Why Samsara is Nirvana

I may have been unfair the other day in my post Sufferings are Nirvana with my characterization of the early Buddhist view, and that of present day Theravada, on nibbana. Richard, who blogs at My Buddha is Pink, pointed out in his thoughtful response that annihilation “is a mistaken translation . . . Nibbana is not annihilation, but really is an image of freedom because the underlying Pali root in the term ‘nibbana’ means ‘unbinding’.”

I am not convinced that annihilation or something on that order doesn’t figure in somewhere, however I will leave it for others to explain those teachings.

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

I would like to share a few more thoughts on how nirvana is viewed in Mahayana, specifically in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka or Middle Way philosophy, as far as I understand it.

I should point out that Madhyamaka looks at everything through the lens of the Two Truths: the conventional or relative truth (vyavahara) and the ultimate or absolute truth (paramartha). What is valid from the standpoint of the relative truth of our everyday world is not necessarily valid from the ultimate side. In the final analysis, though, the relative and the ultimate are neither different, nor identical. Nor does one stand independently of the other.

The same can be said of samsara and nirvana. In Madhyamaka, samsara represents the world of birth and death, the world of suffering, while nirvana represents realization of the ultimate truth, without which freedom from the bondage (bandhana) of suffering is not possible.

As noted above, one sense of nirvana is that of “unbinding.” In the Madhyamaka-karika or “Roots Verses on the Middle Way,” Nagarjuna says, “If binding, would exist prior to one who is bound, there would be bondage, but that does not exist.”

Binding/bondage belongs to the relative truth. In the ultimate truth, if binding existed prior to the bondage of a sentient being, then it would have inherent existence.  Yet, ultimately, neither bondage nor anything else has inherent existence (Svabhava, own-being, self), and so release from bondage is not an inherently existent phenomenon either.

This is important because grasping onto the false idea of inherent existence is the primary cause for suffering. Nagarjuna felt that the term “nirvana” was useful for indicating spiritual release, but only if the term did not refer to something that could be an object for clinging. A few verses on, he says, “Those who grasp at the notion, ‘I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,’ have a great grasp on grasping.”

In The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield provides a good explanation of this:

It is [possible] to grasp after nirvana – to reify it as a state and to crave it as a phenomenon inherently different from samsara and as highly desirable since it is indeed characterized as liberation from suffering. But this grasping onto the end of grasping is itself a grasping and so precludes the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana requires, according to Nagarjuna, a complete cessation of grasping, including that onto nirvana itself. While that might seem paradoxical, it is not: To grasp onto something in this sense requires, inter alia, that one reify it. By refusing to reify liberation, in virtue of seeing it as the correlative of bondage, which itself is not inherently existent, it is possible to pursue the path to liberation without creating at the same time a huge obstacle on that path – the root delusion with regard to nirvana itself.

If things do not exist in themselves, then from the ultimate truth they are unreal, illusions. Nirvana, for Nagarjuna, if seen as something inherently existent, is only an illusion that will perpetuate more grasping, followed by more suffering.

There are no real distinctions in Madhyamaka philosophy because all things are considered empty of inherent existence or own-nature. For samsara and nirvana to be distinct from one another, they would have to be inherently existent things. But they are empty, and within this emptiness, they are without distinction.

Samsara and nirvana are only different in the relative sense, because they designate entirely different things. Again, in the ultimate sense, there is no difference, because of their emptiness. Everything is empty, including emptiness.

This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering. It is freedom.

Frederick Streng has written,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety which accompany attachment.

Without suffering, one can never know release. As long as we see freedom as something separate from our suffering, we are grasping onto an object, inviting more suffering. Just as we are related to our karma, we are related to our suffering, and nirvana, our freedom, is also related to our suffering.

If we can understand that samsara “is” nirvana in this way, in each moment, and know that suffering, ultimately related to our goal, is the very tool that allows us to reach the goal, then I think, we are one step closer to where we want to be. Of course, we need take that extra step of realizing that the goal of freedom is ultimately empty, for as long as we live we will experience suffering in one form or another. The goal of complete release is an illusion. There is only the Endless Further.


15 thoughts on “Why Samsara is Nirvana

  1. Nice article(as far as I understood). Also want to know WHY does samsara and nirvana convolute?
    Anything related to the dimensions of physics?

  2. Thanks. Not sure I understand your question. On the conventional level, samsara and nirvana are opposites. Samsara standing for suffering and nirvana for happiness. They convolute in the real world because the potential of each is possible within any given moment. Ultimately, they are but two sides on one coin. It has nothing to do with physics.

