What is non-duality?

Kenneth Leong
5 min readAug 25, 2021

A Buddhist is concerned about the deteriorating situation in American society today. He posted something recently in an Alan Watts group on Facebook, asking for suggestions for changing the climate of hatred and violence. For those who are not familiar with the late Alan Watts, he was a major British philosopher who had published many books on Hinduism, Zen, and Taoism. Alan Watts has a wide following. Some of his followers believe that Watts advised against trying to change the world, basing this on the Taoist teaching of wu-wei.

This is an interesting issue. Taoism does teach about wu-wei. Some people interpret “wu-wei” as no-action. Historically speaking, the Taoists in China have not been socially active or socially engaged. The situation is quite similar in the history of Chinese Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is the notion of non-duality. Many Buddhists interpret non-duality as moving beyond the for-versus-against mindset. It is little surprise that these Buddhists are not much into fighting anything, even if the subject is social injustice.

This issue of non-duality came to my attention in the year 2007. I was auditing a philosophy course at the college where I taught. I became a friend of the young professor teaching the course. The professor told me that he was much into the thoughts of Alan Watts when he was younger. He had read many of Watts’ books. However, he gradually lost interest because, according to his understanding of Alan Watts, it would be highly unlikely that Watts would advocate organizing any resistance against social evil. The Wikipedia entry on Alan Watts mentions that Watts was critical of the idea of social progress. The professor does not see Watts fighting against Hitler or Nazism. To the best of my knowledge, Alan Watts was not into any kind of social activism. I can understand that given this background understanding of Watts’ life, some people would come to think that the spirituality Watts taught has something missing.

I have given the subject of non-duality much thought since then. It is clear to me that the Buddha himself was against war and violence. This is a verifiable historical fact. According to Buddhist records, the Buddha personally protested the war between his clan and another clan. He did this not only once, but multiple times. Buddha was definitely socially engaged and politically…

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human