There and Back Again: The Unity of Samsara and Nirvana in Tantric and Zen Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths are the spiritual, metaphysical, and ethical grounding for Buddhism. They succinctly outline the nature of our existence as suffering, and offer a pragmatic way of transcending this condition, via the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is a journey that takes a being out of the realm of Samsara and into Nirvana. Samsara is conditioned, illusory and cyclic existence. It is characterized by deep-rooted ignorance, which manifests as seeing the world as a plurality of sensory objects that are separate from oneself.[1] Nirvana is attained when dualistic thinking is transcended, and the mind is freed from all karmic conditioning. While these states seem diametrically opposed, their inseparability is postulated in many occult texts, particularly those belonging to the Vajrayana and Zen Buddhist schools. I will be investigating the journey towards enlightenment that Tantric and Zen practitioners undertake. While both traditions hold that Samsara and Nirvana are fundamentally inseparable, the journeys from ignorance to realization are vastly different. I will argue that the journey of a Tantrika is a transformative process of experiencing the realm of duality in its fullest, and then transcending it. Whereas the Zen journey immediately attacks the misconceptions of Samsara and aims to quickly transcend all forms of dualistic thinking. Zen is taught from the perspective of Nirvana, teachings are predicated on Buddhahood being inherent within us. While Tantra is taught from within Samsara, with mastery of the phenomenal world leading to transcendence of it. This leads to the Tantric path being gradual and immersive, while Zen is simple and direct. A colloquial analogy illustrates this difference clearly. A Zen pupil walks directly from the entrance of an amusement park to the exit, while the Tantrika goes on every ride before exiting. I aim to substantiate these claims, and will begin by providing more philosophically rigorous definitions of Samsara and Nirvana from which to work off of. I will then analyze the spiritual journeys undertaken in both traditions, exemplifying their core differences and demonstrating their fundamental unity.

I will begin with an exposition on commonly held views regarding Samsara and Nirvana. After outlining their differences, I will examine the esoteric teachings purporting that they are in fact metaphysically inseparable. While my exegesis may seem ripe with rhetorical flourishes, it is due to the transcendent nature of these topics. Even within the traditions themselves these concepts elude proper definition. In both Tantra and Zen, it is taught that Samsaric existence is fundamental ignorance of the essential nature of reality.[2] The world, seen as a plurality, is an illusion produced by the mind. The initial seeds of ignorance are the concepts of duality and separateness. Duality is the catalyst for the creation of our ego or personality. A succinct description of Samsara is given in the introduction to The Supreme Path Of Discipleship. “Phenomena give relative existence to the ego as to the world, which erroneously the ego perceives as something outside of or apart from itself.”[3] The Five Skandhas come together and are mistaken as having an enduring existence, leading to delusion and continued samsaric existence. One of the three marks of existence in the Buddhist tradition is the impermanence of all phenomena. This entails that all conditioned things arise and pass away. Thus, any attachment to these sensuous phenomena necessarily leads to suffering.[4] It is an important caveat to mention that Buddhism rejects the idea of a personal, transmigrating soul.[5] This is important to note as we continue our discussion. Moving forwards, Nirvana is defined as liberation from conditioned, samsaric existence. The Skandhas are seen as empty, and the self seen as ephemeral. While conceptions of Samsara are relatively uniform throughout Buddhism, descriptions of Nirvana vary from Zen to Vajrayana. However, both traditions agree on the ineffability of enlightenment. It is fundamentally ungraspable.[6] The Tantric tradition supports the view that using the logical mind as a means to attain enlightenment is a seed of great confusion.[7] The Zen teacher Bodhidarma also states that, “using the mind to look for reality is delusion.”[8] Nirvana is indescribable because it transcends mind by definition, thus it cannot fall under any conceivable concept. The simplest conception of this state is that one is no longer karmically affected by the samsaricly produced illusions that constitute the world.[9] Given that Samsara is predicated on duality, Nirvana is simply the lack of dualistic concepts.[10] The term liberation is also used to denote Nirvana, since one is liberated from an illusory worldview, arriving at Right Knowledge. While the aforementioned states appear to be on different ends of the spectrum of existence, both Tantric and Zen schools acknowledge that, fundamentally, these states are one. The famous mahasiddha Milarepa sings the following verse on realization:

