Mutuality of Being and Nonbeing

The Tao Te Ching observes that ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’ arise mutually. The one includes – necessarily makes possible – the other. It is like holding a coin and asserting that only the side we “see” exists; of course both sides exist. How could it be otherwise?

Thus, as soon as one says A Course in Miracles is the way, the truth and the life, then Zen is also the way, the truth and the life. And the Catholic church. Atheism, too.

As soon as we say that democracy represents the future of human culture, then communism represents the future of human culture. As soon as someone says “turn the other cheek,” somebody else says “the art of war is of vital importance to the state.”

And so forth.

The emergence of a reference point always yields other reference points, whether we are talking apparent big-ticket items like Being or minor stuff like vanilla ice cream vs. chocolate.

Indeed, all those apparent differences point to the underlying illusion: that choice is real and so is the chooser.

This is not a problem that needs to be solved, though it often presents as one. We cannot end duality by arguing against it.

However, it may be helpful to be clear about the insistent presence of apparent opposites, the relationships that appear contingent upon them, and the self that perceives and engages with them. Conflict arises when relative viewpoints appear to clash with one another, making the victory of one over the other seem both necessary and inevitable. But if both viewpoints are illusory, and are seen that way, then there cannot really be a conflict.

When we see an illusion as an illusion, all that ends is our sense of it as “real.” The ancient Hindus used the example of a rope mistaken for a snake on the path. So long as one perceives a “snake,” then the rope is a snake, and one responds accordingly. But when one realizes it is only a rope, then the perception of the snake ends, and the response to the snake ends as well. It’s just a rope. It always was just a rope.

In that example, the snake is the illusion of the real; the rope is the real. When perception aligns with reality (is brought to and subsumed by knowledge as a student of A Course in Miracles might put it), nothing changes and yet everything changes.

A Course in Miracles suggests that “[s]alvation is a borderland where place and time and choice have meaning still, and yet it can be seen that they are temporary, out of place, and every choice has been already made” (T-26.III.3:6).

The course is dualistic. It appears within a context where choice has meaning because loss and gain appear real. The ACIM curriculum reframes this apparent choice not in terms of what is “correct” but what is most “helpful” in terms of seeing that there really is no choice nor one to choose. Heaven was never lost and so there is nothing to seek or regain (T-26.III.5:2), and God has only one child – not a whole bunch all vying for attention (T-9.VI.3:5) – so we all have all the love there is.

There is no basis for a choice in this complex and overcomplicated world. For no one understands what is the same, and seems to choose where no choice really is. The real world is the area of choice made real, not in the outcome, but in the perception of alternatives for choice. That there is choice is an illusion. Yet within this one lies the undoing of every illusion, not excepting this (T-26.III.6:1-5).

The course can help us discern the true from the false and on that basis, “choose” what is true, though this choice is really choiceless. It’s similar to the “gateless gate” of Zen. Before you pass through it, the gate is real and attainable. After you’ve gone through it, there isn’t any gate and there never was.

Emily Dickinson charted this experience – perceiving the whole from within the fracture and knowing (and loving deeply) both – with considerable insight.

Without this – there is nought –
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird –
Heard opposite the Sea –

I could not care – to gain
A lesser than the Whole –
For did not this include themself –
As Seams – include the Ball?

Or wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide –
‘Twould magnify – the Gratitude –
and not reduce – the Gold –

From within the illusion, opposites, the choices they engender, and the conflict thus begotten all appear logical and inevitable. They appear natural.

Yet it is also possible to intuit that which lies beyond words – the whole that includes the parts by transcending them, even if from the limitations inherent in our first-person subjective experience, the whole cannot actually be grasped or known.

A split mind cannot perceive its fullness, and needs the miracle of its wholeness to dawn upon it and heal it. This reawakens the wholeness in it, and restores it to the Kingdom because of its acceptance of wholeness (T-7.IX.4:4-5).

This isn’t something that happens to the discrete empirical self; it is the undoing of that self by what contains/creates it. It can’t be forced or learned or accomplished. It just happens. It’s just happening.

Philosopher Archie J. Bahm offered a wordy translation of the Tao Te Ching, the first chapter of which reads:

Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature.

No name can fully express what it represents.

It is Nature itself, and not any part (or name or description) abstracted from Nature, which is the ultimate source of all that happens, all that comes and goes, begins and ends, is and is not.

But to describe Nature as “the ultimate source of all” is still only a description, and such a description is not Nature itself. Yet since, in order to speak of it, we must use words, we shall have to describe it as “the ultimate source of all.”

If Nature is inexpressible, he who desires to know Nature as it is in itself will not try to express it in words.

To try to express the inexpressible leads one to make distinctions which are unreal.

Although the existence of Nature and a description of that existence are two different things, yet they are also the same.

For both are ways of existing. That is, a description of existence must have its own existence, which is different from the existence of that which it describes; and so again we have to recognize an existence which cannot be described.

We might use “God” or “Life” in place of “Nature” and see how those sentences resonate.

Words are symbols. They point to things (including, sometimes, themselves). When they are used skillfully, they can shift our attention from illusion to reality. They cannot become that reality; but they can gesture towards it.

That is where we are now: in the presence of words pointing to that which cannot be expressed through words. It is tempting here to fall back into the particular illusion: the apparently discrete self choosing between myriad options, making things happen, taking this or that stand.

Yet can we – even briefly – see how all of that apparent choosing and apparent being simply runs by itself and includes what we tend to believe is a separate self with agency?

What it means, how it arises, what its source is . . . we can’t say. But that it is we can say with certainty.

Perhaps in the end awakening really only means realizing that nobody is sleeping and so nobody can actually wake up. There is nothing to look for and nobody to do the looking. We dream: and dream we are dreaming: and dream we wake up.

Emily Dickinson again:

How good – to be alive!
How infinite – to be
Alive – two-fold – The Birth I had –
and this – besides, in Thee!

And thus we are back at the beginning: the mutual arising of being and non-being. The particular and the general; the way and the no-way. The one is not superior to the other; and neither is absolute. Both point in their way to the ineffable. We are not what we believe we are: nor are we anything else. And yet, how certainly wonder-full this infinite being in Love . . .


  1. An overcast & wet Edinburgh morning, wife & baby fast asleep, hot mug of coffee slowly drank as these words of yours drank my brain….. many thanks Sean, the world looks like a place of possible peace for now.


    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, Rich . . . those quiet hours before the family is up are sweet hours, a rich stillness . . . I always find it so . . . it is overcast here too but with a little sun at the seams . . . a place of possible peace is a lovely phrase, getting more so all the time . . . take care 🙂

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