From Two to One: Teaching about Non-Dualism in a World Religions Class


This entry shares my experience teaching about non-dualism to grade 9 World Religions students. To my surprise, the class found the concept to be both understandable at a basic level and yet enticingly profound in its ability to transform our perceptions of reality. Our study culminated in a sharing of our artwork as part of an epic journey to oneness, performed before high school students and teachers in a Community Gathering.


“Religion has only one job description: how to make the one out of the two.”

– Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for the True Self, p. 100.

“I remember days of difficult labor in a spiritual school where we were encouraged to keep a balanced attention through all kinds of situations. I was given the task of grooming a horse. From mane to tail, from the hooves right up, I worked for hours. Then the teacher came in after a brief inspection said, ‘Very poor job, superficial and sloppy.’
He and I watched as my heart sank. But then something rebounded: I knew I had done my best; I knew that I could not be a slave of reward or blame. In that moment I saw the twinkle in his eye as he turned and left.”

– Kabir Helminski, Living Presence, p. 39

Can grade nine World Religions students really understand the concept of non-dualism? I knew I had a very capable class, but I wondered if my expectations far exceeded what was possible, given that I myself had struggled with this concept only some months before. However, my colleague Richard Friedericks and I were searching for a ‘big idea’ that we could turn into a Community Gathering for the entire high school community. Non-dualism had not only become personally compelling to my own journey, but something that I thought that my international school students in this East-meets-West city of Hong Kong might find attractive. Charmain's dualism paintingOur class had been studying Hinduism and Buddhism, and were transitioning to Judaism soon. One of my students, Charmaine, had recently drawn a beautiful painting of light and dark duality during a previous spiritual practice assignment that sparked the idea that perhaps our class could take on the topic of finding a way to overcome duality.  Knowing that I had a core of artsy kids in the class, I took them to the art room one day to experiment with the possibilities of creating a series of murals about dualities that we experience daily in our lives. However, before moving to the activity itself, understanding how I came to even consider teaching this concept requires some background of my own recent interest in this topic.

Understanding Dualism and Non-dualism

Since I had begun practicing a form of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer over the last 9 months, I had been thinking a great deal about the concepts of dualism and non-dualism. Through reading about and doing this spiritual practice, I was coming to see dualism in many aspects of my daily life. On a moment-by-moment basis, I realized that I saw life through the lens of preferred “likes” and to-be-avoided “dislikes.” Tonight I prefer wine for dinner rather than water; I’d rather have a quiet Lebanese lunch with my wife on Saturday than make an appointment to see the dentist; or, going to frigid Beijing for Christmas seemed more to my liking than taking the family to a Thai beach resort. This same dualistic tendency had its social and workplace correlates: I’d rather sit with this person for lunch than that person; it’s important for me to demonstrate my knowledge during a school meeting, so as to avoid appearing incompetent.

When our class visited a Buddhist monk on a field trip and asked him to comment on non-dualism, we learned about the “Eight Worldly Concerns,” which can be summarized simply in this way (Bond, 2005). Do not be attached to:DSC_2765

  1. Getting and keeping material objects
  2. Praise and encouragement.
  3. A good reputation.
  4. Pleasures of the senses

Do not fear:

  1. Losing or being separated from material objects.
  2. Being blamed, ridiculed, and criticized.
  3. Gaining a bad reputation.
  4. Unpleasant experiences.

DSC_2766I was particularly struck that the monk explained that we should not seek for riches, nor fear losing money. Underneath the impressive work ethic of my mostly Asian students was a fear that if they didn’t work hard, they would end up as a “beggar,” as I heard some Chinese people say to their children.  And I had to admit that for all my rhetoric of being a Christian teacher, something I am sincerely committed to, I could find within myself the same fear of not having enough money. Hearing a monk, who lived in one of the world’s most expensive cities with no salary and could not even claim to own the robes that is his daily dress, share these truths revealed to me the veracity of the Buddhist claim that suffering is caused by desire.

My colleague Richard shared with me an insightful reading from American philosopher Ken Wilber, who expands upon these themes in his book No Boundaries. He explains that religions across the globe suggest that: boundaryMost of our “problems of living,” then, are based on the illusion that the opposites can and should be separated and isolated from one another . . .  Liberation is not freedom from the negative, but freedom from the pairs altogether . . . In Western terms, the discovery of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth [is] . . .  the state of realizing “no opposites” and “not-two-ness (p. 27).”

These concepts were echoed from within my own tradition by Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault, the woman who had inspired my Centering Prayer practice. A leitmotif running through her book on Centering Prayer was the supposition that dualistic thinking results in a differentiated, egoic sense of self: boundaryThe subject/object polarity built into the way the mind works sets up the impression of “having” a distinct identity, informed by certain attributes and imbued with certain gifts that need to become fully expressed if my personhood is to be whole. That sets up a great deal of expectation – and also a good deal of anxiety (2004, p. 10-11). Fraught with expectation and anxiety, this ordinary awareness, as Bourgeault calls it, seemed to get at the core of the human problem: we need to compete with others to get what we need to find the satisfaction that we were created for. Bourgeault suggests that the way out of this conundrum is a spiritual awareness that transcends the self/other polarity:

The big difference between them is that whereas ordinary awareness perceives self-reflexive consciousness, which splits the world into subject and object; spiritual awareness perceives through an intuitive grasp of the whole and an innate sense of belonging . . . and since spiritual awareness is perception based on harmony, the sense of selfhood arising out of it is not plagued by that sense of isolation and anxiety that dominates life at the ordinary level of awareness (p. 12).

