Posted by: Soh
A friend asked me about the difference between substantial and insubstantial non-duality... so I edited a little from a post I wrote in the past and added a little more:


Our paradigm, view, insights, experiences, affect our every moment perception of life, self, the universe. Speaking from experience, this is what a seeker might go through:


Generally every normal non-spiritual person sees himself as a subject, self, perceiver, doer, which is a psychic entity conceived as locating inside the body - be it inside the head behind the eyes or in the heart or some other locations.

Because of the false view of inherency and duality, the view that there is an inherently existing self causes us to project and cling to the sense of self-hood.

This conceived self-entity causes a sense of alienation as 'I' am inside my body, looking outwards at the world through my eyes, ears, etc. I am self-contracted, separated from the world out there, and so experience is divided into 'inner' and 'outer'. Reality consists of three components: I, the seer, sees the world out there. (Seer, seeing, seen) I, the doer, does the deed (Doer, doing, done). All these actions, and perceptions, are felt to have occured by virtue of this psychic entity residing inside my body, which I call Me.

This mentally conceived sense of alienation from a separate objective world resulting from the perceived existence of a separate self and psychic entity residing within this body-mind results in all manners of passionate feelings such as fear, anger, craving, malice, sorrow, and all forms of destructive undertakings endemic in our world: war, murder, torture, rape, domestic violence, corruption and so on.

Basically it comes down to this: craving (craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for extermination), which arises due to the view of there being an inherently existing self alienated from the world, whereby the self must always get away from unpleasant experiences and chase after pleasant experiences, in search for happiness and the attenuation of suffering, not knowing this process of craving is precisely what causes suffering.

Self-Realization, Partial Duality 

By the practice of contemplating on the Source of experiencing ("Who am I?", "Who is the Source?"), we trace the radiance back to the essence of mind-consciousness. At the moment where the seeker reaches the pinnacle of his self-inquiry, one has a non-dual, non-conceptual, direct, immediate perception of the self-luminosity of mind's Presence. But it is not an experience or a mere perception - it is a discovery of Mind's luminosity by stepping out of the flow of conceptualization into the utter stillness of luminous Presence by tracing the radiance back to its origins (the 'quiescent mind' or 'mind of clear light' or 'natural mind') through self-inquiry.

The self-felt certainty arising from the non-dual, non-conceptual, direct, immediate mode of perception (NDNCDIMOP) of mind's luminosity leads to a self-felt certainty that results in utter conviction of having touched the essence of being and existence. As all doubts pertaining to the nature of one's identity can no longer linger, one's self-inquiry into 'Who am I' comes to a closing conclusion. Being absolutely intimate as a sheer sense of Presence, Beingness, and Existence, shining in plain view prior to conceptual sullying, it is nevertheless immediately reified due to the paradigm and view of duality and inherency, even though in itself it is a non-dual perception.

What it is reified into is a grander entity than the psychic entity conceived as locating in the body as previously conceived. Though the psychic entity located inside the body, aka. the ego, is now being released through seeing the falsity of a personal self, the Identity remains intact at large, now expanding to become a Metaphysical entity transcending space and time, the grand, impersonal, and universal Self that is birthless and deathless. Due to the view of duality still largely being intact - Presence and Awareness is also seen as the Eternal Witness, an impartial and unchanging watcher of all phenomena that passes. 'I' am God, the ground of being, the source of all animate and inanimate objects, the universal consciousness underlying all my manifestations which comes and goes like waves in the ocean of Being.

All along not knowing that what they have realized is simply an aspect of luminosity pertaining to non-conceptual thought, a manifestation of mind-cognizance, and is as such nothing ultimate or special (as compared to any other manifestations).

At this phase, one may progress by deconstructing that sense of personality, resulting in the sense that everyone and everything is being lived and expressed by some universal source or higher power - so effectively everything is experienced as an impersonal happening rather than through some personal experiencer or doer, but still the bond of subject-object duality remains. Impersonality should not be mistaken as non-duality, nor anatta.


Via the contemplation into the absence of a separate self or the seamlessness of awareness and its contents, a direct and experiential realization that the subject-object separation and dichotomy is illusory arises. Everything is experienced at zero-distance in the absence of the bond of dualistic psychic construct.

Nevertheless at the beginning, as the insight of non-duality arises but not the insight into no-inherency, one ends up falling into:

Substantial Non-duality

- truly/inherently/independently existing awareness/Subject subsuming subject-object separation and phenomena and sees everything as a display of itself or one’s Self (as the truly existing, unchanging and independent One Awareness)

- Subject-object dichotomy collapses, and everything (the various diversity and multiplicity) is subsumed, into inherent oneness, into One Naked Awareness. In other words, subject-object duality collapses by deconstructing and subsuming all sense of objectivity into being mere modulations of a single inherent subjective reality (One Mind/One Naked Awareness). Instead of “awareness seeing a thing over there”, it is realized that there is no “thing” other than the one awareness itself. One Awareness aware of itself ‘AS’ all its own modulations.

