♫ ♫ ♫ “Samsara” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫
Someone asked, “What is ‘true insight’?”
The master said, “You have only to enter the secular, enter the sacred, enter the defiled, enter the pure, enter the lands of all the buddhas, enter the Tower of Maitreya, enter the dharma realm of Vairocana and all of the lands everywhere that manifest and come into being, exist, decay, and disappear.
~from The Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Linji Huizhao of Zhenzhou
As I review my Dharma Diary that spans over the past twelve months, I find, over and over again, a pointed instruction to myself: “No More Samsara-ing.” It appears in the very first entry of my diary, and its most recent appearance was only a few days ago. My need to remind myself “No More Samsara-ing” comes up again and again, on multiple levels and in numerous contexts, much like the turning of a wheel over ever-changing terrain.
Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.
Ha. Yet again.
Photo by Hartwig HKD on Flickr.com.
Some explanation is in order. The literal meaning of samsara, a Sanskrit word, is “wandering on.” In Buddhism, samsaric existence is the life we lead – billions of “selves” with unquiet minds, endlessly searching and seeking, creating storylines for ourselves and others, constructing situations and circumstances – worlds – for ourselves in which we attempt to dwell, only to find that these worlds can’t last. They keep changing, morphing, even collapsing, and when we try to hold onto them, we suffer. And not only that: when we develop aversions to our worlds, we also suffer. Regardless of whether we grasp or reject the situations of our lives, we keep suffering, and as a result, we wander on and on, hoping that the next world, the next circumstance, will satisfy us and we’ll find peace at last.
Well, it doesn’t work.
I’m a novelist. A composer of music. A creator of all kinds, not the least of which the architect of my life. In the course of my trips around the sun – and particularly, in the course of my Dharma practice – I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that the worlds I create are no more permanent and enduring than the barest wisp of a thought entertained at the sight of a rare mushroom in the forest. I have a lot of fun playing in my fictional and musical worlds. Yet as I look back on my life, I see that not only have I suffered a great deal as a result of my many mind constructs but that other people have suffered from them, too. So it is, I suspect, with all of us.
It’s a strange thing, human thought and creativity. We become so invested in our views that we bend and distort what gets processed through our senses to where we can fit what we want into our view and ignore what’s left – what we don’t want to see – serving as the rationalization to continue our world-building, to continue turning on the wheel of samsara. We suffer, but then we often blame anything – or anyone – outside ourselves whom we can find as a handy scapegoat. It’s ironic that when we seek peace, we also look outside ourselves for its signposts, then continue our world-building to that end. Again, we wind up disappointed. We think peace and happiness are attainable only in samsaric existence and that we need only to build the right world to house our egos. That’s what we’re taught. That’s how we’re conditioned from birth. That’s how we develop layers of habitual reactivity, self-perpetuating negativity, and dissatisfaction.
Why is samsara an ongoing death spiral? It’s because we can never build a permanent, unchangeable edifice wherein our egos can dwell in perpetuity. That assumption is built on the idea of an unchanging self, which is nothing more than another delusion. Our “selves” change all the time, from year to year, month to month, moment to moment. “Self” is never the same. Like everything else in the world, we are all in a state of flux and flow. If we could somehow build a “perfect” and unchanging circumstance or situation in which our selves could dwell, the nature of self is such that we would eventually become dissatisfied because our “selves” – a dynamic process, not a static edifice – would change.
When we grasp something, that means we like it and we want to hang onto it. We cling with all our might to what we want to be its permanence. This dynamic is evident not only in our distaste for acknowledging our own mortality but also that of our loved ones. How paradoxical that we cling – even though we know such clinging is irrational and unrealistic – to the idea that our loved ones will be with us forever and ever, because such clinging to the idea of relationships as permanent often leads to taking these relationships for granted, thereby imperiling them. When we delude ourselves that our relationships will last forever, we don’t fully open our hearts to our families and friends and care for them as much as we might otherwise, if we acknowledged the fleeting and brief nature of our human lives.
