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Ming Zhen Shakya

What is Zen Buddhism?

Part II - Samsara and Nirvana
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

The aim of any meditation technique is to transcend ego-consciousness, that is, to go from ego-awareness to the state in which the ego doesn't exist. This is a tall order, one that specifies a division of experience.

On one side we have Nirvana - unconditional loves, permanent values - the Real world, our heaven. No egos and no judgments, just God in all His Persons - and peace, joy, truth and freedom - and the Eternal moment. We enter Nirvana through the act of meditation.

On the other side we have ego-awareness or Samsara as we call it... this is the Buddhist equivalent of hell... it is the world of illusion - appearances, judgments, opinions, conditional loves and values... the world that measures distance and history by Greenwich Mean Time.

Samsara is the hellish world of time and space and the shifting shapes which energy assumes, the fluctuating world which is apprehended by the senses and presided over by the judgmental ego. This is the world that the Buddha described as being "bitter and painful."

Why do we call Samsara hell? Let's take a look at the world of the ego. Suppose I see a woman who's wearing a yellow sweater. I would be making a Nirvanic utterance if I said simply, "I see a woman wearing a yellow sweater." I would be making a Samsaric utterance if I said, "I see a woman wearing a hideous yellow sweater." By my contemptuous, judgmental statement, by my egotistical usurpation of the exalted rank "Arbiter of Fashion" I have placed myself in the hell of Samsara because I now must stand trial for every garment I wear. I must commit much of my time and energy, and my financial resources, to looking good because I dare not ever be caught wearing anything hideous. Nobody will love me for dressing well; but if I make a fashion blunder then all those whom I have criticized will gleefully get their revenge.

In all our egotistical judgments - about clothes or art, or our instantaneous opinions about other people's guilt or innocence, or their sincerity or duplicity - about anything at all - we place ourselves at hellish risk.

Jesus said it best. "Judge not and ye shall not be judged."

In Samsara we believe that a man who drives a Cadillac is a better man than a man who drives a Ford because a Cadillac is a better car than a Ford. Right? And the man who wears a Rolex spends his time better than a man who wears a Timex... Isn't that how it goes? In Samsara we believe that the quality of a possession magically adheres to the possessor. People who have expensive junk are much happier than people who have cheap junk. How painful it is to learn that this belief is false... that this illusion defines deceit itself.

Thorstein Veblen, the great economist, wrote a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class. In it he compares sterling silver flatware to stainless steel flatware. Now, if you eat eggs or tomatoes - or many other foods - with sterling, you'll get this vile-tasting chemical reaction. You don't get this reaction with stainless steel. So stainless steel in many ways is superior to sterling. But be honest: a great hostess would sooner commit hara kiri with a butterknife than lay out anything but sterling.

In his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato likens people who live in the everyday world of ego-conscious existence, that is to say, Samsara, to people who have been chained since birth inside a Cave. They sit there facing the rear wall of the cave and their heads are so restrained that they cannot look around. Immediately behind them is a stage upon which marionette figures are moving; and behind this stage is a large fire. The fire casts the marionettes' shadows on the rear wall. And these moving shadows, then, are all that the chained people see. They regard them as real. But this isn't Reality, it's Maya ... Illusion...Samsara. Shadows of the shadow world... the world of the ego.

Transcendent Reality, or Nirvana, is what is seen in the brilliant sunlight outside the cave. There truth can be seen in its pure Ideal Forms. But few people ever try to free themselves from their chains to go out into the light. People always get into their dreary ruts and don't want to trust anything outside their own little niches.

Plato ended his allegory by saying that if a person ever got out of the cave and then in a mad desire to help his fellow man returned to tell them about that beautiful real world outside, they'd call him crazy and if he didn't shut up, they'd kill him.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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