Samsara and Nirvana - This is that
--- Namandabs - Namandabs - Namandabs ---
Welcome everyone on this beautiful morning. Thank you for coming to the temple - just as you are. We are always happy to gather with friends - new friends and old friends. The disaster in Nepal is close to my heart. I spent a couple months there traveling and studying and I am so saddened by the images of destruction I’ve seen. We can all give a little to help. Prayers to the Bodhisattva help too.
This week I was interviewed by a student studying Buddhism. It was about an hour interview but it brought many useful thoughts to mind. And I thank Taylor for bringing me to focus on the Dharma. Some of her questions were easy to respond to . Some were less easy. Two of those questions were...
What is Samsara? What is Nirvana?
If you have been a Buddhist for a while you have a provisional definition of these words. We continue to consider and gain understanding. They are good questions. And Shinran shonin was asked similar questions that give us his view of these ideas.
I want to start off with a story that will be helpful through my talk. Some things are difficult to talk about in life and in Buddhism. Sometimes I think maybe we collect these difficult things in Buddhism.
To illustrate this I return to the story of the turtle and the fish….
Point of the story - Wow! What a challenge for the Buddha! Even if a Buddha understands everything. The fantastic challenge of explaining and teaching the Dharma other conditioned beings - That may not be in a Buddha’s power.
We here are all fish together. Fellow travelers as Shinran said. We follow the teaching as we can and we return to the Dharma regularly because it is fundamentally hard to understand.
I describing Absolute Reality - we often find the Buddhist proverb, “Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise” is in operation. We see things in life through a veil, through conditioned views - through our mind state. Imagining past our own mind state is literally impossible. We rely on others who have gone before us to give insight into the next mind state. We rely on the Buddha for the Dharma. We are the fish in the story. We are in the pond, the pond is what we call Samsara.
What is Samsara? It is conditioned existence. An experience of existence that is conditioned by our thirsting mind state. Traditionally we describe Samsara as a state of being where we aimlessly wander in the six realms of existence - The Ocean of Births and Deaths. The six realms of existence are the fundamental modes sentient beings are reborn into. I’ll start by giving the traditional description...
1. Beings in Hell Jigokudō in Japanese. The lowest and worst realm, wracked by torture, burning, and characterized by aggression.
2. Realm Hungry Ghosts Gaki-dō in Japanese. Characterized by great craving and eternal starvation; Big stomach - small mouth.
3. Animal realm Chikushōdō in Japanese. The realm of animals and beasts, characterized by stupidity, servitude and animal urges.
4. Ashura Realm Ashuradō in Japanese. The realm of anger, jealousy, and constant war; the Ashura are demigods; they are powerful, fierce and quarrelsome; like humans, they are partly good and partly evil. Their aggression blinds them to what is real.
5. Humans. Nindō in Japanese. The human realm; Which you may be familiar with? These are beings who are both good and evil; Who experience both suffering and joy. Enlightenment is within their grasp, yet most are blinded and consumed by their desires.
6. Deva realm Tendō in Japanese. The realm of heavenly beings filled with pleasure; the deva hold godlike powers; some reign over celestial kingdoms; living in delightful splendor; they live for countless ages, but even the Deva belong to the world of samsara -- their great powers blind them to the world of suffering and fill them with pride -- and thus even the Deva grow old and die to be born.
Having said this - I don’t want you to think of these realms are only physical places. If that is comfortable that is ok. But did you notice when I was describing these mythic realms you searched your memory of experience for times you have been in these states? [Well maybe my mind does that but some of you are nodding your heads.] These are all states of being and states of mind the physicality is not so important. I just want to get the idea across that we may be born in Hell for a period of time and then find ourselves in a Deva/godlike condition. A process governed by our Karma [actions] and the unfolding of time.
When we do this we are just like my dear Labrador retriever Chloe. Her greatest desire was for food. She longed for it and never stopped eating of her own accord. One time we left a bag of food open - she at 10 pounds of food in a go. She we very uncomfortable after that. But like Chloe when we seek the sensation of Victory, or when we Want a new pair of shoes. We come to the wrong conclusion that these momentary things will satisfy us in a way that ends the feeling of suffering inside us. But they don’t - they won't - they can't.
The Dalai lama has a fundamental premise that we “have everything we need to be happy”. That sounds pretty radical - “we have everything that we need to be happy”. It sounds obviously wrong. Like the trout in the story - I know what I know, and I know I need a few more things to be happy. Listen to that sentence - we hear it all the time from others and in our heads - “I need a few more things to be happy. “ But when I get that “one more thing” - I will briefly feel pleasure. Then it will be gone.
All this wanting, thirsting, and desire for objects and experience is the source of the fundamental character of Samsara - suffering. I suffer without a new car. With the car I suffer with a big car payment for - used to be 3 years - now they are mostly for 6 years of suffering payment.
Samsara is conditioned reality conditioned by my mind state. Conditioned by my thirst for objects, ultimately for a sense of my separate self.
That was a long way around the mountain - but now I’d like to talk about Nirvana.
What is Nirvana? - Dr. Matsunaga told the story that when he came to LA to teach in the University he was completely surprised when on the first day of the first Buddhism class he taught. Several students wanted to know what Nirvana was. In 25 years in Japan He had never heard that question asked. Its because we Americans want to know the END - the GOAL. the Result...before we commit to a thing. So we ask the the question the fish asked the turtle. What is it like? And the turtle said it's not like anything you understand. Definition by negation is a dead end. So I’ll try it….