Ajahn Brahm has a wonderful simile: we take much better care of a fragile, china cup than a comparatively indestructible plastic one. Why? We know the china cup will someday crack, so we handle it with care. The plastic cup, by contrast, can be thrown from wall to wall, and nothing much would happen. That’s why, when we stop clinging to the idea of permanence, we’re better able to care. We delude ourselves by clinging to the notion of permanence, when there’s no such thing in this world. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell sings, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / ‘Til its gone.” That’s a sad reality in many of our lives – attaching ourselves to the notion of something being permanent, only to find ourselves devastated when our hopes are inevitably dashed. So it seems to me that part of stopping samsara must be to care for each moment, whatever and whomever that moment is filled with, since the moment will never come again.
Aversion and rejection are part of samsara, too. Take worry, for instance. When we worry, we’re creating worlds that don’t exist. After all, what we’re worrying about might not happen at all. A big problem with worry is that when we immerse ourselves in its world, we expend a great deal of energy and emotion on possibilities that might never come to be. And a mind clouded by fear – the essence of worry, since worry is about fear of the future – cannot see anything with clarity. Fear bends and distorts everything that comes into our minds and twists it to its own ends, so the outcome of worry tends to be more worry, and the outcome of fear tends to be more fear. Instead of insight, we have delusion, and instead of skillful action through which we can handle situations in life with wisdom and compassion, we create more negativity and more wheels turning and turning. Many, many more. And all of them are of our own making. That’s the essence of samsara. No wonder the Buddha sought to find the path out of it and put an end to suffering.
What about true insight, to which Linchi refers in the quote above? In The Record of Linchi, he refers to “the ocean of birth and death.” That’s another way to describe samsara. People who believe in rebirth conceptualize awakening – that is, getting off the wheel of samsara – as putting a stop to a continual cycle of literal births and deaths. As with all spiritual paths, many interpretations are possible, and indeed, the Buddha encouraged questioning and investigation, both of which are integral to the path of the Dharma. I tend to think of “the ocean of birth and death” as the same thing as samsara, in which we create, in our minds, so many habitual responses and attitudes toward the things we experience in our lives, and these attitudes cause attachment – grasping or aversion – which results in suffering. Far better to climb out of the ocean, stand on the shore, and see the whole thing, in all its undulations, waves, ebbs, and flows for what it is than to spend our lives in a tempest-tossed boat, making our whole lives about what the water is doing at any given moment instead of realizing that not far away, there’s a shore on which we can stand upright with dignity, a shore from which we can get a clearer perspective on the whole ocean and from which we can, with greater stability, choose our actions.
Meditation and mindfulness can help us off the boat in which we feel ourselves at the mercy of the ocean of birth and death. In meditation practice, we see how the mind grasps and rejects, how thoughts arise and then fall away, and how we can always return to the breath, which gives us clarity. It’s the same thing with mindfulness practice, since returning to the breath – the calm center – helps us to develop insight and a more peaceful mind that doesn’t bend what comes in through the senses to suit the ego’s purposes.
We get off the wheel of samsara by letting go, letting go, letting go. We let go of views, we let go of self, we let go of judgment. It doesn’t mean we disappear. Letting go means developing a clear perspective on these things – that is, that ego and views and judgment do not, nor can they ever, define us or others. The more we let go, the more stable we are, the more calm we are, the more peace we can make with ourselves, with other people, and with life. This is what I think Chan Master Linchi was getting at when he spoke about true insight.
Consider all the tiny births and deaths that happen every day. On a hike, say, I find a rare ladyslipper orchid, breathtakingly beautiful by the side of a rugged mountain trail. A birth. On a subsequent hike, I find that the orchid has withered. A death. I spend lots of time preparing an extra-scrumptious meal and feel anticipation, culminating in my and my husband’s enjoyment of the meal. A birth. Then, the meal is gone, and there’s no more left. A death. I go to sleep at night. A death to the day that has passed. I find myself in a delightful dream. A birth. I wake up from the dream. It’s the death of the dream but a birth to the new day.
Instead of experiencing the moments of our lives as births and deaths – as an ongoing samsaric wheel in which we feel inextricably caught – we strive to experience with less clinging to outcomes, with more gratitude and mindful action, and with the clear recognition that our lives are, indeed, this and this and this.
Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.
I’ll end with one of my favorite teachings from Zen Master Dogen: “That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening.”