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Samsara and Nirvana 3 May 2015

posted May 5, 2015, 4:45 PM by Reno Budd


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….

Once Upon a time, there was a turtle who lived in a pond with a group of fish. One day the turtle went for a walk on dry land. He was away from the pond for a few weeks.
When he returned to the cool pond, he met some of the fish. The fish asked him, "Mister turtle, hello! How are you?

We have not seen you for a few weeks. Where have you been? The turtle said, "I was up on the land, I have been spending some time walking around."

The fish were a little puzzled and they said, "Up on dry land? What are you talking about?  What is this dry land?

Is it wet?" The turtle said "No, it is not,"

"Is it cool and refreshing?" "No it is not",

"Does it have waves and ripples?"

"No, it does not have waves or ripples."

"Can you swim in it?" "No you can't"

A school of fish had gathered by now and they all felt very confused.  They knew the turtle had been gone, but what he said made little sense. He just said “no” to all their questions. They summoned the smartest fish in the pond - a wise old trout - After going through the series of questions and answers again the Trout thought he had figured out the riddle the turtle posed.  trout said, "it is not wet, it is not cool, there are no waves, you can’t swim in it. So this dry land of yours must be completely non-existent, just an imaginary thing, nothing real at all." The trout was very proud of himself and some of the fish looked at him in admiration.
The turtle said, "Well may be so" and he left the fish and went for another walk on dry land….

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.  
The puzzle for the turtle is - How do we characterize realms that have similarities and differences without endless negation?  How do we tell others about our unique experience and insight?

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.   

Samsara is a realm of suffering - no matter where you are born.
As limited beings we make the error of equating Pleasure with Happiness.  The “I-Me-Me-My” being inside me - my delusion of self  - thinks that if I cling to things, or people, or ideas - it will be ok. This self seeks pleasure as an antidote for the pain of suffering. In the Dharma book group on Wednesday nights [at 6:30pm], we are reading a book by the Dalai lama called “The Art of happiness”.  And in it he illustrates this very well.  Our culture in particular seeks pleasurable experiences at the expense of happiness.  We think that satisfying our desires for sensations is the same as happiness.  

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. ephemeral as a drop of dew on a leaf, shining brilliantly one moment, gone the next.

He goes on to show Happiness is a state of being that we can all access. When we are content with what we have.  When we are not driven by desire.   When Chloe sat by the fire. Wanting nothing. She was happy.  She existed in abiding joy.

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….
Nirvana is a realm of not-suffering.  Nibbana means to “Blow out the flame of desire” or can mean “unbinding”.  No longer bound by desire for becoming we are freed.  It is a real of abiding Joy. It is an Unconditioned reality.  It is Ultimate Reality. It is this same reality NOT conditioned by our mind state.   If you look at reality  without the lense of  “I - Me -Mine”  it must look very different.   I literally can't imagine what that is.   I go back to the proverb...Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise.”

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?
         Shinran was Tendai Buddhist priest who saw the limits of self power practice and struck out on a radically new and yet old path. Like all Buddhist paths - The aim of the Pure Land path is to break the bonds of Samsaric existence - of the power of the past that compels us through meaningless cycles of birth to death and death to birth.  We talked about Samsara.  It’s not a good place to get stuck.   Sort of a Sargasso Sea of existence.  We are driven by the fears of the delusional self for its fate in the future. Shinran saw the break out from Samsara is accomplished when we stop clinging to our imagined self.  When we stop treating it as though it is true and real and simply trust in the Infinite compassion and Infinite Wisdom of the Universe.  Trust in the activity of Amida Buddha. Shinran showed this path is available to all sentient beings because it is not the result of their self power.  This True Entrusting does not happen through our own nature or insight or action, but through the working of the Primal Vow; the fundamental hold of self-attachment is broken by the Buddha.

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,
"Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form."
The absolute is the relative, the relative is the absolute. Together, they make up reality.  This helps us not make a mistake in thinking that the the world of Samsara is a false reality and the world of Nirvana is a true reality.   No - these are the two truths, not the one truth and one lie. Both truths are true. We can abide in Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise.”

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….

Thus have I heard:

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.
When we see past the ideas and constructs of this existence and   experience the clarity of a Buddha in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha then we can leave these thoughts behind and return to help others reach the Other Shore of understanding.

--- 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  
The Enlightenment Sutra

Thus I have heard -   The holy one gave these teachings to the monks gathered at Rajagiriya…..

You  who would follow the Path [Teachings of Buddha]

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.

This is the first of the things to remember:

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.

This is the second thing to should remember:

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.

This is the third of the things to remember:

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.

This is the fourth of the things to remember:

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.

This is the fifth of the things to remember:

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.

This is the sixth of the things to remember:

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.

This is the seventh thing I should remember:

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,

This is the eighth of the things to remember:

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.

These are the thoughts that lead to enlightenment,

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.

These thoughts are tools that will help you remember.

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.