Usually people pick up the idea that Nirvana is a place. Samsara is a place - here in Reno. That’s a place and that's samsara, and we conclude that Nirvana is a place too. That is not the view of Buddhism. Nirvana is unconditioned reality. Reality experienced without views, without prejudice, without aversion or attachment. When the Buddha was asked if he experienced life like we all do he said “YES, but I am not take by it”. The regrets of the past and fears of the future are removed. Life is lived right here right now. In the Middle way.
What was Shinran Shonin’s view of these ideas?
Think about it, all our judgments of our own worth or worthlessness are based on our capacities - and as beings in Samsara we are conditioned beings our capabilities are flawed - Conditioned by a fundamental selfishness. Our self-power actions are at bottom limited and hollow. The world that emerges when we take refuge in the Wisdom and Compassion of the Universe, is not limited, not darkness, not a place where the only possibility is escape. But as Shinran states:
The compassionate light of the Buddha of unhindered light always brightens and protects the person who has realized true entrusting; hence the darkness of ignorance has already cleared, and the long night of birth-and-death is already dispelled at dawn.
Shinran’s view of Samsara and Nirvana is based on the lineage of the Pure Land teachings. The teacher Nagarjuna [up here] explained the doctrine of the two truths. He saw that Samsara and Nirvana were inter-penetrating realities. They are both real. Not separate places in any sense and not fundamentally dual. All things we see are empty of separateness. Everything we see is an event a not an individual object. Nagarjuna shows us that Samsara is really real. The stuff of Samsara is the stuff of Ultimate-Reality. Ultimate reality is Samsara seen with a Buddha’s eyes.
In the Ka-cha-yana-gotta Sutta the Buddha said,
"By and large, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' does not occur. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' does not occur."
Easier to follow in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha said,
Why have I told you all of this today? Because we need to know that Abiding Joy is is near by. Very near by. We teach and learn the Dharma to help us make it through the night. To give us insights that will free us from the suffering of Samsara and bring the true Happiness of Nirvana. We shouldn't forget the advice of the Sakyamuni Buddha he gave in the The Water-Snake Sutra. I’ll just read part of it….
At one time the Buddha was at Mala, and taught this lesson.
"To those who do not wisely examine their purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. Some people, for example, study the teachings only to use them in argument. To them, these teachings, wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering.
"Suppose a man wants a snake. He sees a snake, and when he grasps its tail, the snake bites him. Because of that, he suffers death or pain, and why, because of his wrong grasp of the snake.
"But suppose a man wants a snake, sees a snake, and with a forked stick holds it firmly down. Having done so, he catches it firmly by the neck. Similarly, there are some here who, having learned, examine wisely the purpose of the teachings. To them, these teachings will bring welfare and happiness.
We need to have views. And we need to trust them as long as they make sense. We need to use them skillfully. We need to let them go when they stop helping us. If we are suffering and wounded by our constant thirsting for pleasures in a misguided view pleasure makes us happy. Then we need to leave that snake behind. And Pursue True Happiness.
--- Namandabs - namandabs - Namandabs ---
*We use many sources in the Dharma talk. Nothing here is new or proprietary just retelling of the Dharma presented to the Sangha as a live teaching.
READING - 3may15
Thus I have heard - The holy one gave these teachings to the monks gathered at Rajagiriya…..
Should concentrate earnestly morning and night
With resolve in your heart, on these eight Teachings the Buddha
Has given to free us from suffering's grasp.
Throughout all the world there is nothing that is permanent.
Even the Earth has the nature of transience.
Bodies are centers of sorrow and emptiness.
All of my parts are devoid of self,
Are dependent on causes and therefore impermanent,
Changing, decaying and out of control.
Expectations of permanence cause disappointment,
and cause attachments that lead to wrongdoing.
Observing the world in this light, you may
progress toward freedom from birth and from death.
More desire only brings more suffering.
Birth and death, sorrow and weariness all come from
Greedy attachment to things of this world.
But controlling desire cuts the root of unhappiness,
Leaving the body and mind to relax.
Insatiable cravings for things of this world
Only cause you to pile up more useless possessions,
A seeker of freedom should let go of craving
And, seeing it's uselessness, grow in contentment.
Rejecting life's baubles and seek the Way.
Laziness leads to your own degradation.
Always work just as hard as you can
Because only this can solve all your problems
And so be released from the things that trouble you,
Finally escaping to Infinite Light.
The roots of unhappiness spring from ignorance.
Remember to listen and read to develop knowledge,
So as to aid other sufferers, hoping to
Bring sentient beings Nirvana's release
And awaken them all to Enlightenment's bliss.
Do not think ill of the poor
Leading to discord and further unhappiness.
Following Buddha's example, we always
Treat every being with love and respect.
Having malice toward none, dwell in contentment
And aid and encourage all beings to Peace.
The passions lead to sin and to sorrow,
But students of Dharma won't drag themselves down
By relying on pleasure to bring themselves happiness.
Better to think of the simple life,
Happy and free from the causes of misery.
Seeing the benefits brought by the Teachings,
The flames of existence are hard to escape.
They bring us to pain and to sorrow unlimited.
Resolve to awaken from slumber
And, feeling concern for all sentient beings,
Arouse an intense dedication to help
All to attain Perfect Peace.
This is the path that was traveled by the Buddhas, the great Bodhisattvas.
These are the truths they remembered which brought them release.
Follow them carefully, Develop compassion and wisdom together
Escape to the other shore
Where, freed from suffering, you can return
To the realm of Samsara in comfort and joy,
Bringing freedom and peace to all sentient beings.
To follow the Teachings, always
Remember these eight ways of looking at life,
Gaining the wisdom and peace of Nirvana
For only by this will you always be free
From the wheel of rebirth with its pain and its sorrow,At last and forever to finally find rest.