Bourgeault warns that dualism can drive a harmful “spiritual acquisitiveness” (p. 50):

It appears that we “have” spiritual experiences, which then contribute to “our” insight, illumination, and eventually full enlightenment. From this perspective, more is better, and enlightenment is quantitative: when we’ve acquired “enough” silence, stability, concentration, spiritual experience, we will emerge into the final stage of our human personhood, traditionally the “unitive” stage, or “transforming union.”  But the trap in this scenario is that dualistic-based selfhood cannot possibly attain unitive consciousness. It’s oxymoron, like a two-wheeled tricycle . . . . To arrive at this unified whole, there is only one route to get there, and it is known to all the spiritual traditions of the world: dying to self (pp. 48-49). 

In her most mystical description, Bourgeault describes the goal of Christian non-dualism:

At this [unitive] stage one is fully using those more subtle perceptivities of spiritual awareness . . . to see and taste the presence of the divine as it moves fully in and out of everything.  It is not “unitive” simply in the sense of dissolving the multiplicity back into a One, but in the sense of seeing the One beautifully and radiantly illuminating the multiplicity, like light pouring through a stained-glass window, present in both the unity and the diversity. This is the particular genius of the Christian path: the ability to see – to really see – the particularity and apparent duality of this world not as an illusion, but rather, as a crucible in which the most tender and intimate particularity of the divine heart becomes fully manifest. At the unitive level Christianity is “all heart” – and in this unitive seeing, deeply mystical and poetic, Christianity becomes radiant with the flame of its own innermost truth, like the bush that burns but is not consumed (p. 72-73).

These were inspiring words that I could not easily or fully explain, but they seemed to beckon me personally. How could I share something of this mystery with my students?

The clearest example of non-dualism that the students could relate to was Jesus’ famous comment from the Sermon on the Mount:

And Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Whereas people often view others through the binary lens of friends or enemies, Jesus suggests a spiritual awareness that loves all, including one’s enemies. While Jesus acknowledges that both friends and enemies exist, he advises a spiritual awareness that views both through the lens of love. Then Jesus goes further, making the radical ontological statement that such love is based on the assumption that God, the source of all goodness, causes his sun to rise and rain to fall upon those who are evil as well as the good. Followers of God, Jesus asserts, should do likewise. By extension, Cynthia believes that the essence of Jesus’ teachings was to find a unity beyond the many pairs of opposites of his day – heaven and earth, justice and mercy, rich and poor, clean and unclean, male and female, and Jew and Gentile. With these ideas in mind, I decided to present dualism and non-dualism to my students and see if we could create a Community Gathering out of these concepts.

Introducing Duality and Non-Duality to My Class

I took the class to the art room and introduced the project.  Using terms we had employed previously, I explained that my working assumption for this project was that all religions suggest that the path from samsara/desire/sin to moksha/nirvana/salvation involves overcoming dualism and moving to a non-dualistic perspective. I then gave some possible dualistic tendencies that are present in our school/world:

  • I like vs. I don’t like
  • Rich and poor
  • Youth and old age
  • Life and death
  • Beautiful and ugly
  • Good and evil
  • Pleasure and pain
  • Freedom and slavery
  • Western and Asian
  • Food and hunger
  • Overweight and underweight
  • HKIS bubble and real Asia
  • Honor student and weak student
  • Ivy League and Community College
  • You and me

I then used a quote from Ken Wilber’s No Boundary to explain the problem of dualism: Ken. . . [E]very boundary line is also a potential battle line, so that just to draw a boundary is to prepare oneself for conflict. Specifically, the conflict of the war of opposites, the agonizing fight of life against death, pleasure against pain, good against evil . . . . “Where to draw the line?” really means, “Where the battle is to take place.” The simple fact is that we live in a world of conflict and opposites because we live in a world of boundaries (p. 20). As described above, I then read Jesus’ wise saying about loving one’s enemies. I explained that conventionally we all divide the world in to “friends” and “enemies,” but that Jesus was letting us in on a great religious truth: progress on the spiritual path means transcending such dichotomies.

To make the case that non-dualism occurs cross-culturally, I also shared the humorous Taoist story about a Chinese farmer, put in the first person:

I am a poor farmer in China, but I had one useful possession – a horse. One day the horse ran away, and my neighbors came to console me over my terrible loss. But I said to them, “What makes you think it is so terrible?” A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the my good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! But I said to them, “What makes you think this is good fortune?” Soon after my son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! But I said to them, “What makes you think it is bad?” A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only my son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” I asked.

The farmer recognizes that he doesn’t know whether a particular outcome is truly “good” or “bad.” Through his non-attachment he develops a sense of equanimity. This Taoist story provided a useful metaphor of non-duality.

DSC_2741Finally, I introduced the possibility that we could share this concept of moving from dualism to non-dualism through a Community Gathering, a once-a-month event in which meaningful stories and/or spiritual concepts are shared in the gym with all 850 high school students and faculty. I suggested that we would draw DSC_274612 murals of dualism from the list above, and that their immediate task was to choose a pairs of opposites and portray the “positive” pole triumphing over the “negative” pole. Before working on the individual murals, we put them on the floor in 3 rows of 4 murals each, and drew a circle through them. With the exception of the two center pieces, all the panels then had an arc running through them. During the Community Gathering, then, all the individual panels would be brought together to reveal that these dualities could be transcended by unity, as represented by the circle. Finally, a yin-yang would be painted on the back, which would be flipped over at the end of the narrative epic.