“Samsara and Nirvana are perceived as one single reality / In the state of ultimate awareness / To perceive the ultimate reality / I mark everything with the great seal of emptiness / This is the quintessence of non duality.”[11]

Milarepa describes how the myriad of forms in reality are baseless and have no existence in and of themselves. The founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna, investigates this topic in depth. He outlined many rigorous logical proofs arguing that all things are empty of intrinsic nature.[12] Taking emptiness and the interdependence of objects as accepted notions, we see that in the transcendent sense, Samsara and Nirvana are not distinct. Their duality is only present in appearance but not in essence (since everything is empty of essence).[13] If Nirvana is an attainment, then there is necessarily a subject who attains it. Thus, the entire idea of attaining Nirvana is within a dualistic framework, given that subject and object are being presupposed. Once a practitioner is liberated, they still exist within the same fundamental reality, and Samsara and Nirvana are seen as, “two aspects of this True State, which is the Dharmakaya.”[14] The Zen teacher Dogen puts this succinctly, saying that: “When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”[15] To put it colloquially, Samsara and Nirvana are two sides of the same coin.

The unity of Samsara and Nirvana having been established we can now investigate the spiritual paths to enlightenment as outlined in the Tantric and Zen traditions. What we cannot do, is posit that one path is more advantageous or robust than the other. Both paths lead to liberation, and once Nirvana is attained, as Bodhidharma says, “No habits can harm you because there is nobody to be harmed.”[16] Since the end goal is a state of non-duality, any discrimination (even between paths) is meaningless within the Buddhist system. However, this viewpoint is naturally from that of someone who is enlightened. Beings still existing within Samsara certainly appear to feel the effects of past and present karma. Thus, what we can do is offer commentary on the methods of each path, and analyze them in terms of their pragmatic approaches towards liberation. Bodhidharma makes a claim truly representative of the Zen tradition. “ To find a Buddha you have to see your nature. Whoever sees his nature is a Buddha.”[17] This statement is from the perspective of an already enlightened being who is not confused by Samsara. This is why it is characterized by simplicity and immediacy, since the teachings are predicated on Nirvana being ever-present. This attitude towards enlightenment and its ever-present nature is reinforced by Dogen as he urges seekers to turn inwards such that, “the body and mind drop off and your original face appears.”[18] This direct approach towards enlightenment is especially clear in the following statement by Bodhidharma.

“The twenty-seven patriarchs only transmitted the imprint of the mind. And the only reason I’ve come to China is to transmit the instantaneous teaching of the Mahayana.”[19]

These statements by important Zen patriarchs give credence to the notion that this tradition is a proponent of immediate enlightenment. The apparent efficacy of this path is due in large part to method of teaching from the point of view of Nirvana. However, the deep conditioning of our minds leads us to question how easy it would be to abruptly ‘snap out’ of the illusory phenomena of life. A common occurrence in Zen koans is that when a student voices such doubts, their masters usually strike them, in an attempt to immediately stop discursive thinking.[20] Rejecting complex acetic practices, awareness is seen as the primary means to attain realization.[21] These teachings purposely ignore any aspect of illusory existence, and immediately attempt to lift the veil of Samsara by speaking as though it never existed in the first place.

The immediacy and simplicity of the Zen path is contrasted by the intricacies of the Vajrayana path. In the Tantric tradition, both the Hinayana and Mahayana are seen as prerequisites to embarking on the Vajrayana. This path consists of six Yanas — Kriya, Upa, Yoga, Mahayoga, Anu, and Ati.[22] The Hinayana and Mahayana are not seen as ends, but as means. Samatha and Vipassana practices are a prelude to the Bodhisattva path, which itself is seen as preliminary to Tantra.[23] The Tantric journey is transformative and leads to mystical states in which, “The perception of reality as energies is Tantra. The basic notion toward the universal energies is to see them in terms of the Dakini principle. They represent the creative-destructive patterns of life.”[24] The highly developed Tantrika is able to have profound experiences requiring many years of practice. Yet, despite the mundane powers developed while practicing deep visualization and complex rituals, Nirvana has yet to be realized. Many Tantric rituals involve visualizing deities with all of their virtuous qualities. Though beneficial, these visualizations are deeply dualistic in nature. To break through this dualism, “Vajra like Samadhi is necessary to bring one into the state of being wise rather than knowing wisdom as an external discovery.”[25]This clearly exemplifies the gradual nature of this path, as the movement to actual wisdom is lengthy and subtle. The path to enlightenment is concluded only after traversing the nine total Yanas, ending with the transcendence of the pulsating energies known as the vajra chain.[26] The totality of this journey is summarized as such. “This is the end of the journey which need never have been made. This is the seamless web of what is.”[27] The last line of this quotation seems to acknowledge the roundabout means of reaching Nirvana. Yet, it also proclaims, upon completion, that a Tantrika has experienced the totality of Samsara. Within the Buddhist system, Samsara is descriptive of any experience that distinguishes or individuates. Thus, the Tantric path transmutes the impermanence of Samsara into an object of practice. Seeking to transcend Samsara, from within Samsara.

