Cycling Through samsara to nirvana II
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Last week we talked about samsara as a lack of mindfulness from birth to death of the suffering we all experience, and that finding ways to break that cycle will lead us to bodymind states of nirvana in our moment-to-moment existence. We used the definition from John J. Holder as a bridge to understanding the concept of samsara and its value in our Buddhist practice.
samsara: cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; mundane, unenlightened existence; escape from samsara constitutes liberation or nibbana.
To “escape” from samsara and experience awakened (or liberated) moments you need to know what the aspects of the samsara state of mind are that will hinder you from those experiences. I ended the talk last week with these words, “It is up to you to get on your bicycle and ride.” So, let’s do it.
A successful bike ride, one that doesn’t end in being lost, injured or discontent, is dependent on a variety of factors, some you’ll have control over and others that you’ll need to develop the ability to react to in appropriate ways. To realize how to react you must first recognize what traditional Buddhist philosophy views as the obstructions to success, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination that can hinder the noble path, in this case the bike path you’ve chosen. Those links are: ignorance, volitional actions, consciousness, psychophysical phenomena, the sense faculties, contact, sensation, thirst, clinging, the process of becoming, birth, and pain-and-death. These are viewed as the hindrances of human condition that must be overcome to reach a nirvanic state of being. Each of links are interconnected with the others even though some may seem to arise and fall away independently.
Before the bike trip begins let’s talk about ‘birth’. Traditional Buddhist thinking is that the fact of being born puts you in the state of samsara, and that through a series of rebirths in the metaphysical sense you are no longer are reborn, find yourself in Nirvana the destination, and ta-da . . . all is good . . . at least for you. In my view that is both pessimistic and selfish. None of us would have the opportunity to experience life, to experience samsara if you weren’t born because no one is born into Nirvana. Without birth though you wouldn’t have the opportunity to walk the noble path and experience the wonder of a human life. So, of the twelve links, this one doesn’t hold much contemporary value except that it is the beginning of our co-dependent human condition, giving each of us the opportunities to find a path through samsara to moments of nirvana (awakening).
The cycling trip you’re anticipating is from the state of samsara to the state of nirvana. You want that goal to be reached in a joyful, rewarding and positive way, and that takes planning. To do that you’ve got to have knowledge of the route, the bike, possible hindrances, and your own abilities. Being ignorant of any of these things could lead to negative consequences like pain and death for example.
There are volitional actions you will need to make along the way, personal choices to be made and actions to be taken. Also, you’ll encounter the volitional actions of others that will need to be reacted to appropriately . . . the erratic driver, a dog crossing the road, or a sudden thunderstorm. You develop the ability to make the best choices through knowledge and experience gained through study and practice. At the start you’ll need to consciously think about what to do, but with study and practice those responses will become subconscious ones leading to positive consequences. Think of like riding your first ten-speed and trying to shift into the right gear for hills, then switching to another for flat terrain. At the start you must concentrate on when and how to shift but as you gain knowledge and experience the actions become automatic. This translates to any learned skill when the bodymind acts through a sort of muscle memory making how you act look spontaneous.
Cycling through samsara to nirvana your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind will encounter new colors, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings and thoughts. Each input through your sense faculties will be unique. Each will need to be appropriately viewed and appropriate actions taken dependent on causal factors. Riding along you may find yourself doubting your ability to continue, the illusion that you’re all alone on the road, the fear of being struck by lighting; causing psychophysical phenomena that arise when the possibility of negative events cause mental anguish and discontent. You find yourself approaching an intersection and you experience the sensational smell of fresh brewed coffee. You might take your eyes off the road for an instant and come in contact with the bus bench at the side of the road. Or, accepting that you’re thirsty you keep your focus and make it safely through the intersection . . . then you look for that Starbucks. How you react can mean the difference between pain and death, or contentment and wisdom.
You stop to check the route you’ve marked on the map and discover you’re just miles away from what you’ve named as your destination. Energized, you pedal away and around the next curve you find the bridge over a swiftly flowing stream has collapsed. You don’t see any other way across. This was the route you’d decided on to reach your destination, the only route you’d considered, it was THE ROUTE. Clinging to the possibility that the bridge will be fixed soon you approach the highway workers repairing it. Hearing that it will be weeks for the repairs to be finished you’re faced with a choice. You can give up right then and go back, clinging to your original plan . . . or find a new route, and continue your journey. In Buddhist philosophy this is known as a moment of doubt, of reaching a plateau. Asking the highway workers if you can look at their map you find, just a quarter of a mile away another bridge. New route, same destination.
Ignorance, volitional actions, consciousness, psychophysical phenomena, the sense faculties, contact, sensation, thirst, clinging, the process of becoming, birth, and pain-and-death together are known as the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination because they arise and fall away in relation to each other. None of them stand alone. That they are traditionally offered as hindrances to reaching the destination of Nirvana gives them a negative aura. What happens if they are viewed through a different lens . . . a lens of potential? It is a lens that reveals the potential value of moment-to-moment nirvanic flashes.
Ignorance is the mirrored reflection of knowledge, and knowledge leads us to wisdom. Knowledge is gained through study, through action, and through experience. It can open up the bodymind to realizing moments of nirvana.
Volitional actions are the choices. Each time a choice appropriate to generating encompassing positive consequences is taken you can find yourself in the midst of moments of nirvana. Those realization will bring vitality to your practice like drinking that cup of Starbucks finest and getting back on the bike.
Engaging in appropriate views of the input from the negative effects of psychophysical phenomena, the delusions that come with sense faculties and sensations, that a thirst for any phenomena can lead one away from their goal allows realization that the goal can be reached again-and-again. Clinging to the very process of becoming can keep you in a state of samsara. Letting yourself become attached to the process of finding a permanent state of nirvana can blind you to the nirvanic moments that can be experienced. It is like the person who rides their bicycle only for the sensation of riding and becomes ignorant of how the world is around them. They focus only on the journey and fail to learn that in overcoming the hindrances along the way they can develop positive personal characteristics and have positive consequences on the world around them.
The Twelve Links are phenomena like any others, they manifest as physical and mental obstructions that are empty until given form by how you respond to them. Whenever they arise they can be shattered by applying the dharma, the realities of how things really are rather than clinging to how you want them to be. The reality of impermance shatters the notion that physical and mental phenomena have permanent existence. The reality of the not-self shatters the notion that we are unable to positively transform how we think and act in order to deal effectively with whatever the causal Universe throws our way.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” While I have great respect for the man, I disagree with the aphorism. Life is a holistic combination of journey and destination. I’d rather think that life is a journey of destinations. From birth to death we travel through samsara and all along way we can experience moments of nirvana, awakened moments that arise and fall away. Nirvanic moments that add equal amounts of joy and fear, ignorance and knowledge, compassion and doubt; each that guide us on the noble path.