DSC_2828The yin-yang symbol of the flip side of the murals after completion during our final exam period.

Script for the Community Gathering

While students worked on these murals during the next four class periods, I developed a narrative that would demonstrate moving from dualism to non-dualism. I wrote the script as a modern midrash on the Genesis 1 creation story. [Scroll down to the addendum to see the complete script.] To begin the gathering, one of the students read an introduction:

“Today we continue our yearlong theme of unity.  All religions suggest that Ultimate Reality is one, and we as humans want to be one with that reality.  Some religions call that reality dharma, Kingdom of God, Shalom, the Middle Way, or emptiness. Today we will offer you a multitude of words, images, and music about unity beyond separation.  But we offer you a word of caution.  These concepts are difficult to understand. You will need to think hard to get a glimpse.”

Next, with ethereal music from Mannheim Steamroller’s “Sky” playing in the background, I (sitting off-stage) began to recite the creation story:

“This is the story of how God created the heavens, the earth, and mature, thoughtful people.  In the beginning the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters.” One of my students, Charmaine, served as a narrative counterpoint on-stage. She followed: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.”

I then continued: “This Great Separation brought a change of cosmic proportions to the earth – a multitude of opposites appeared on earth for the first time.” Gender muralAt this point, all 19 students from our class (plus a few additional stand-ins to get up to the required 24) walked onto a large, 30 x 24 foot black-white cloth, which symbolized dualism. Students were dressed all in black or in white, again to demonstrate the theme of dualism. In 12 rows lined up on the boundary between the black and white cloth, pairs of students held the mural at waist level. The first pair was male and female. The narrator read: ‘Male says to female: ‘I, who live as a man among men, realize that the world is made by men for men.'” As this was being read, the “positive” pole student representing “maleness,” took control of the mural, mimed victory and circled, holding the mural above her head, while the losing “negative” pole student symbolizing “femaleness” slumped to defeat onto the black-white cloth. This continued through the remaining 11 pairs, leaving 12 murals circling triumphantly around the perimeter of the black-white cloth, while by contrast the losing pairs sat head-down and dejected in a circle.

With dualism now firmly established, the narrative moved to calling such dichotomies into question. Four humanities teachers each played the role of a prophet who suggested a better way: Ken Wilber, Jesus, a Taoist farmer, and the Buddha. The sudden appearance of familiar faces in culturally appropriate garb playing prophetic roles (e.g., a Christian teacher as a Jewish peasant; a Korean teacher as a Chinese farmer, etc) within an otherwise majestic creation story genre brought a crescendo of laughter from students. Each speaker challenged the conventional belief that one half of the pair (e.g., Westerners, life, riches, etc) was superior to the other half (e.g., Asians, death, and poverty). Then borrowing from the Gospel of Thomas saying 22, all four sages, seated respectively at the four corners of the black-white cloth, announced in unison:

Wilber: When you make the two one,

Jesus: and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside,

Taoist farmer: and the above like the below,

Buddha: and when you make the male and the female one and the same,

Wilber: then will you enter the kingdom.

Jesus: There is no rich or poor,

Taoist farmer: slave nor free,

Buddha: male or female,

All together: ALL ARE ONE.”

In the final part of the drama, all the students around and within the black-white cloth, now playing the role of the crowd, responded to these prophetic proclamations by demanding to know how to live out this non-dualistic perspective.  Because no further words could adequately answer this most practical of questions, the narrators and actors went silent and the “Sky” theme returned. The Buddha escorted a “good” student carrying her mural of good triumphing over evil over to the seated, dejected “bad” student, bringing them together; they then carried their mural together to the center of the cloth. Next, as DSC_2792the other 11 pairs followed, the 12 murals were placed together, and for the first time the line linking all the murals appeared. Then to make the unity more explicit, one of the students, Megan, placed a yellow ribbon on the line. The ribbon was then passed from person to person, completing the circle. From among all the dualistic elements a unity emerged, symbolized by the yellow ribbon. Finally, after a 5-second pause, the twelve panels were flipped over and a large black-white yin yang emerged.

murals with ribbonPracticing the final part of our story before the gathering: using a yellow ribbon to symbolize unity in the midst of the diversity of our experiences.

To bring the story to a conclusion, I spoke as I emerged from behind the bleachers , walking towards Charmaine: “And God saw the heavens, the earth, and the now mature, thoughtful people and said, Charmaine then commented, “Well done, good and faithful servants, for the two have become one, the inside is like the outside and the outside is like the inside.”  Then as Charmaine and I stood at the podium, together we said, “We do not fear death or darkness or poverty, for in the unity of my people, My presence is made known.” DSC_2801Bill Leese, director of our Community Gatherings, follows up our drama with the next part of the gathering focusing on the yin-yang symbol on the gym floor.

Student Learning

Following the Community Gathering, which received relatively good reviews from faculty and students, I wanted to know what my World Religion students had truly learned from our preparation and performance. While we all felt positive about the gathering, I had real reservations that the learning would not be commensurate with the eight class periods, representing about 20% of the total semester class time, that we had spent prepping for the event. I asked the students to write a blog entry reflecting on what they had learned. I was quite relieved to read the blog entries, many of which revealed valuable learning. I include some exemplary examples of what students felt that they had learned. Jamie summarizes in detail what many students took away from our study of non-dualism, which was not to avoid the things that we fear most in our lives.

