Or is it the other way around – that a nondual concept of reality conditions the very nature and experience of self-realization?
This is a very interesting question. It is true that our experiences tend to conform to our expectations and concepts. There is a well known idea in India that God appears to you in the form you expect and conceptualize. So if you are Christian, God appears to you as Christ. If you are an ISKCON memeber, God appears to you as Krishna. If you believe/conceive a formless God, God appears to you without a form. The experience of the Divine tends to conform to our concepts of the Divine.
So it is very possible that one’s accumulated knowledge and concepts about nonduality will color one’s self-realization and awakening accordingly. It could be said that it is this knowledge and belief of nonduality that determines the interpretation of most of the awakening experiences, not the opposite. However, this is not always the case.
In my own case, for example, I had never studied nonduality or enlightenment before awakening and realizing the nondual nature of reality directly. Perhaps a vague and very brief encounter with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism in my world religions class in college. I had no beliefs and concepts about nonduality. If someone asked me what nonduality was…even just prior to awakening, I would have not been sure what to say. I was unfamiliar with the term. My entire spiritual studies were dualistic, egoic, and progress oriented. I did not have a nondual concept of reality. And yet my awakening naturally gave rise to a nondual understanding. I studied nonduality afterwards in order to confirm that I wasn’t perhaps off my rocker. I also studied nonduality in order to gain some vocabulary so I could speak about what was realized.
It’s been over 12 years now, and my understanding of nonduality has deepened quite a bit. Not due to reading about nonduality, but a deepening of my understanding through experience after awakening. Some of what I have come to understand is counter to many nondual teachers of today and in the past.
For example, “nothing ever existed or happened.” I do not deny happenings or the existence of the world. Even mirages and illusions exist…we just mistake them for something they are not. What I deny is that there is separation or otherness. Many believe nonduality is something other than what we see and experience…like some undifferentiated homogeneity. They fail to see that this would be duality again – this “worldly” experience and nonduality.
Nonduality has always been the case…it is not other than the world we experience. Duality is a figment of our imaginations. The separation and otherness have only ever existed in our minds. Duality is only a story we tell ourselves, tell “each other”, and maintain…but it is a fictional story. The idea of duality is reinforced by conventions of speech and thought…and the idea is taken for reality.
Now let’s return to whether awakening naturally give rise to a nondual understanding. I don’t consider myself unique or special in any way, so I can only conclude that the experience of self-realization or awakening does naturally give rise to a nondual understanding (as in my own case). I don’t believe I was an exception. But I also can not deny that one’s concepts of nonduality could condition the very nature and experience of self-realization/awakening.
This is why I often caution against conceptional understanding of nonduality…as it could become its own trap and obstacle. It would be far better to realize directly for oneself. However, there is little a “me” can do to realize/awaken…as nondual understanding entails that there is no “me”…an individual separate from everything else. Anything a “me” does to realize there is no “me” only strengthens the idea of “me”. It becomes a vicious circle. Other posts in this blog talk about what might be done, so I won’t go into that.
Let me just conclude by saying that because some, many, or even most experiences of self-realization or awakening were conditioned by nondual concepts of reality (who really knows)…it does not mean all were conditioned. As in my case, the experience of self-realization or awakening naturally gave rise to a nondual understanding without a prior nondual concept of reality.