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Samsara Is Nirvana

The Buddha-Dharma begins with a fundamental question: “How do we resolve the difficulties we cause and experience?”


Buddhism suggests these difficulties result from our tendency to see the world through our preferences and our prejudices. We hold on to what we want and push away what we don’t want. We divide our world up into good, bad, right, and wrong, offering opportunities for opposition and difficulties to arise. If we can begin to see things as they are, we might begin to soften the boundaries that separate and begin to recognize the profound relationship we share with all life. 


There are and have been practices prescribed to cultivate the mind that are free of prejudice. Many of these practices flow from the Fourth Noble Truth; the Eightfold Path. If we are able to follow the prescribed practices and cultivate the mind that sees things as they are we might begin to resolve the difficulties we cause and experience. 


What happens if we are unable to follow the prescribed practices? For those who lack the discipline and skills there is the Vow of Amida Buddha. Amida’s Vow assures us, as we are, of the resolution of difficulties. That assurance allows me to recognize more deeply the consequences and depth of my prejudices. Whether I think of Amida as mythical or real, I am changed as I rely on that assurance. If I misunderstand the assurance of Amida, Amida is not changed, Amida’s assurance continues. And I am not changed, I continue to cause and experience difficulties for myself and others. 


I am always amazed at how difficult and chaotic the times of Shinran’s life were. His life spanned the period of 1173 to 1263. In 1180, war between the Taira and Minamoto clans erupted in the streets of Kyoto. The Gempei War would end in 1185 and usher in the Kamakura Period and the Tent Government of Kamakura. The Gempei War came to a halt in 1181 due to the Yowa Famine, which began in 1181 and ended in 1182.


Kamo no Chōmei records his observations in his “Hojoki,” which he wrote in 1212. In the “Hojoki,” which is still required reading in many schools in Japan, Chomei describes the streets of Kyoto. So many corpses were left where they died. Along the riverbanks, bodies were stacked like cord wood. In a section of Kyoto alone, more than 40,000 dead were counted. 


Many more had died before and beyond these boundaries. The famine was throughout the country, but most heavily experienced in the Kyoto area. The Gempei War that began in 1180 and halted between 1181 and 1182 because of the famine began again in 1182 and ended three years later in 1185. In the midst of this, Shinran, at age 9, entered Hieizan. I cannot imagine that the circumstances around him did not influence this decision.


For the next 20 years, Shinran was committed to understanding the Dharma, but eventually decided to leave. He began his studies with Honen until 1207, when the group was banned, two disciples were executed, and Honen and Shinran were sent into exile in opposite ends of the country. 


In Echigo, Shinran began a family with Eshinni. There as neither a priest nor layman, Shinran’s life seemed to have settled down. In 1214, after receiving a pardon, he decided to go to Kanto rather than return to Kyoto. He taught and shared the Dharma there for nearly 20 years until he decided to return to Kyoto. 


The Kanki Famine of 1230 to 1231 may have influenced Shinran and Eshinni’s decision to separate. Shinran would return to Kyoto and Eshinni would return to Echigo. Eshinni was born in 1182 and may have known of the Yowa Famine only through stories told to her. But she experienced the Kanki Famine with her family and was well aware of the hardships everyone endured. 


In a verse of the “Shoshinge,” Shinran wrote:


“When a foolish being of delusion and defilement awakens shinjin,

He realizes that birth-and-death is itself nirvana:

Without fail he reaches the land of immeasurable light,

And universally guides sentient beings to enlightenment”


There is no separation of samsara and nirvana, no two sides of the same coin. Samsara is nirvana. I experience nirvana as samsara because of my tendency to engage the world through my prejudices. 


I am not certain about how Shinran engaged his world. It is amazing, however, how his gratitude for Amida and the Buddha-Dharma continued to deepen in the midst of the turmoil and difficulties he encountered throughout his life.


Note: “Hojokiis an essay by Kamo no Chomei (1153 or 1155–1216). There are many translations available. Chomei was a contemporary of Shinran who lived in and around Kyoto. His record of events offer a glimpse into what may have shaped Shinran’s appreciation of the Dharma. 


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han gu
han gu
Jun 26

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