Jamie: Before we began preparing for the community gathering in religion class, I sawJamie the world in opposites with one side more superior to the other. I was one of the ones who “affirmed the truth that being rich is better than being poor, being beautiful is better than being ugly, being free is better than being enslaved”. After all, that’s what we have been taught all our lives. But after we started getting into the topic of dualism and how the world shouldn’t dwell on opposites, I realized that the world isn’t just 9 Me and Youblack and white. I understood that nothing is plainly better than it’s “opposite”, that sometimes they are one and the same. Another thing I learned from this is that we shouldn’t necessarily aim for the “better” side of the dualistic idea and avoid the “weaker” side of the idea. We have all been brought up to aspire to be rich and avoid becoming poor. We never realized that “the firmer one’s boundaries, the more entrenched are one’s battles”. We have all over time began to fear becoming poor, becoming enslaved, and becoming dead. After preparing for this gathering, I slowly came to terms with my dread of the “lesser” half of any dualistic idea. This gathering has not only helped me not view the world in a dualistic way, but also helped me not fear death or the darkness. Most profoundly, Jamie’s non-dualism even extends to re-conceptualizing death as part of life. Charmaine and Mr. S in art room Charmaine (pictured above), who was most closely involved in all aspects of the production, gained new spiritual insights through this experience.

Charmaine: It’s a human tendency to try and search for the “good things” to do with each of the topics, e.g. get more material things, boost your reputation, do pleasurable actions, and try to get praise, but try and avoid the opposite “bad things”. What I learned from this was that for each of the “good things” and each of the “bad things” have their own “good thing” and “bad thing”. For example, the “good thing” of reputation is having a good reputation, and having a good reputation has its own good and bad. The good thing is that people look up to you and you have the power to influence others/ others will listen to you; the bad thing is that you will focus so much on your reputation and lose other opportunities to do good things as well as you may become proud/ overbearing. The good thing of having a bad reputation is that you will be humbled and you may find out more about your true self. What we showed in the gathering was that you need a balance of both to find the middle way of the two dualistic themes in order to gain the most and to find peace. The more you gain one side, the more you dread the other and the more suffering you get. What I got from this was that more extreme you are on one side, the more unhappy/ agitated you will be because dualism is like a balance. That is why we try and find the middle because when you’re equally balanced between both, you will have balance and peace. You won’t be attached to what humans think of as good (e.g. wealthy) and be unsettled by the “spiritual” loss (being too prideful). DSC_2747 Jocelyn’s comments focus on the concept of the “Middle Way.”

Jocelyn (to the right in picture above): Despite all these opposites, I think the most important part is finding the “Middle Way”. One concept that helped me understand this was the concept of rich and poor. Mr. Schmidt said that once you start earning more than $75,000 per year, then you won’t be achieving ultimate happiness. The richest people one Earth aren’t the happiest people on Earth, because they tend to work so hard that they feel stressed and unhappy. However, if you find the “Middle Way”, not working too hard but yet making enough money to support your family, then you will achieve the ultimate happiness. A quote from the script helps support this idea: “Happy people do not seek anything, nor fear nothing. They cling to nothing!” I think finding the “Middle Way” would certainly help with this idea. Overall, I’m really glad our class got a chance to learn about dualism/non-dualism through artwork. The favorite line for students in the epic story was the succinct conclusion, “Eliminate boundaries, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Empty yourself of attachment to all outcomes and Cling to nothing.” Here are two student reflections on the meaning of this summary comment.

Jay: There are moments in life where you find that everything is connected, or jay leeintertwined. I realized this while learning about non-duality. When we first learned about ‘self transcendency’, I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of it. I knew it was to be compassionate to other people. However, I could not understand how one could do this, to put someone else’s life ahead of their own. But while learning about dualism I realized that self transcendency is not something that only benefits other people other than yourself. Everything is intertwined. By being compassionate to other people, that person may be getting benefits, but you will also gain happiness which cannot be achieved in any other way. The quotes “When you are happy, it makes me happy” from the Music video ‘What about me?” really describes this well. Further more, the quote, ‘Eliminate boundaries, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Empty yourself of attachment to all outcomes and Cling to nothing’ all spoke to me. I could really feel the power that it withheld. It is in fact the solution for happiness . . . . It really helped to bring everything together from multiple puzzle pieces to one whole big picture. DSC_2785

Elizabeth (pictured with Jocelyn in the picture above): These are all stereotypes that are causing problems and have caused problems. We need to take away those boundaries that separate us from each other. Why can’t we embrace the differences in our world? The community gathering answered my question: “Eliminate boundaries, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, empty yourself of attachment to all outcomes, cling to nothing.” Finally, two students, one a Christian boy and the other a Jewish girl, had moments of insight that occurred during the performance itself. DSC_2789

Eugene: Participating in the high school gathering was a eugenelot of fun for me and while we prepared for the big event, I feel like I have learned a lot . . .  If we didn’t do this gathering and learned about different religions instead, I wouldn’t understand what we covered about the dualistic world which is to me, the most important thing we’ve learned this semester so far. It helped me to understand my view of what the world is like. I always had the view of one is better than the other and the two will always be segregated, but now I realize that they are always made into one. Making visuals of dualism was definitely helpful to help me understand all the different types. As we practiced for the gathering, I got a good look at all of them and understood how the two differ but can be together.
I found this quote very inspiring. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Although I have heard the first part many times, I understood what it really meant for the first time when it was said at the gathering. I know it will take me a very long time for me to learn to try to give my enemies a chance and pray for them, but when Mr. Leese said it, I was encouraged to take a shot. In conclusion, this gathering was my favorite part of religion this semester and I will probably remember it for the rest of my life. DSC_2742 Megan (pictured above to the left): Finally, in the meditation, I really relaxed. I was stressed by the idea of performing in front of my peers, and I knew that our message was a lot to get across in on simple gathering. During the meditation, I let that stress go, but instead of trying to focus on nothing, I focused on everything. I imagined connections, like bands of light, going out from me to everyone else first in the room, then in HKIS, then in Hong Kong, and the in the world. It felt like I was zooming out on the big picture, realizing that we’re all connected. I don’t often get this feeling, seeing as our world has issues from global warming and genocides, to homework and exams. However, at that moment, I felt calm, letting the energy of everyone and everything flow through me.