- subject/perceiver/experiencer, experiencing, and experienced, or seer, seeing, and seen, are seen as One Awareness, they are seamless and without boundaries. In other words, it is not realizing the absence of an agent (watcher/perceiver) but more on the seamlessness and inseparability of subject and object, where Awareness is just undivided and seamless beingness: in hearing, hearer and sound are indistinguishably one

- due to the view of inherency (that reality must have 'existence' located somewhere and somewhen, even if it is Here and Now), the vivid 'realness' of non-dual luminosity is being treated as something Absolute, as having inherent, independent and unchanging existence, and is being reified into Noumenon (in contrast to illusory phenomenon), and as being the ultimate non-dual Self

- the intimacy experienced via the collapse of subject-object dichotomy is being referenced to a grandiose all-pervasive Self ("I am Everywhere and I am Everything")

- all phenomena are seen to be illusory projections of a single underlying source, such that all phenomena are self-expressions of the single nature of Awareness, as depicted by the analogy of the mirror and its reflections - reflections as such do not have an objective, independent existence outside the mirror - and in fact only the Mirror is seen to have absolute, independent, inherent existence - only the Mirror is Real, and the appearances are only Real as the Mirror

- appearances are inseparable from the Source, and yet the Source is independent of appearances

Insubstantial Non-duality (The Emptiness of Self)

- effectively, in the steps above, the view of duality is progressively removed, but the view of inherency still remains, and this is where the Buddhist teachings of 'emptiness' comes in

- insubstantial non-duality is about the arising insight into anatta (aka emptiness of self, aka first-fold emptiness), it is seen that seeing, cognizing, awareness is precisely and only what is seen, heard, tasted, touched, manifesting

- view of inherently/independently existing awareness, awareness is deconstructed in direct experiential realization of mere manifestation without a Subject, thus without a basis for subject-object separation and all phenomena are seen as a non-referencing or self-referencing display of itself (as transient, self-luminous or self-knowing phenomena-ing/flowing, not subsumed to some source or substance)

- it is not merely the seamlessness and inseparability of subject and object where hearer/heard, seer/seen is indistinguishably one in Awareness, but that there is absolutely no subject, no seer, no hearer whatsoever. Without an agent, without a subject, there cannot be 'inseparability' or 'union' of subject and object, Awareness and content - it absolutely does not make sense to talk about the inseparability of an Awareness and its contents, such analogies break down when 'Awareness' is realized as empty of a self and completely deconstructed into its constituents of six consciousnesses (which dependently originate according to the the six sense faculties and six sense objects). If inseparability is being talked about, it must be understood like heat is to fire and wetness is to water or sweetness is to sugar, that kind of inseparability (and not the inseparability of an existing awareness with its reflections). As I paraphrase Jui, awareness is a quality of experience and does not exist independently or separately from each particular manifest sensation

- the intimacy experienced via the lack of separation has no frame of reference due to the lack of something inherent - in the seeing is just the seen, in the hearing is just the heard, there is no True Self of any sorts - the world of multiplicity and diversity only references itself without an agent, without a source or oneness - no more referencing back to 'One Naked Awareness' as if everything is the display or emanation 'OF' a common source - without a source from which things issue forth, there is no more reference as to 'where' or 'to whom' phenomena 'comes from' - awareness does not 'issue' or 'illuminate' phenomena but rather awareness is simply the phenomena itself, self-aware where they are without a source

- Awareness is simply understood to be a label, like the word 'weather' - it has no substantial inherent existence, but is simply a convention for a conglomerate of diverse ever-changing phenomena like raining, clouds forming and parting, wind, lightning, etc... likewise Awareness is simply mind's clarity in the various modes of manifestation (it arises in six modes via dependent origination: Dependent Arising of Consciousness) – as such, we free ourselves of views such as “everything is contained within awareness” or “everything comes from awareness” as if awareness is some inherently existing source or substratum, just as we understand awareness is a mere convention like weather (there is no ‘The Weather’ to contain, give rise to, things), we do not say the rain is inside the weather or comes from the weather

- There is no ‘The Awareness’ that remains independent and unchanging, existing in and of itself, even when everything else dissolves, for we understand that even if there is voidness or awareness is self-aware in voidness, that aware-voidness (or I AMness) itself is an arising experience and not some untouched experiencer, for that too is ‘being known’ - in effect everything is manifestation only, awareness is manifestation only, the so called potential for arising is itself an arising/being known rather than being some unaffected knower

- there is no grandiose, universal consciousness, only individual bodies and mindstreams totally exerted seamlessly and interconnectedly due to interdependent origination, without any conceived 'underlying oneness behind multiplicity' - absolutely no identity remains, even the notion that "I am you and you are me" is seen as absurd

- as mentioned, there is no such thing as 'seamlessness of awareness and contents' or 'inseparability of awareness and its contents' - for awareness IS the process and activities of cognizance only, there is no such thing as 'awareness + its contents'

- seeing, cognizing, awaring never exists as nouns pointing to a noumenon but as verbs collating various activities of cognizance - what is seen, heard, taste, touch, are activities manifesting on its own accord with the presence of requisite conditions and factors via interdependent origination, without an agent, perceiver, controller, doer

