“Nirvana is samsara”

An offensive and facile assertion

I’ve always found this facile assertion obnoxious. Everyone says it, but do they really experience it? The two terms are worlds apart. Just mushing them together in a proposition does not integrate them. Anyone can say square circle, but no one can make it present.

Moreover, telling someone that “Nirvana is samsara” is offensive—in the way that all silver-lining advice is offensive when a cheerful person paints her subjective state in front of while you’re permeated by emotional and spiritual pain. Cheery images make real pain worse by contrast. I’d rather hear a greater good argument, something that redeems the pain, even the dreaded “It’s all for the glory of God” or “God punishes his children because he loves them and wants to improve their character.

The facile assertion of nirvana and samsara doesn’t do even that. It’s just a violation of the and totally unhelpful.

On the other hand, paradoxes can also be offensive in the good Kierkegaardian way that promises something great if only you can “get” it in the right way. A Kierkegaardian paradox cannot be solved by the understanding, and that alone inspires hope. To get out of a rut, we need to get out of the understanding that reifies and normalizes it. A Kierkegaardian paradox is charged with the transformative promise that it contains a Lovecraftian power to break us open and connect us to a happy vastness of real experiential transcendence, rather than the misery of a smiling but disbelieving denial.

The identity of nirvana and samsara is the most difficult puzzle in all of Buddhism. But if it’s true, and we all know intuitively that it must be, we ought to find some graded system of mediations to give it experiential traction.

Well, I found one. The solution comes from China, where the most difficult puzzle of Buddhism was not skipped over or sidestepped with a slogan. The Chinese masters tackled the issue directly:

To deny the duality of samsara and nirvana, as the Perfection of Wisdom does, or to demonstrate logically the error of dichotomizing conceptualization, as Nagarjuna does, is not to address the question of the relationship between samsara and nirvana—or, in more philosophical terms, between phenomenal and ultimate reality …. What, then, is the relationship between these two realms?

Liang-Chieh, The Record of Tung-shan

The method is top down. It’s an emanation theory in the mode of Plotinus and the Kabbalah. But in this case the descent is practical rather then theoretical. We realized nirvana first, and then extend it more and more through our sympathetic nervous response—first into external space, and then into our relation with others.

The descent must be gradual. This is how humans must operate. Flatly saying that the two are co-inherent may be true, but it’s unhelpful. The difference is too extreme. I hope you will find this graded analysis helpful:

I: The Relative within the Absolute

The first rank describes the Absolute, insight into the empty nature or non-thing-ness of everything. It is the realization that all diverse things and events are in their essence the same, formless and empty. Emptiness is undisturbed by any subjective element.

According to Hakuin, this rank is only the beginning of Zen insight, but it can become a trap for people who take the absolute to be a final goal.

Although inside and out may be perfectly clear as long as you are hidden away in an unfrequented place where there is absolute quiet and nothing to do, yet you are powerless as soon as perception touches upon different worldly situations, with all their clamor and emotion, and you are beset by a plethora of miseries.

Hakuin, The Five Ranks

Well put. Insight into emptiness is concomitant with emotional and psychological peace. It’s easy to experience nirvana when isolated and protected. Throw the novice monk into turmoil—prison, a war zone, a ghetto—and suddenly the insight is absent.

II: The Absolute within the Relative

The second rank describes the recognition of the Absolute within perceptual turmoil. Hakuin calls it accessing nirvana

in the midst of the variety of different situations in action; you see everything before your eyes as your own original true clean face, just as if you were looking at your face in the mirror.

Unlike the insight of the first rank, which can be easily disturbed, the second rank has greater constancy in the face of distractions. However, seeing the absolute within the relative does not extend to one’s behavior towards others. Hakuin writes that, at this point, one is

neither conversant with the deportment of the bodhisattva, nor does he understand the causal conditions for a Buddha-land. Although he has a clear understanding of the Universal and True Wisdom, he cannot cause to shine forth the Marvelous Wisdom that comprehends the unobstructed interpenetration of the manifold dharmas.

This is recognition of the fabricated nature of perceptual reality, but it cannot accommodate the actions of other minds—free agents, which are unpredictable and threatening. Hell isn’t other furniture; it’s other people.

III: Coming from within the Absolute

The third rank covers interaction with others. Hakuin says,

Enlightened beings do not dwell in the state of result they have realized; from the ocean of effortlessness, they radiate unconditional compassion.

IV: Arrival at Mutual Integration

The fourth rank describes the bodhisattva of indomitable spirit who

stands in the midst of the filth of the world, “his head covered with dust and his face streaked with dirt.” He moves through the confusion of sound and sensual pleasure, buffeted this way and buffeted that. He is like the fire-blooming lotus, that, on encountering the f lames, becomes still brighter in color and purer in fragrance. “He enters the market place with empty hands,” yet others receive benefit from him. This is what is called to be on the road, yet not to have left the house; to have left the house, yet not to be on the road.” Is he an ordinary man? Is he a sage? The evil ones and the heretics cannot discern him. Even the buddhas and the patriarchs cannot lay their hands upon him. Were anyone to try to indicate his mind, [it would be no more there than] the horns of a rabbit or the hairs of a tortoise that have gone beyond the farthest mountain.

But this is still not the final goal. Such a man has in and of himself a heaven-soaring spirit. What must he do in the end?

V: Unity Attained

The fifth rank describes “the mellow maturity of consciousness.” According to Sekida, this rank is described in case 13 of the Mumonkan:

One day Tokusan went down toward the dining room, holding his bowls. Seppo met him and asked, “Where are you off to with your bowls? The bell has not rung, and the drum has not sounded.” Tokusan turned and went back to his room.

Seppo mentioned this to Ganto, who remarked, “Tokusan is renowned, but he has not penetrated into the final truth of Zen.”

Tokusan heard about this remark and sent his attendant to fetch Ganto. “You do not approve of me?” he asked.

Ganto whispered to Tokusan what he meant. Tokusan said nothing, leaving Ganto there, but the next day he ascended the rostrum, and behold! he was very different from usual [he delivered an entirely different sermon to the monks]!

Ganto, going toward the front of the hall, clapped his hands and laughed loudly, saying, “Congratulations! Our old man has got hold of the final truth! From now on, nobody in this whole country can outdo him!

Tokusan and Ganto put on a show pretending that Ganto’s insult really affected him, in order to teach Seppo, via this dramatic prank, not to be so triggerable by social reality. Being compassionate even in the midst of reality-forging intersubjective agreement is the highest and most stable rank of realization. Click here for the best interpretation.