  3. “This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering. It is freedom.”

    It does sound like theoretical nonsense or over-thinking. When you say “The aim of this thinking is to shatter and destroy all avenues for grasping,” you very much appear to be grasping. You have a stated goal to attain no ambition to attain any goal, by which you will experience wholeness and freedom.

    It seems to me that attachment causes suffering. So detachment ends suffering, but it is not as easy to be detached as it is to think you are through theoretical nonsense. But maybe I am missing something here.

    And forgive me, I do not mean to be condescending or derogatory. Nor do I know that much about the many faces of Buddhism, some of which I have learned acknowledge a permanent self and see the no-self doctrine as merely a strategy to assist in deconstructing the false self or conventional ego. In other words, they see anatta as a practical strategy that has heuristic value in guiding one towards liberation, rather than as a metaphysical assertion with support form the Pali cannon. That resonates with me.

    1. As I read it now, it seems a poorly crafted set of thoughts . . . yet, it is not nonsense, and of course, there is a paradox involved. No matter how you deal with it, there is still a goal of having no goals, and the solution found in the Pali canon, as I understand it, is extinction. It does solve the problem, but it’s also kind of taking the easy way out.

      1. Are you saying that extinguishing desire is the solution in the Pali cannon and that this is the easy way out? It is my understanding that this IS the Buddha’s solution. But I don’t think it is the easy way, and perhaps other more complex sounding ways have evolved to get around the not so easy task of extinguishing desire that allow one to think oneself into a mental Nirvana.

        I am not saying that is what you are doing. I am just thinking about the thoughts and responding as they cause me to.

        And if I am missing something and there is a more complex, more difficult path to enlightenment than the easy way out of extinguishing desire, why would one choose the more difficult path to enlightenment?

        1. I think you would have to read some of my other posts (like this one) to get a sense of how I view the Buddha’s original concept of nirvana. I think one would choose the more difficult path because it would be the best, most complete path. I am not talking about extinguishing desire so much as extinguishing the human entity as the ultimate solution to the problem of desire. I accept the Mahayana view that it is more difficult, and therefore nobler, to practice the bodhisattva path of remaining in samsara, for eons if necessary, in order to extinguish (or at least lessen) suffering for all beings.

  4. A couple points.
    First,…liberation from suffering has much to do with physical duality; however, because 99.9% don’t have a clue regarding Who’s Who in Duality,…nirvana remains a concept,…especially among today’s most beloved guru’s.
    Point two,…is that Buddha did not say to obliterate desire,…he said, that suffering is a consequence a the desire to see things other than they are.
    IMO, liberation is impossible without directly understanding duality. The key to that direct experience necessitates the honesty to realize that the 6 senses are liars, and cannot observe the reverse flow of forward moving things.
    Avalokitesvara said, “As soon as one sense-organ returns to the source, All the six are liberated.” Unfortunately, for most, the 6 senses are closely clung to for their identity,…it is what they believe to be, a manifestation of their cherished humanness,…a projected simulation that cannot experience the way things are.
    Absolute liberation is far too frightening for most to even talk about. As Shantideva said, “Relative and absolute, These the two truths are declared to be. The absolute is not within the reach of intellect, For the intellect is grounded in the relative.”

  5. The real actual Nirvana is Dharmakaya!

    And Nirvana is realised after death of this physical body.

    It is called Paranirvana – Total Unbinding into Dharmakaya – The Absolute – The Real Body of all Tathagatas (Buddhas) – The Body of Truth.

    Once again, the realization of Nirvana – Paranirvana – is after death:

    It is through unestablished consciousness that one becomes totally unbound. The mechanism is merging into Primary Clear Light of Dharmakaya.

    With the cessation of [the aggregate of] consciousness each is here brought to an end.

  6. I’ve heard it put this way:

    From the Samsara perspective, Samsara and Nirvana are opposites.

    From the Nirvana perspective, they are one and the same.

    1. I haven’t heard it put that way but I suppose that the samsara perspective coincides with conventional truth, where samsara and nirvana are opposite, one causes pain and the other pleasure, while the nirvana perspective is ultimate truth, non-duality.

  7. update: the highest view in Buddhism is so called “Rigpa”, it won all historical debates in India etc. Atiyoga (Dzogchen) vs. other schools. Philosophically, it is represented by Nagarjuna who pinned it in formal way this ultimate perspective, but the actual rigpa is the dharmakaya-nirvana vision present perspective (Diamond Dharmakaya Radiant Emptiness), and the actual reality of this is always as it is like that.

    When people believe and practice the right thing all reach the Truth State (Dharmakaya) – Dogen

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