- further penetration into anatta reveals that all phenomena are disjoint, unsupported, unlinked, bubble-like, insubstantial, dream-like, and self-releasing - there is absolutely nothing, not even an Awareness that underlies two thoughts, two manifestations - in fact there is not even two thoughts as such, just this thought, which spontaneously self-releases upon inception leaving absolutely no traces

- there is absolutely no collapsing of subject-object dichotomy into a base or oneness existing somewhere, even as a Here/Now - there is no linking base, oneness or source at all, only the experience of dispersed-out and de-linked multiplicity

- all manifestations are intrinstically luminous and vivid yet insubstantial and vanishes without a trace upon inception like drawing pictures on water manifests vivid appearances that does not leave trace - no existence of any sorts can leave traces when reality is momentary, popping in and out like bubbles but leaving no traces.

The Emptiness of Objects

- In addition to the emptiness of self in insubstantial non-duality, there is the emptiness of objects (second-fold emptiness) where all experiences, thoughts, and perceptions are discovered to have no independent essence - as such a core of appearance is unlocatable, unfindable, and ungraspable - the appearances shimmers vividly but no core can be found. They are like an empty shell, appearing due to dependent origination, and yet coreless.

- All appearances, due to being realized as empty of inherent existence, is seen to be like an illusion, like a magician's trick, like a dream - appearing and yet no-thing truly there. This is amazing and magical, and gives rise to wonder - like if you see a very clear mirage on the edge of the sea of an island, you may think it is wonderful, but this time your entire experiential field is seen to be like a mirage - vividly shining and appearing and yet empty. How wonderful is that!

- Experience becomes liberating as you are liberated from all views of 'is' and 'is not', ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’ with regards to both subjective self and objects, so there is no-thing to cling to, only the ungraspable flow of unreified suchness of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking, all self-liberating upon inception leaving no traces, the trace being clinging to any views of 'is' and 'is not'. (With regards to views: The View)
-  Everything is the dynamic state of creation of interdependency, so it is always everything coming into being in a causal process, there is nothing with real existence that is inherent, independent and static – whether self or objects, as if there is a self or a thing already existing somewhere waiting for us to ‘discover or reveal it’, but rather the myriad dharmas are constantly ‘created’ or rather, totally exerted every moment in seamless interpenetration – complete and whole as it is. Hence there is simply this ever-dynamic, ever-advancing state of manifesting or self-actualization incorporating all causes and conditions 
6 Responses
  1. mindswirl Says:

    This is great. Thanks

  2. carpe omnia Says:

    This is one of the most brilliant blogs I´ve ever come across. Especially differentiating I AM realization from Anatta has been deeply helpful to me. There´s so much subtle details, but never you seem to lose the bigger picture. This is truly the last place for nondual junkie like me, I just keep on coming back refining the views until there´s nothing more to refine and what´s obvious is seen. Namaste. Thank you for both of you.

  3. Monktastic Says:

    Thanks for the great post! Want to ask: have you read Greg Goode's "standing as awareness?" He's a neo-Advaitin (as I'm sure you know), but his description sounds more like your "insubstantial non-duality" than "substantial non-duality" to me.

    I have no horse in this race, except that I'm using his teachings in conjunction with my Mahamudra learning. His seems the clearest way to recognize emtpiness that I have come across.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    "- Everything is the dynamic state of creation of interdependency, so it is always everything coming into being in a causal process, there is nothing with real existence that is inherent, independent and static – whether self or objects, as if there is a self or a thing already existing somewhere waiting for us to ‘discover or reveal it’, but rather the myriad dharmas are constantly ‘created’ or rather, totally exerted every moment in seamless interpenetration – complete and whole as it is. Hence there is simply this ever-dynamic, ever-advancing state of manifesting or self-actualization incorporating all causes and conditions"

    And who knows all the above...?

  5. Soh Says:

    As I wrote to someone last week:

    ""Who sees" is a flawed question based no the assumption that seeing is a seer behind the seen. Then the Buddha said, there is no Who, in seeing just the seen, in the heard just the heard, no you in terms of that. He rejected that 'Who' altogether. Then in contemplating on Bahiya Sutta I realized anatta, and the previous position of a substantiated awareness fell away. Awareness, luminosity, is not denied but directly experienced as pure manifestation. Who realizes this, who sees? Wrong question. Seeing is just the seen. In the seen just the seen. And what's seen is dawned as wisdom without a knower. Scenery, sounds, smells, are self-luminous."

    Likewise, Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught states: "If there is no Self, no Atman, who realizes Nirvana? Before we go on to Nirvana, let us ask the question: Who thinks now, if there is no Self? We have seen earlier that it is the thought that thinks, that there is no thinker behind the thought. In the same way, it is wisdom (panna), realization, that realizes. There is no other self behind the realization."

  6. Anonymous Says:

    "He rejected that 'Who' ", " I realized anatta"...
    I am just pointing that there is a pure subjectivity of realisation, dimension of individuality, which is being denied by most of the traditional teachings. Even the subtlest realisations are recognised from and within an unique and individual "angle of perception".