Why Are Samsara & Nirvana the Same?

Samsara is cycles and patterns our minds get stuck in; nirvana is the absence of those cycles and patterns.

With samsara, we tend to live on autopilot at the mercy of conditioning. “If x happens, then perform y. If x doesn’t happen, then don’t perform y.” We sacrifice everything that’s original and true to use to a thoughtless algorithm, using reward, punishment, and observation to create a stitched together, hand-me-down self.

Nirvana is unconditioned, but there’s awareness of conditioning. There’s no algorithm, but there’s awareness of algorithms. Everything in the mind is original and true, not handed down by circumstances.

Yet, in Mahayana, samsara and nirvana are viewed as not different from each other. Being trapped in our cycles of suffering is identical to not being trapped in them. Spinning in circles is equal to sitting in place, or walking in a straight line.

How the fuck is that possible? And, even if it is, is it even necessary to view things like that?

Let’s do an experiment. We’ll just count to three, three times in a row. One, two, three, one, two, three, one two, three. That’s obviously a cycle. We can see the repetitive pattern.

Now, without leaving this room (without referencing the past or future, without using memory or expectations to frame the moment), let’s do it again. Just completely focus on each number for a moment. Let it be the center of your attention, let it fill your mind so that everything you see, hearing, and feel seems to be connected to it.

When you move to the next number, do the same thing and about the one that came before it, like it never even happened. It might be helpful to touch base with your surroundings for a few seconds between each one, just being openly conscious of the the number and the world around you.

See how your mind tries to predict the next one, and don’t move on until that thought passes:












Patterns, cycles, and their absence are both mind-made. Samsara doesn’t rely on anything outside of ourselves, it relies on mind wandering. When the mind wanders, it sees cycles, because it becomes cyclic. When the mind isn’t wandering, there aren’t any cycles at all.

“But there are cycles, whether we’re aware of them or not. The seasons are cyclical. Day and night and life and death are cyclical.”

When you’re unconscious, where are the seasons? Where are day and night, life and death? Reason tells us they’re still happening without us, but what is reason? The mind. So we’re relying on perception and reason—both qualities of the mind—to tell us something about what’s outside the mind.

That’s like saying, “The air conditioner’s on, so it must be hot outside.” But that might not be the case. We won’t know until we go outside. Even if there is an outside, for the mind, there isn’t. Wherever we go, there we are.

As long as we keep relying on secondhand knowledge to make sense of ourselves and the world, then we’re not going to see things clearly. Practice has to be done without ideas like “outside.” And since there’s no outside, there’s no “inside” either, because those labels only exist to distinguish things from each other.

There’s Just This.

Inside and outside, cycles and no cycles, samsara and nirvana, all of them are nothing but mind, they’re perceptions, not truths. Truth is what practice is all about.

“Okay, so why does that matter?”

In the beginning, Buddhists would practice escaping samsara and entering nirvana—that’s what the Noble Eightfold Path is for. Buddha’s promise was, “If you follow this Path, and master all the folds, you will be free of samsaric suffering.” Considering how popular Buddhism became, it seems that thousands of monastics can vouch for that claim.

However, it’s back-breaking work. It requires a total commitment and constant effort. That’s why Buddhism was originally designed for monastics. To have the time and energy to master the Path, you pretty much have to leave your family and drop out of society.

Anyone can practice that Path, but unless we can give it that 100% dedication, then it’s never going to escort us to nirvana. It’ll help us manage suffering and dissatisfaction, it’ll help us deal with some of our afflictions, but it won’t overturn them completely.

Mahayana, and especially Zen, is more open to laypeople. People with families, bills, and jobs. People whose lives are always gonna be a little tumultuous and messy. Seeing the samsara and nirvana as equally mind-made relieves the burden of eons of practice. We don’t need to be monks, we don’t need drop out of society, we don’t even need to have our shit together. We just need to be illuminated by Buddha-nature on the spot. That’s all.

Then we can follow the Eightfold Path as laypeople, and without effort, and actualize it just as monastics do. After illumination, nirvana is a way of being in samsara: the Middle Way.

2 thoughts on “Why Are Samsara & Nirvana the Same?

  1. I agree one needn’t avoid life to practice Buddhism in its fullest. Mahayana and Vajrayana both offer lay practitioners excellent opportunities to transform samsara like experiences into nirvana. In fact daily life is full with easy and difficult situations alike where we can apply many of the Buddha’s teachings with little effort and make meaningful change and joyful development for ourselves and all the people around us. This richness is a great gift we would be wise not to run away and hide from it in a monastery. There is no greater truth than to be living examples of the Buddhadharma as mothers and fathers, students and colleagues, or friends and acquaintances.


    Liked by 1 person

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