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Kannon (Guan Yin)

The Six Worlds of Samsara

Spiritually speaking, human existence is divided into ten worlds. The first six of these worlds are depicted as segments of an endlessly turning wheel; the last four are seen as storeys of a high mountain.

The six worlds belong to Samsara, the realm of illusion in which reality is distorted by an intervening ego. The four worlds belong to Nirvana, the realm of pure awareness in which, in ascending degrees, reality is experienced directly without the ego's interpretations. The goal of Chan is to get to the top of this mountain, i.e., to experience life spontaneously, without subjecting all incoming data to the ego's edicts and explications.

Because it is so important to understand at the outset exactly what is meant by these two terms, Samsara and Nirvana, or, Form and Emptiness as they are frequently called, we will illustrate the distinction between them.

Let us imagine a room, a parlor in the home of Miss Jane Doe. In this room a human being sits on a blue velvet sofa. Opposite the sofa are two pale silk brocade chairs. At the ends of the sofa are tables upon which sit lamps which have large, ruffled shades. On the floor is a rose and cream medallion rug and on the walls are many oil paintings which bear the signature of Jane Doe. The windows are open and a strong breeze causes the curtains to billow into the room. Outside, a poplar tree branch slaps rhythmically against one of the window panes. A clock on the mantle chimes eleven o'clock.

This description of things exactly as they are is the reality of Nirvana or Emptiness.

Now let us imagine this same room as seen though the eyes of the person who is sitting on the sofa. Let us say that this person is Louisa Doe, Miss Jane Doe's niece who has come in response to an invitation for tea. While the aunt is busy in the kitchen, the niece looks around the room and says to herself, "Those paintings are atrocious. No wonder the poor woman never married. And those lampshades. Good grief! But this sofa is first rate. She must have paid a fortune for it. I remember seeing it years ago and it still looks the same. So soft... Too bad I'm not into Duncan Phyfe. Lord, she ought to recover those chairs! The armrests are positively grungy. But this rug... I'll bet it's a real oriental. Yes... This must be the one she bought in Cairo. That breeze means business. I wonder if I left the car windows down. She'd better get that branch cut back or one of these days it'll break the glass. Eleven o'clock! Ah, that's the old Hamilton chimer Daddy says is rightfully his. I hope I can get out of here by noon. I wonder if she plans to leave this place to me."

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 5: The Six Worlds of Samsara, Page 1 of 13

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)