Such flashes of insight are not what most of us expect from a modern education, even a religion class. However, as David Frawley has written in “The Culture of Ritual and the Quest for Enlightenment,” perhaps this is a missing ingredient in adolescent development:

Rituals are of special importance for young people, who need not only social bonding but bonding with the world of nature and spiritual reality in order to discover who they really are.  Otherwise, young people feel alienated and out of harmony with life. Lack of meaningful ritual is surely a factor in the high rate of crime, depression, and suicide among the young. To restore the science of ritual is thus a spiritual and psychological endeavor of the highest order. It is one of the challenges of the coming millennia. Ritual creates the structure that sustains our personal and collective lives.

When powerful ideas, ritual action, and concentration are brought together, humans naturally make connections beyond themselves and experience wholeness. Eugene and Megan both experienced something powerful during the performance itselt. While not every student had learned to explain concepts of dualism and non-dualism accurately, I was pleased that most students came to have some grasp of these fairly complex ideas. And everyone, even those unable to clearly articulate what they had learned, seemed to sense that we had taken on a worthy subject. Finally, it was evident that class morale as well as individual relationships had been strengthened through our performance. This reinforced the importance of social relationships in the learning process for high school students.


I am quite pleased with this pedagogical experiment which combined a complex religious concept with artistic expression and performance. My learnings from this pedagogical experiment are:

  1. Students want to be challenged by ‘big ideas’ like non-dualism.
  2. In particular, international students, who are aware of similarities among different cultural groups, are attracted to the concept of non-dualism.
  3. Artwork is a form of spiritual practice that engages students’ religious imaginations. Relying on symbolism, the creation of artistic pieces can be an especially effective way to help students understand sophisticated religious concepts.
  4. Both the processing of doing artwork and then sharing this work through public performance builds a sense of class community that can be central to the learning process of high school students.
  5. Students want to “do” religion more than simply talk about it.  Artwork and dramatic performances which students invest in with their own creativity and meaning draw forth new personal insights.

For many years I have been experimenting with secular and Christian rituals, hoping that these would provide students with something that is missing in their modern life experience. This entire activity of creating a Community Gathering performance was personally engaging and professionally rewarding, and one that I hope to repeat with classes in the future.


Bond, A. (2005). “HH the Dalai Lama on the 8 worldly concerns. Accesed on December 26, 2012 at

Bourgeault, C. (2004).Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD: Cowley.

Frawley, D. (1994). “The culture of ritual and the quest for enlightenment.” The Quest (summer). Accessed on December 26, 2012 at Wilber, K. (2001). No boundary. Boston: Shambala


Addendum I: Joseph Campbell in Thou Art That

“God’s idea, in this story, was to get Adam and Eve out of that Garden. What was it about the Garden? It was a place of oneness, of unity, of not divisions in the nature of people or things. When you eat the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, you know about pairs of opposites, which include not only good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, but male and female, and God and Man as well . . . . The question becomes, how do they get back into the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.

Jesus says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the the recognition of life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one’s culture, or one’s particular personal religion. These are not easy tasks . . . .

What is the way back? The idea appears to be that God is keeping us out of the Garden, forbidding our reentry. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the Buddhas says, “Don’t be afraid, come right through.” But what does that mean? Of the two guardians in the Buddhist theme, one has his mouth open, the other has his mouth closed: They are opposites. One represents fear, the other represents desire. The fear is that of death and the desire is for more of this world: fear and desire are what keep you out of the Garden. It not God who keeps us in exile, but ourselves.

What then is the way back into the Garden? One must overcome the fear and desire. “Regard the lilies of the field, “Jesus teaches, “They toil not, neither do they spin. Blake, in his Marriage of Heaven and Heall,” says, in effect, “Remove the cherubim from the gate, and you will see that everything is infinite. You’ll clean desire and fear from your eyes, and will behold everything as a revelation of the Divine”” (p. 50-51).

Addendum II: Script for Community Gathering

Introduction: “Today we continue our yearlong theme of unity.  All religions suggest that Ultimate Reality is one, and we as humans want to be one with that reality.  Some religions call that reality dharma, Kingdom of God, Shalom, the Middle Way, or emptiness. Today we will offer you a multitude of words, images, and music about unity beyond separation.  But we offer you a word of caution.  These concepts are difficult to understand. You will need to think hard to get a glimpse.”

Narrator (Mr. Schmidt off stage): This is the story of how God created the heavens, the earth, and mature, thoughtful people.  In the beginning the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters. [All people and panels lay on the floor scattered about, and people lying down.]

Charmaine (at podium): And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.

Narrator: This Great Separation brought a change of cosmic proportions to the earth – a multitude of opposites appeared on earth for the first time. [The two “positive” of the two pairs line up in order holding their art work at waist level.  As each phrase is read, the “positive” celebrates by holding up their mural, while the “negative” pair slumps to the floor in a circle with head down] Narrator & Charmaine read:

Narrator(1) Male says to female: “I, who live as a man among men, realize that the world is made by men for men.”

