The Play of Distinction
© Thomas J. McFarlane 1995

The Fundamental Nature of Distinction

The one and many. . .run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered.

           -Plato [81]

Every word uttered and every thought conceived directs attention and thereby carves out a portion of the world. It is in the very nature and purpose of words and thoughts to specify and delimit, to distinguish something from other things, to create a many from what was previously a one. Every idea contains an implicit distinction between that which it indicates and that which it does not indicate. Indeed, if any thought or word did not direct our attention to one thing as opposed to another, it would be entirely without meaning.

The root of all things is difference.

           -Ibn Arabi [82]

Everything has at its root an implicit distinction. If they were not distinguishable, letters of the alphabet could not form different words and digits could not form different numbers. With no distinctions, there could be no inside of a house distinct from an outside, no red distinct from blue, no me distinct from you. There would be no difference between apples and oranges, men and women, subject and object, existence and non-existence.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it; and without it was not any thing made that was made.

           -John 1:1-3

Thought, description, and language can get no more fundamental than to make a distinction, for whenever we have any thing at all we have at least one distinction: the distinction between that thing and no-thing. No matter what it is, whether it be a fleeting thought in the mind, an irritating itch on the arm, a puffy cloud in the sky, or heavy sadness of the heart, all things rest on that one implicit distinction. Indeed, if there were no distinction at all, then there would be no thing at all.

If God stopped saying his Word, but for an instant even, heaven and earth would disappear.

           -Meister Eckhart [83]

There is something precisely because there is distinction -- all things are created by distinctions, by the power residing in the Word to divide something from nothing, existence from non-existence, heaven from earth, and day from night.

The Ground of Distinction

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.

           -Lao-tzu [84]

Any thing made is made by distinction. But if all of creation rests upon distinction, then upon what ground does distinction rest? Since distinction is the foundation of all concepts and definitions, it can not be defined or conceived by anything more fundamental than itself. So if we seek a realm more profound than distinction and its worldly progeny, we must surrender all powers of conceptual representation and definition -- thus we enter the realm of the ineffable.

The ultimate truth transcends all definitions and descriptions, transcends all comments and disputations, transcends all words.

           -Nagarjuna [85]

However we may try to describe, define, conceive, or imagine That which is without distinction, such efforts will at best produce only a shadowy reflection in the form of distinctions. The best description of it is silence, the closest definition is nothing, the most precise conception is non-distinction. Yet even silence rests on its distinction from speech, even nothing depends on something, and even the conception of non-distinction is defined in contrast with the conception of distinction. So, in the end, we must even surrender the distinction between distinction and non-distinction. Ultimately, therefore, subject is object and form is emptiness. True Reality comprehends the way of distinction as well as the way of non-distinction. Yet neither way as distinct from the other can comprehend the non-exclusive Reality embracing them both.

The Unfolding of Distinction

The world is what would be if distinction could be.

           -G. Spencer-Brown [86]

We can not completely describe or define the indescribable, indefinable aspect of Reality. Yet the describable, definable aspect of Reality is exactly what we can describe and define. So if we are to think or talk about anything, we must think or talk about what is thinkable and sayable, i.e. what is distinguishable. So, let us distinguish and describe the realm of distinction and description. At the same time, however, let us not forget that distinction is not absolutely real, and that the thinkable world ignores the indescribable realm of indistinction in its own ineffable nature.

The ultimate reality is unmade; it will never be other than what it always is.

           -Nagarjuna [87]

The most fundamental of all distinctions is the distinction between distinction and non-distinction. For, as we have just seen, this distinction makes distinction itself possible. That is, the first created thing necessarily consists of the distinction between distinction and non-distinction. Thus, out of the mysterious depths of Reality, distinction apparently creates itself, and thereby opens the possibility for the elaboration of form.

There is in reality neither truth nor error, neither yes nor no, nor any distinction whatsoever, since all -- including contraries -- is One.

           -Chuang-tse [88]

The unreal never is: the Real never is not.

           -Bhagavad Gita II, 16

From this original single principle arises all form. Yet the principle of distinction is not the ultimate principle of Reality, for distinction is only the basis of form, and not the basis of Reality, which is beyond both form and formless, existence and non-existence, one and many.

The cosmos is not a unity here and a plurality there, but a unity and a plurality at the same time throughout its whole being.

