditation for years and years without getting any breakthrough in understanding before that. Perhaps that final big bang-esque wisdom that is experienced does indeed happen as a moment of liberation, but we should not discount the little bits of wisdom that we accumulate along the way in the build up to our eventual emancipation.

Another aspect of the talk I am grateful for is Ven. Chi Chern’s continuous emphasis on pointing out pitfalls we could fall into along the way. For example, one of the big issues practitioners have is prematurely thinking (intellectually) that they have transcended the view of duality without the accompanying penetrative wisdom, and as a result carrying out actions that could be harmful to oneself and others. Instead of being liberating, this conversely could lead to a strengthening of conceit and wrong view and be harmful to the practice. This same lack of wisdom could also apply to compassionate motivations, where a good cause could still result in a bad overall fruit when coupled with bad conditions. For example, instead of being good for animals, the popular practice of “fang sheng” (放生, animal liberation) could actually have an adverse impact on surrounding ecosystems and even the animals themselves if the released animals are not able to integrate well into their environments.

In all, the talk on non-duality was a wonderful introduction to the topic by an esteemed practitioner, especially for a novice to the topic like me. Much gratitude!


Written by Bro RongHui
Photo by Bro WenXian
Event date 26 October 2022