Charmaine: (2) Life says to death: ““YOLO” “Carpe Diem” “Seize the Day”

Narrator: (3) Peace says to conflict: “Don’t fight the system – conform and there will be peace.”

Charmaine: (4) “Light skin says to dark skin: My race is superior to yours.”

Narrator: (5) Rich says to poor: “The Almighty Dollar”

Charmaine: (6) Beauty says to uglyness: “Come, O radiant light, make the darkness flee.”

Narrator: (7) Freedom says to slavery: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.”

Charmaine: (8) Fullness says to emptiness: Fill life to the fullest.

Narrator: (9)Me says to You: “What about me?”

Charmaine: (10) Overweight Says to Malnutrition: “Plenty is better than scarcity.”

Narrator: (11) Good says to evil: “Return to the pits of hell.”

Charmaine: (12) “Light Says to Dark: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Narrator: And the people who heard these things all affirmed the truth that being rich is better than being poor, being beautiful is better than being ugly, being free is better than being enslaved. [All those holding posters rest them on the floor and listen. Then they all nod to each other when narrator says that the philosopher spoke wisely.]

Charmaine: And for a long time, the people lived by this belief until one day a wise man among the people spoke to them all.

Mr. Kersten as a philosopher: All these opposites are separated by boundaries.  Anyone can see that over time every boundary becomes a battle line. The firmer one’s boundaries, the more entrenched are one’s battles. The more I hold onto pleasure, the more I necessarily fear pain. The more I pursue goodness, the more I am obsessed with evil. The more I seek success, the more I must dread failure. The harder I cling to life, the more terrifying death becomes. The more I value anything, the more obsessed I become with its loss.

Narrator: When he finished, all the people agreed that he spoke wisely.  But now the people were confused and murmered.  [Poster-holding students all nod and agree together.

Charmaine: Then among them a certain Jewish peasant appeared saying,

Mr. Leese as Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Narrator: A new thought: God doesn’t just love the good people, and hate the evil people; he loves all people.

Charmaine: Then a certain Chinese peasant appeared.

Mr. Suh: I am a poor farmer in China. I have one precious possession: a horse. One day the horse ran away, and my neighbors come to me, they tell me, “Ah, such bad fortune!” But I say to them, “Why you think this is bad fortune?” A month later, the horse came back—and she bring with her two beautiful horses. The neighbors were happy, they tell me, “Ah, such good fortune! Such beautiful horses!” But I say to them, “Why you think this is good fortune?” Then my son, he fall from the horse, and he break his leg. The neighbors were very, very sad. They tell me, “Such bad fortune!” But I say to them, “Why you think this is bad fortune?” Then there is a war, and every healthy young man, they go fight and they all die. 全部死咗. But my son, he have a broken leg, so he stay home. The neighbors, they tell me, “Such good fortune!” And I say to them, “Why you think this is good fortune? Why? Why why tell me why.”

Narrator: A new thought: Good fortune and bad are difficult to determine.

Charmaine: Then a certain Indian prince appeared saying:

Mr. Ferrin: Do not seek riches, but also do not avoid poverty. Do not seek to be praised, but also do not avoid criticism. Do not seek a good reputation, but also do not avoid a bad reputation.

Narrator: A new thought: Happy people do not seek anything, nor fear anything. They cling to nothing!

Narrator: Some of the people were confused and others intrigued, saying,

Whole Group: What does this mean?  I don’t understand.

Charmaine: This is a new teaching. We have never heard anything like this. What does this mean?

Narrator: And then the philosopher, Jesus, the Chinese farmer, and the Buddha spoke:

Kersten: When you make the two one,

Leese: and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside,

Suh: and the above like the below,

Ferrin: and when you make the male and the female one and the same,

Kersten: then will you enter the kingdom.

Leese: There is no rich or poor,

Suh: slave nor free, Ferrin: male or female,

All together: ALL ARE ONE.”

Narrator: The people responded, “Dear wise ones, we implore you,  tell us, how do we make the two one?

Charmaine: How do we make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside? How?

Whole Group: How, how, how?”

Narrator: And the wise thinkers said:

Mr. Kersten: Eliminate boundaries.

Mr. Leese: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Mr. Suh: Empty yourself of attachment to all outcomes.

Mr. Ferrin: Cling to nothing.

Narrator: And the people cried,

Charmaine: “These are beautiful words, but we do not understand.  Speak plainly, for we are simple people.  “How can we understand? How?

Whole Group: How? How? How?

Mr. Kersten: “We can not tell you how . . . ”

Mr. Leese: “For this is the great mystery of the ages.”

Mr. Suh: “But we can show you how!”

Mr. Ferrin “Here’s how. “Sky” by Mannheim Steamroller music: 2:10-2:50 as the Buddha leads “good” to cooperate with “evil.” Dualities begin working together and all the mural come together.

Narrator (emerges): And God saw the heavens, the earth, and the now mature, thoughtful people and said,

Charmaine: “Well done, good and faithful servants, for the two have become one, the inside is like the outside and the outside is like the inside.

Narrator & Charmaine at podium: We do not fear death or darkness or poverty, for in the unity of my people, My presence is made known.

Addendum III – Application of Non-dualism to Christian Theology – excerpts from Richard Rohr.

The Illusion of Separation
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Hopefully we begin life as “holy innocents” in the Garden, with a conscious connection to Being. The gaze of loving, caring parents can mirror us as the beloved and gives us a primal experience of life as union. But sooner or later we all have to leave the Garden. We can’t stay there. We begin the process of individuation, which includes at least four major splits, ways of forgetting our inherent oneness and creating an illusion of separation.