           -Proclus [89]

Within the formless there is, by definition, no possibility for the development of form. Within form, on the other hand, there is the possibility for infinite development of form. The worlds of form thus sprout and flower from the seed of distinction planted in the ground of Reality, freely branching out from the trunk in a self-similar manifestation of diverse possibility. This is the great tree of life.

Systems of Distinction

The particular world you experience in each moment is just one branch of all possible ways for form to unfold. If we look inward toward the root of all diversity, we find growing unity, worlds merging in a single trunk. If, on the other hand, we look outward away from unity toward the branches, we find growing diversity, worlds multiplying endlessly. These two faces of distinction, one reflecting inner unity, the other reflecting outer diversity, illustrate the form of the first distinction, which distinguishes a prior non-distinction from a posterior distinction, a fundamental unity from a derived diversity, an original one from a created many. This dual nature of distinction is mirrored at every level of the self-similar tree of form. Looking inward is a straight line to the one, looking outward are multiple branches into the many. Yet, lest we forget, this whole tree is itself identical to the mysterious ineffable One transcending both one and many.

The One. . .is there before every oneness amid multiplicity, before every part and whole, before the definite and indefinite, before the limited and the unlimited. It is there defining all things that have being, defining being itself. . .It is there beyond the one itself, defining this one.

           -Dionysius [90]

At the base of the tree are few distinctions; and where there are few distinctions there are few limitations and conditions, and hence a high degree of universality and comprehensiveness -- this is the subtle realm of the archetypes, gods, and universal principles. At the very root of the tree is the single, most universal seed of all -- the first distinction. Emerging from this most subtle of all things are branches of additional distinctions, further restricting and delimiting in ways peculiar to their particular branches. Yet, prior to this most subtle of distinctions, there is neither distinction nor non-distinction.

When difference is not evident, there is neither difference nor identity.

           -Nagarjuna [91]

This is no dead and inanimate tree but an alive and growing one. In some places branches break off, and in other places new ones grow. Flowers bloom, leaves fall, and fruit ripens. So also the branches of distinctions are alive and dynamic, forming and reforming. Yet they are always recreated with the same self-similar branching structure, with the one and many running in and out of every distinction made -- the one leading back to the root, the many leading out to more branches. In fact, this great tree is recreated every moment, emanating and unfolding, then retracting and returning to its ground, the pulsation of the universal heartbeat, the great ebb and flow of the cosmic ocean, the harmonic vibrations we hear as the music of the spheres. Yet, prior to sound and silence is the great One comprehending both.

The One transcends all antithesis, rises above all relation, is pure from all duality.

           -Proclus [92]

Any system of thought is limited in some way by the very nature of concepts which distinguish, define, and thereby implicitly limit and exclude. So no conceptual system is an all-inclusive theory of everything any more than a branch of a tree is the whole tree. Yet it takes only a slight act of ignorance to consider one manifestation of form actual or true, while considering the other possible manifestations of form false or merely imaginary. This prejudice, however, results from a limited view within one branch of the tree of possible formal development. Tracing the roots of any world back far enough, and freeing ourselves of the structures that limit us exclusively to one particular world, we then recognize the common basis of the worlds that we previously saw as distinct. The ultimate such recognition is the recognition that the worlds of form are really no different from formlessness.

Within Consciousness-Without-An-Object lie both the Universe and Nirvana, yet to Consciousness-Without-An-Object these two are the same.

           -Franklin Merrell-Wolff [93]

Can we find the most basic unified theory near the trunk of the tree of life? The closest one may get to a theory of everything is the first distinction itself. To say any more serves only to further limit and exclude things from the class of everything we wish to comprehend. But even a theory of everything will not be a theory of Reality, which includes nothing as well as everything.

The Metaphysics of Distinction

At the beginning of the beginning, even nothing did not exist.

           -Chuang-tse [94]

If we begin with no distinction at all, then we are prior to thought. Indeed, we can not consistently conceive of there being no distinction since in doing so we would be implicitly distinguishing non-distinction from distinction. Thus, at this ineffable point of ultimate simplicity and degeneracy, there is no difference between distinction and non- distinction, between subject and object, or between any opposites whatsoever. There is no difference between emptiness and form, between substance and void, between something and nothing.

God dwells in the nothing-at-all that was prior to nothing, in the hidden Godhead of pure gnosis whereof no man durst speak.