The means of achieving Nirvana vary greatly between the Vajrayana and Zen traditions. While they hold similar metaphysical views, they approach the topic of liberation from opposite ends. Zen strives towards instantaneous enlightenment, with teachings from the point of view of Nirvana. These teachings immediately undercut Samsara by not indulging any illusory phenomena. Tantric teachings are gradual and increase in complexity over time. The Tantrika slowly gains control over subtle and gross energies, with liberation being the final abandonment of any ambition to manipulate.[28] Zen works from Nirvana to Samsara and Tantra goes from Samsara to Nirvana. Yet, in the face of non-duality, both of these approaches are indistinguishable. These different paths exist for the differing dispositions of spiritual seekers. Both traditions speak of liberated beings as appearing no different than an ordinary person. I will conclude with a quote representing this statement, as it is telling of the circularity of both spiritual paths, and the ultimate unity of Samsara and Nirvana. It is said that after transcending the world, the fully awakened being returns and “destroys whatever needs to be destroyed, subdues whatever needs to be subdued, and cares for whatever needs care.”[29] In the Vajrayana tradition, it takes a lengthy journey to realize this, whereas Zen understands it from the start.

Works Cited

Bodhidharma, and Red Pine. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. San Francisco: North sssPoint, 1989. Print.

Coleman, Graham, and Thupten Jinpa, eds. The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Trans. sssGyurme Dorje. New York: Penguin Group, 2005. Print.

Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen: Writings of the sssGreat Zen Master. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y., and Zla-ba-bsam-’grub. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Or, sssSeven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi sssDawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford UP, 1958. Print.

Garfield, Jay L. The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way. New York: Oxford UP, sss1995. Web. 7th Dec. 2016.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang P., trans. The Life of Milarepa. Delhi: Book Faith India, 1997. sssPrint

Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle, 1957. Print.

Trungpa, Chogyam. Mudra. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. Print.

[1] Evans-Wentz, W. Y., and Zla-ba-bsam-’grub. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Or, Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford UP, 1958. Print. (16)

[2] Evans-Wentz, W. Y., and Zla-ba-bsam-’grub. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Or, Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford UP, 1958. Print. (8)

[3] Ibid., 16

[4] Ibid., 6

[5] Ibid., 7

[6] Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print. (55)

[7] Trungpa, Chogyam. Mudra. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. Print. (7)

[8] Bodhidharma, and Red Pine. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. San Francisco: North Point, 1989. Print. (49)

[9] Evans-Wentz, W. Y., and Zla-ba-bsam-’grub. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Or, Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford UP, 1958. Print. (19)

[10] Ibid., 18

[11] Lhalungpa, Lobsang P., trans. The Life of Milarepa. Delhi: Book Faith India, 1997. Print (167)

[12] Garfield, Jay L. The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Web. 7th Dec. 2016.

[13] Evans-Wentz, W. Y., and Zla-ba-bsam-’grub. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Or, Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford UP, 1958. Print. (13)

[14] Ibid., 18

[15] Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print. (53)

[16] Bodhidharma, and Red Pine. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. San Francisco: North Point, 1989. Print. (39)

[17] Ibid., 11

[18] Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print. (5)

[19] Bodhidharma, and Red Pine. The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. San Francisco: North Point, 1989. Print. (41)

[20] Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle, 1957. Print. (100)

[21] Ibid., 41

[22] Trungpa, Chogyam. Mudra. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. Print. (67)

[23] Ibid., 68

[24] Ibid., 63

[25] Ibid., 69

[26] Ibid., 71

[27] Ibid.,

[28] Ibid., 74

[29] Ibid., 95