The first split is very understandable. We split ourselves from other selves. We see mom and dad and other family members over there, and we’re over here. We start looking out at life with ourselves as the center point. It’s the beginning of egocentricity. My ego is the center; what I like, what I want, what I need is what matters. Please know that the ego is not bad; it is just not all. The development of a healthy, strong ego is important to human growth.

The second split divides life from death. It comes when we first experience the death of someone we know, perhaps a beloved pet or grandparent. The ego begins differentiating those who are alive and those who are gone. We may then spend our whole life trying to avoid any kind of death, including anything that’s negative, uncomfortable, difficult, unfamiliar, dangerous, or demanding. But at some point, we’ll discover that life and death, negative and positive, are part of the same unavoidable reality. Everything is living and dying simultaneously.

The third split separates mind from body and soul. In the West, we typically give the mind priority and come to identify strongly with our thoughts. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” By the age of seven most of us “think we are our thinking” and it’s our thinking that largely defines us. This is the lie that meditation helps us unravel.

The fourth split is the acceptable self from the unacceptable self. We split from our shadow self and pretend to be our idealized self, or what others say we should be. The shadow self contains not only the qualities of which we’re ashamed but also the positive and beautiful traits we’ve forgotten or fear (our “golden” shadow, as some call it).

Splitting is a coping mechanism, a way of surviving. But as we grow, find healing for trauma, and develop mature emotional and spiritual practices, we become able to incorporate that which we have denied and from which we’ve split. Each of these four illusions must—and will—be overcome, either in this world, in our last days and hours, or afterward. That is “resurrection”!

Each of these splits from reality makes any experience of God or our True Self largely impossible. Spiritual practices and the process of dying are both about overcoming these four splits. Kathleen Dowling Singh observed:

The Path of Return involves the healing of previously created dualities [or splits]—in reverse order. . . . The mental ego is humblingly and disturbingly divested of its false sense of being and stripped of its illusions. The sense of self, quite often kicking and screaming, begins its return to the underlying Ground of Being, its own Essential Nature. [1]

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort, and Spiritual Transformation (HarperOne: 2000), 73, 75.


“Participating in the Eternal Embrace “                                  Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Yes, Christians formally believed that, “somehow,” Jesus was both human and divine at the same time. However, with our largely dualistic thinking we humans were only human, and Jesus, for all practical purposes, was only divine. We missed the major point–which was to put the two together in him and then dare to discover the same in ourselves! We made our inclusive Savior, whom we could imitate and participate with, into a Redeemer whom we were told to worship as an exclusionary “Savior.” It is so strange that Jesus, who was always inclusive and compassionate in his lifetime, seemed to create a religion that had an entirely different philosophy. How could that happen?

We were not assured that we could follow him as “partners in his great triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Instead we were told to be grateful spectators of what he did, and we often missed the redemptive transformation that was offered to us: “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The Eastern Church called this wonderful gift theosis or divinization, and it is their greatest contribution to Christianity. But even they have not drawn out its very real implications for individuals, much less for society, the poor, or for justice.

Let me repeat, it is formally incorrect to say, “Jesus is God,” as most Christians glibly do. Jesus is the union of “very God” with “very man.” For Christians, the Trinity is God, and Jesus came forth to take us back with him into this eternal embrace, which is where we first came from (John 14:3), so that “the outside of God” is fully taken inside. This is exactly what it means to have an eternal soul and is quite a different description of salvation–and, dare I say, the whole point! It has little to do with our supposed perfection and everything to do with God’s perfection.

This dynamic unity is what makes Jesus the Exemplar, the “pledge” and “guarantee,” the “Pioneer and Perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Now there is much less need to “prove” that Jesus is God (which of itself asks nothing of us). Our deep need is to experience the same unitive mystery in ourselves and in all of creation–“through him, with him, and in him” as we say in the Great Amen of the Eucharist! The good news is that we also are part of the eternal divine dance, but now as the ongoing Body of Christ extended in space and time.

Adapted from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi
pp. 220-221

At Peace with Paradox                                                             Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A paradox is something that initially looks like a contradiction, but if you go deeper with it and hold it longer or at a different level, it isn’t necessarily so. Holding out for a reconciling third, a tertium quid, allows a very different perspective and gives a different pair of eyes beyond mere either/or. You’d think Christians would have been prepared for this. Notice that Jesus in many classic icons is usually holding up two fingers as if to say, “I hold this seeming contradiction together in my one body!” Jesus is the living paradox, which, frankly, confounds and disturbs most of us. Normally humans identify with only one side of any seeming contradiction (“dualistic thinking” being the norm among humans). For Jesus to be totally human would logically cancel out the possibility that he is also totally divine. And for us to be grungy human beings would cancel out that we are children of God. Only the mystical, or non-dual mind, can reconcile such a creative tension.

That’s why Jesus is our icon of transformation! That’s why we say we are saved “in him.” We have to put together what Jesus put together. The same reconciliation has to take place in my soul. I have to know that I am a son of earth and a son of heaven. You have to know that you are a daughter of God and a daughter of earth at the same time, and they don’t cancel one another out.