           -Eckhart [95]

We may symbolize the identity of form with formlessness by the equation O = , where the left hand side symbolizes any form or forms whatsoever, and the right hand side symbolizes the absence of any form. The equation thus asserts the identity of subject and object, form and void, universe and nirvana. Note also that all objects, being identified with the void, are thereby identified with each other. There is no distinction whatsoever. For example, any collection of objects or symbols are all identified with the void and hence with each other. Recognition of Reality at this level is totally comprehensive of both form and emptiness, one and many. All things may appear, and yet they are recognized to be identical with nothing, so that, no matter how objects may appear and disappear, Reality itself is unchanged.

For the wise all "things" are wiped away and even the state of imagelessness ceases to exist.

           -Lankavatara Sutra [96]

Now through the power of imagination, the perfect symmetry appears to break, and the illusion of a real distinction between subject and object, form and void, arises. This first distinction is exactly the distinction between distinction and non-distinction, for if anything other than the original Reality is to appear as real, it must appear to be distinguished from that Reality. Since everything in fact is identical with that Reality, however, such a distinction is actually impossible, for Reality can not be other than what it truly is. Moreover, for something to appear distinct and real apart from Reality, it must confuse true Reality with a false Reality that is imagined to be self-existent independent of Reality. In other words, the true identity of the something with Reality must be ignored. It is only through this ignorance of the true nature of distinction that the something attains an appearance of its own reality. Thus begins the development of what would be if distinction could be, or what appears to be when we ignore what is.

The whole of existence is imagination within imagination, while true Being is God alone.

           -Ibn 'Arabi [97]

The veil having thus dropped, Reality is eclipsed by an illusion, and the play of distinction appears real. With Reality hidden, we become half-blind, ignoring the non-dual and knowing only the dual. Thus it is the exclusive knowledge of duality that precipitates our fall; and in this state of ignorance of the one, we see only a manifold world of separate things, and are thereby in bondage to them.

For what is here is there, and what is there is here; From death to death hastes he who here another knows! In spirit shall ye know, here is no manifold; From death to death is he ensnared who difference sees.

           -Katha Upanishad [98]

Just as ignorance of the Non-dual binds, recognition of the Non-dual liberates. But it is only knowledge of the True Non-dual that makes us free. Under the spell of duality, the Non-dual can be falsely imagined as only another aspect of the dual, namely, that aspect which is distinct from the dual. To attain complete release, every object, every conception, every imagination, every this and every that must not be mistaken for the True Non-dual.

neti, neti! [not this, not that!]

           -Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II, iii, 6

The final realization effects the complete recognition of the Absolute Non-dual which is not even distinct from the dual. Here it is immediately known that one is already identical with Reality, and that there is nothing to be attained. Indeed, the identity between subject and object, knower and known, seeker and sought, is recognized as the true Reality that always is, always was, and always will be.

In the beginning was Allah, and beside Him there was nothing,--and He remains as He was.

           -Mohammed [99]

Here we have traced the play of distinction from Reality to the first stage of illusion and back. From vision, to half-blindness, and back. We have created a world and destroyed it, been born and died. Note, however, that this return from creation leaves not a destroyed world but an uncreated one, and this death leaves not a dead state but an unborn one. Just as the True Undistinguished comprehends the distinguished, the True Uncreated comprehends the created, and the True Unborn comprehends the born.

Both the Absolute and the Relative belong to one and the same Reality.

           -Ramakrishna [100]

Form may evolve much further, however, than this one single step into illusion. Most of us find ourselves not just half-blind, but nearly completely blind. Not only is the unity beneath the diversity of subject and object ignored, but we also ignore the unity of objects in the world at more complex levels of manifestation. Not only is the identity of emptiness and form broken, but the identity of form and form is broken, apparently breaking symmetries and giving birth to complex worlds of form. Let us follow this descent into form more explicitly, not forgetting, of course, that it is an imaginary game.

The world of Nature is many forms in One Mirror; nay One Form in diverse mirrors. Bewilderment arises from the difference of view.

           -Ibn Arabi [101]

From the Reality that identifies form and void, O =    , we imagined distinction between form and void, O not=;    , so that all form, all distinction, is mistaken to be distinct from the void, from indistinction. This mistake represents an ignorance of the fact that the True Non-dual Reality necessarily comprehends both the dual and the non- dual, so that the dual is, in Reality, identical to the non-dual. Now with ignorance veiling this Reality from view, distinction comes to the fore and dominates non-distinction. As yet, however, there are no distinctions between forms themselves. All form is identified as form only. Here we reside on the universal level where resides the seed of all creation. On the one hand, this seed is the origin of the multiplicity of all things; on the other hand, this seed is, in Truth, identical with the original Unity.

