Samsara As Seen By The Four Schools Of Zen

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

The term samsara simply means the nature of the life that we are born into in this human form, experience the world around us based on HOW we are influenced to see it, and then die. It refers to all aspects of the various functions of our lives plus the body-mind psychodynamic events encountered along the way. Considering the causal nature of this world of ours, our body-minds are in constant change as we are influenced by the cultural, physical, and karmic realities from moment to moment. Each of us is conditioned by our unique experiences, our education, and our place in the social network of the community we find our birth has put us in. Thus, we must make choices based on limited information and the perspective we have adopted of the world around us.

The Buddha awakened to this reality and it is reflected in the first of the Four Noble Truths. He taught that to move from this state of suffering and unsatisfactoriness (samsara) to one of liberation (nirvana) we must walk the Eightfold path; not just walk it but to become it. As we gain knowledge and wisdom we awaken to the reality that samsara and nirvana are really two aspects of this “one-mind” state we are working to cultivate from our cushions. Both are inescapable no matter the degree of an awakened body-mind. No matter how hard we work to elevate all delusion, we still have some deluded and egocentric states of being. Humans can never become perfect. That would suggest a state of being beyond the causal way the Universe expresses itself. There will always be encounters with unexpected situations that have the potential to bring suffering into our lives. So, how can one live in nirvana? The answer is that we can’t, either some or most of the time. We work to do our best, the rest is out of our hands. But the various answers to this question differ based on how the four Zen school’s teachings have manifested basic practices that work to achieve perfecting states of nirvana that can only be recognized by one’s reduced states of suffering. You see, nirvana is hard to recognize, suffering is not. That is why all Zen schools focus on suffering, and let states of nirvana naturally appear. It is a matter of achieving balance and equanimity.

I will use as a way of explaining how the four “base-line” schools of Ch’an/Zen reflect on the teaching of refining our lives away from causes of suffering by using the analogy of a multifaceted jewel. This image of a jewel is often used to symbolize Buddha-nature. In the Southern school (Rinzai), when this transparent jewel is illuminated by light of a particular color, it takes on the color of the object (physical or mental) being reflected. So, when placed on a black piece of paper, it will become black. On yellow, it will become yellow. Same is true with our human body-mind. Various situations we encounter in our lives will reflect the experiences and preferences our jewel-mind has become. If our life becomes really dark and foreboding and full of delusion and harmful desire, our body-mind will reflect back this attitude in each situation. We work to discover the true nature of this jewel which will be revealed in a sudden moment of practice-experience. Yet the jewel itself is transparent and does not change from its natural state of reality. It is transparent from the very beginning of our existence, and only becomes “colored” by how we respond to life experiences and develop filters from which to view it.

In the Northern school (Soto), it is taught that the black color is really false. For us to become awakened and to reveal the bright jewel, we have to remove the black from our minds. This process will be gradual and take possible decades to reveal. We practice to erase the darkness from our deluded states of being. We sit to polish our minds, and thus polish this jewel that has become discolored. In order to do this, we must constantly practice and live in consistent awareness of every moment in order to keep the jewel clear and bright, or it will become dirty once again.

Hongzhou’s school of Ch’an Buddhism maintained that everything we do, whether we are awakened or deluded, is the function of this transparent jewel. The school taught that without color we could not really experience the presence of the jewel. So we do not need to eliminate a particular color to reveal the jewel. Buddha nature does not exist independently of particular situations. Even when we our deluded in our actions, it is nothing other than the functions of Buddha nature. So this idea of samara or nirvana is equality present in our Buddha natures. So we do not need to polish anything or engage in any particular practice. We just work to accept each moment as it comes, and practice the Three Pure Precepts. In this way, our Buddha natures will shire through in our actions. It is not about the jewel, but about how we experience it that matters.

Finally in the Heze school (An historical Japanese tradition), a more pragmatic approach to the question was considered and believed that each of the others schools was partially correct. This school taught that each color caused by various conditions is really false, and was an imperfect reflection of reality. The fact that we can be aware of various colors of states of being is just empty delusions without distinctions. It just means that our minds are not empty after all, but we can not grasp the nature of this jewel like reality in any clear way, but we can nevertheless sense it’s influence. We must realize this interconnectiveness and see the bright jewel as covered with delusions and then practice to free ourselves form delusions that brings an enlightened state of being. When that happens after a long period of practice we experience sudden awakening. In this way, this school combined the elements of gradual practice with the possibility for sudden awakening. It takes time but is revealed to us in an instant.

Pragmatic Buddhism’s perspective: Frequently the study of Buddhism involves trying to subtract something from who we are. We practice to become “one with the Universe” as though we are not that already. In this way some students of Buddhism believe they are going to find real Buddha nature. This does not seem to me a practical or useful approach to a strong Buddhist life. It is interesting that when we stop looking, that which we are seeking has been right under our noses all along. In the example above, let us not get all caught up in trying to solve the riddle of “the jewel”, as though we need to get rid of something in our internal make-up so we can see the “magic stone” these Zen teachers are trying to point to, but never use words we can understand clearly. Zen practice does not have to be mystical, but it does need to encompass a solid understanding of how this world of ours is reflected back to us when we come to clear away the mind-cobwebs from years of misuse and distorted ways of seeing. That process is what brings into clearer focus the realities of this wonderful creation we call “world”. Zen practice is a series of steps. Through study and practice we begin to crawl out of the weeds of misunderstanding and distortion. It is like coming from a dark place into the bright sunshine. It takes our sight away for a period of time and we do not know what we are seeing. With guidance and a great deal of rigorous self-honesty, we begin to adjust our practice-sight that begins to teach us that what we have been looking at all along were shadows and not the real thing. To be free from our ego-clinging existence we have to see that “emptiness” of all things. This is the objective of seeing this emptiness through describing it like a jewel. When we make things full of self-interpretation, we are giving them color. And that distorted interpretation can hide the jewel of what they really are. We have to return to see things through the eyes of our human form before our sight became clouded. But even that way of considering our practice is distorted. For me, Dogen said it best when we taught that there are no steps in practice. That practice and awakening are actually the same thing. While there is no place to go, there is a space free of delusion. Zazen is the tool that works to polish this Buddha-nature-jewel in order that it reflects back things as they really are. Zazen is the most natural thing for us humans to do, but achieving this natural state of being is the most difficult thing for us humans to accomplish.

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