All of creation has a cruciform pattern of loss and renewal, death and resurrection, letting go and becoming more. It is a “coincidence of opposites” (St. Bonaventure), a collision of cross-purposes waiting for resolution–in us. We are all filled with contradictions needing to be reconciled. The price we pay for holding together these opposites is always some form of crucifixion. Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his humanity and his divinity, a male body with a feminine soul. Yet he rejected neither side of these forces, but suffered them all, and “reconciled all things in himself” (Ephesians 2:10).
Adapted from Prophets Then, Prophets Now ( CD, MP3 download);
and Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, p. 178

A Different Consciousness (June 28, 2015)

Now we are moving into the next major section of my lineage: non-dual thinkers of all religions. All the great religions at the higher or more mature levels teach a different consciousness, which we call the contemplative mind, the non-dual mind, or the mind of Christ. The levels of spiritual development begin with dualistic, exclusionary, either/or thinking and become increasingly non-dual, allowing for a deeper, broader, wiser, more inclusive and loving way of seeing. Non-dualistic thinking presumes you have first mastered dualistic clarity, but also found it insufficient for the really big issues like love, suffering, death, sexuality, God, and any notion of infinity. In short, we need both to see fully and with freedom.

•    Many writers in the early Christian era called the necessary perceptual shift away from the dualistic, judging, and separate self contemplation.
•    Buddhists called it meditation, sitting, or practicing.
•    Hesychastic Orthodoxy called it prayer of the heart.
•    Sufi Islam called it ecstasy.
•    Hasidic Judaism called it living from the divine spark within.
•    Vedantic Hinduism spoke of it as non-dual knowing or simply breathing.
•    Native religions found it in communion with nature itself or the Great Spirit through dance, ritual, and sexuality. Owen Barfield called this “original participation.”

Universal Love”                                                                                     December 8, 2016

God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are “justified” before God. The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice.  Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness. (This is why models of human development like Spiral Dynamics can be so helpful.) Literal interpretation of Scripture is the Achilles’ heel of fundamentalist Christians. [2]

Yes, you have to begin with dualistic thinking, just as you must first develop a healthy frame before you can move beyond it. Jesus often made strong binary statements, for example, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24); “The Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32-33). We must first be capable of some basic distinctions between good and evil before we then move higher. Without basic honesty and clarity, nondual thinking becomes very naïve. We must first succeed at good dualistic thinking before we also discover its final inadequacy in terms of wisdom and compassion. Not surprisingly, Jesus exemplifies and teaches both dualistic clarity and then non-dual wisdom and compassion: “My Father’s sun shines on both the good and the bad; his rain falls on both the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

The ego prefers a dualistic worldview where bad people are eternally punished and good people (like ourselves) are totally rewarded. The soul does not need to see others punished to be happy. Why would anyone like the notion of somebody being tortured for all eternity? What kind of psyche or soul can condemn others to hellfire? Certainly not Divine Love.

As long as your ego is in charge, you will demand a retributive God; you’ll insist that hell is necessary. But if you have been transformed by love, hell will no longer make sense to you because you know that God has always loved you in your sinfulness. Why would God change policies after death?

We are all saved by mercy and grace without exception—before, during, and after our life in this world. Could God’s love really be that great and universal? Love is the lesson, and God’s love is so great that God will finally teach it to all of us. Who would be able to resist it once they see it? We’ll finally surrender, and God—Love—will finally win. God never loses. That is what it means to be God. That will be God’s “justice,” which will swallow up our lesser versions of retributive justice.

Where Is God?
Friday, January 5, 2018

 When I was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey in 1985, I had a chance encounter that has stayed with me all these years. I was walking down a little trail when I recognized a recluse, what you might call a hermit’s hermit, coming toward me. Not wanting to intrude on his deep silence, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, “Richard!” That surprised me. He was supposed to be silent. How did he know who I was? “Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing.” Pointing to the sky, he said, “God is not ‘out there’!” Then he said, “God bless you,” and abruptly continued down the path.

The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our relationships with sexuality, food, possessions, money, animals, nature, politics, and our own incarnate selves. This loss explains why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This physical world is the hiding place of God and the revelation place of God!”

Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone—Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat—all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say, “They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money.” Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called “nobodies” who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.

Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.

Gazing upon the Mystery
Sunday, October 21, 2018

The genius of Jesus’ ministry is that he reveals how God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself (all of which are normally inevitable), not to punish us but, in fact, to bring us to God and to our True Self, which are frequently discovered simultaneously. There are no dead ends in this spiritual life. Nothing is above or beyond redemption. Everything can be used for transformation.

After all, on the cross, God took the worst thing, the “killing of God,” and made it into the best thing—the redemption of the world! If we gaze upon the mystery of the cross long enough, our dualistic mind breaks down, and we see in hindsight that nothing was totally good or totally bad. We realize that God uses the bad for good, and that many people who call themselves good (like those who crucified Jesus) may not be so good. And many who seem totally bad (like Jesus’ crucifiers) end up being used for very good purposes indeed. 

Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (see Luke 11:29; Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead us (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.

Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. The separate and sufficient self has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is (but does not recognize yet): the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use whatever words you want. It is who we fundamentally are in God and who God is dwelling in us. Once we are transplanted to this solid place, we are largely indestructible! But then we must learn to rest there, and not just make occasional forays into momentary union. That is the work of our whole lifetime.

This is how Etty Hillesum (1914–1943) describes the indestructible nature of the True Self in the midst of all the horrors of the Westerbork transit camp, a staging ground for the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust:

This morning, while I stood at the tub with a colleague, I said with great emotion something like this: “The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering doesn’t really matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.” [1]

Hillesum is speaking of her True Self, which cannot be hurt. She describes the True Self earlier in her diary as follows:

Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and the deepest in the other. God to God. [2]


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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3 Responses to From Two to One: Teaching about Non-Dualism in a World Religions Class

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