He in his unity is all things: so that we must either call all things by his name, or call him by the names of all things.

           -Hermes [102]

The structure inherent in this seed will determine the development of all form. Explicitly, the structure of this seed is that of distinction and form. Yet, implicitly this seed links form with emptiness, distinction with non-distinction. When we ignore the implicit unity implicit in distinction, we are, as it were, only looking at one side of the seminal distinction. On its other side, its other face, is non- distinction. This first distinction thus implicitly contains its opposite, non-distinction. The distinction itself is the veil that hides non-distinction from view. But although this distinction divides, it also connects; while it separates, it also binds.

Each thing hath two faces, a face of its own, and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, and in respect of the Face of God it is Being. Thus there is nothing in existence save only God and His Face.

           - Al- Ghazzali [103]

Where there is no distinction we have no choice in development except to create distinction. With distinction, however, we have choices. One choice, as seen above, is to enter into form and return back into emptiness. That appears as creating distinction and dissolving it. On this path, we first ignore Reality to obtain distinction, then forsake distinction to recognize Reality.

Another path is to fix the first distinction, thereby permitting additional choices. Once the first distinction is reified, we are then likely to confuse the True Non-dual with the non-dual as distinct from the dual. A second action or distinction may then be considered in relation to the first distinction as an instruction to cross from one side to the other while maintaining the first distinction. Thus this second distinction, combined with the first, returns us apparently to the original state prior to distinction, so that two distinctions taken together appear to cancel out in non-distinction. This state of non- distinction, however, is only a false copy of the True Non-distinction that transcends and comprehends both states.

Alternatively, a second distinction may be construed as an instruction to make another distinction different from the first. Since we are retaining the first distinction, this creates a second distinguished distinction. It is distinct from the first in that it is not derived from the True Void, but from a false void. Thus we have two distinctions. The first distinction, or form, and a second form distinct from the first form. This second distinction is distinct from the True Void, from the first distinction, and from the false void. It is, as it were, a copy of the first distinction, a further distinction. The first distinction created the world as distinct from void. But the world itself is not more than a potential world until the second distinction arises, making it explicit. Making this second distinction or not is a mirror or image of making the first distinction or not.

The second distinction, therefore, can be a symbol for dissolving the first as well as for creating an additional distinction on top of it. Thus there are exactly two ways to make a second distinction.

The Mathematics of Distinction

Since there is no other approach to a knowledge of things divine than that of symbols, we cannot do better than use mathematical signs on account of their indestructible certitude.

           -Nicholas of Cusa [104]

Let us express this play of distinction in more symbolic form. Following the notation of Laws of Form[105], we will denote a distinction by the mark, O. Insofar as this mark distinguishes a blank page from a page with a mark on it, the mark represents the fundamental distinction between distinction and indistinction. Without the recognition of a mark, there is no notion of a blank page as distinct from a marked page. Thus the very existence of the mark implies an implicit distinction between its existence and its non-existence, between the sign and the space in which it is written, between the mark as an object and the void page without the mark. This is how our symbol represents the first distinction.

Everything is of the nature of no thing.

           -Parmenides [106]

Thus far there is just one form, one mark. Every distinction is identical. There can be no elaboration of form at this stage. If we remember what we have done, however, then distinction becomes transparent: We recognize the imagined nature of the distinction -- the distinction that created distinction -- and so there is the possibility of recognizing the Original Indistinction in which there is not any distinction even between distinction and indistinction. Thus while imagination creates and takes us across the first distinction into duality, recognition sees through that distinction by canceling the imagined reality of the original distinction.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed emptiness is form.

           -Heart Sutra [107]

The distinction, in fact, symbolizes both sides of the distinction. But while it consistently symbolizes the side of distinction, it inconsistently symbolizes the side of indistinction. Distinction dominates over indistinction in the world of distinction for the simple reason that the world of distinction is based upon distinction, not indistinction. Since they are objects, symbols presuppose distinction, and so they naturally resist indistinction, for their very being as objects is in conflict with it. This contradiction, however, is only a problem if we take as given the distinction between distinction and indistinction, between image and void. In Truth, since there is really no distinction between them, there is only apparent, imagined contradiction, and thus any symbol is itself identical with both distinction and indistinction. So the same mark of distinction can symbolize both faces of distinction. We then have the same mark, O, as a symbol for both sides of the first distinction. It is distinction insofar as we imagine distinction, and is indistinction insofar as we don't imagine distinction. The mark thus has two meanings or faces, one dominant or explicit, the other recessive or implicit.

There is not Nirvana except where is Samsara, and no Samsara except where is Nirvana. All duality is falsely imagined.

           -Lankavatara Sutra [108]

We can make explicit the two distinct faces of the first distinction by symbolizing distinction with a simple closed curve in the plane, for example, the mark, O. Now a single mark at once represents the distinction between the mark and the space in which the mark in written, and the distinction between the inside and the outside of the mark. Note, however, that distinction in its abstract purity does not necessarily distinguish a two-dimensional space, or even a space of any dimension at all. We are taking one instance of distinction (a closed curve in a plane) and using it as a symbol for distinction in the abstract. In so doing, we must be careful not to attribute to distinction itself properties peculiar to this particular representation of it.

Once we have a geometrical representation of distinction, we can express forms involving more than one distinction. Marking the distinction side of one distinction is calling into imagination yet another distinction, while marking the indistinction side is crossing back over the first distinction to the void. Thus by fixing distinctions and making further distinctions we can create ever more complex forms that unfold the implicit potentialities of the first distinction.

The whole development of form can be seen as one gradual attempt to cross the first distinction, to create a perfect image of the original void. But since there really is no distinction we can never actually make such a crossing, we can never perfectly reflect Reality in an image. Thus the description, the unfolding, the play, is endless. It forever reaches beyond itself toward a more refined and complete reflection of what it is not. It gets closer and closer, reaching toward infinity, but never ends, for what never really began can have no end.

An understanding of God is not so much an approach towards something as towards nothing; and sacred ignorance teaches me that what seems nothing to the intellect is the incomprehensible Maximum.

           -Nicholas of Cusa [109]

Levels of Form

Level 1

At the first level there is simply the Reality prior to distinction. Whether we mark, O, or do not mark,    , we indicate the selfsame Reality. At this level, form is emptiness and emptiness is form, samsara is nirvana, the named is the unnamed, the object is the subject. The image of this level on lower levels of distinction is contradiction, for here we have identified opposites. Moreover, the name is the named, and we have self-reference. The name "void" names void and is void, so it names itself. We can symbolize this level as

O =    ,

i.e., form is void. This yields a calculus of unity.

God may be called nothing because he is none of all the things that we can imagine or understand; but in himself he is indeed as it were all in all.

           -Father Augustine Baker [110]

Level 2

At the second level we have imagined a distinction, ignored or veiled Reality. Now the mark is not the void. Symbolically, O not=    , i.e. form is distinct from emptiness, samsara is not nirvana, the named is not the unnamed, the subject is not the object. This level is the basis of distinction and consistency and all form. It appears as absolutely real only insofar as the first distinction is imagined to be real. Note that although we have distinguished something from nothing, we have not distinguished things from each other. Thus, at this level form is form is form, any combination of multiple distinctions is identical with the first distinction: O O = (O) = O. Because of the instability of imagination, however, we may be reminded of the unity of form and formless. This insight would negate the distinction -- which is itself a negation of the original One -- and return us to level 1.

The One is a negation of negations.

           -Meister Eckhart [111]

On the other hand, if we cling to the first distinction, an additional distinction may be used to distinguish between two forms of distinction. For example, O O and (O) are the two simplest forms involving two distinctions. In the first case, the second distinction marks the distinction side of the first distinction, while in the second case, the second distinction marks the indistinction side of the first distinction. Thus the first form symbolizes distinction, while the second form symbolizes indistinction. We thus obtain the equations

O O = O


(O) =    .

This yields a calculus of duality, i.e. Laws of Form [113]

Taken together, we see that the void is represented in form by more and more elaborate forms. In words, these levels may be interpreted as follows:

  1. Emptiness is Form

  2. Emptiness is not Form

  3. Emptiness is both Form and not Form

  4. Emptiness is neither Form nor not Form
The levels of manifestation, therefore, unfold in a dialectical flow from simplicity to complexity. Though it may seem that we live in a world of complex multiplicity, hidden beneath this veil of multiplicity is an underlying Unity that always is, always was, and always will be the true nature of all manifestation. Because the entire world is stitched together in the form of distinction, by recognizing the true nature of distinction we can follow this thread of insight from multiplicity to unity and unravel the net of illusion, revealing the One beyond both the one and the many, and freeing us forever.