Sameness and Difference

by Jim Bedard

Satipañña Insight Meditation Toronto

Several months ago, at the end of our Dharma Study Group, I took questions. A middle-aged man, who has been practicing Buddhist meditation for many years, stood and asked a pointed question, “Could you please say something about the non-dual teaching that states samsara and nirvana are not different. Many teachers say that samsara is nirvana. So, if a man assaults a child, is that nirvana?” He shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms upwards. The room went silent. People sat up attentively.

“No!” I replied. “The teachings on the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana are easily misunderstood.”  Then, I shared some reflections that I will share here.

If there is no difference between samsara and nirvana, why do we spend years practicing to purify the heart? Unfortunately, this teaching has been used to rationalize a wide range of unskilful behaviour. Yet, if the Buddha was not mistaken when he taught that nibbana (nirvana skt.) is present here and now, and that liberation is accessible in this present life, how are we to understand how sameness and difference relate to samsara and nirvana?

Let’s explore this further. Suppose, many years ago, when out for his alms rounds, the Buddha happened upon a market in a small village. A middle-aged man walks over, bows, and then places food in the Buddha’s bowl. The man then asks, “Dear friend, I have heard about your teachings on nibbana, I am told there is no higher happiness than directly realizing and abiding in nibbana. Please tell me friend, where can I find this nibbana?”

The Buddha replies, “Friend, nibbana is present here and now (sandhitthiko, akaliko).

The man then turns slowly and looks around the market. Across the square, he sees beautiful dancers entertaining a small group of bystanders. He turns to his left and notices an elegant jewelry shop displaying alluring gold bracelets and beaded necklaces. Smelling the savory curries and sweet rice cooking behind him, he thinks to himself, “So this is nibbana!”

In this example, we can appreciate how the merchant’s abiding and that of the Buddha’s are quite different. The merchant’s mind is tainted with want. Our world of experience is constantly being influenced by our conditioned mind. The Buddha’s perceptions, on the other hand, are not tainted with greed, hatred, or confusion. A tainted mind gives rise to tainted volition. And tainted volition sets us on a trajectory that leads to an endless wandering-on (samsara.)  The very purpose of practice is to help us erode the taints that prevent us from seeing things as they are free of the distortion of want.

Volition—a factor of consciousness—is present in every moment of experience. And our volition has been conditioned by the feeling-tone (whether pleasant or unpleasant) of past experiences. This deep-seated habit of being drawn towards what is pleasant and being repelled by what is unpleasant is constantly influencing every choice we make. A solid grounding in meditation is needed so the mind can attain stability and clarity. Only then can mindfulness fulfill its role in revealing these deeply-rooted habits-of-being.

Until we can clearly see this push-and-pull of the mind for what it is, we are constantly being swayed by habit and want. Once we begin to see into the underlying influence of a tainted volition that is coloring our experience, we will more readily be able to make wise choices. This is where the rubber meets the road. The Buddha teaches that a person is wise when he or she acts in ways that will ripen in future happiness. Samsara this—endless wandering-on—is an attempt to find lasting happiness amid inconstancy and unreliability. Always looking to the next moment of experience for gratification. And that moment won’t last.

Here’s another example I use to help those who raise the question of sameness and difference in regard to samsara and nirvana. Supposing, one sunny day in July, you were to visit a friend who lives in the countryside. After a light lunch the two of you decide to go for a hike. After walking for a while, you come across a small pond. You don your bathing suits and go for a refreshing swim.

Now, supposing you were to revisit that friend several months later during winter. After a hot bowl of soup, the two of you decide to go snowshoeing. After walking a few miles, you come to a frozen pond and begin to cross over. You stop, turn to your friend, and ask, “Is this the same pond we swam in back in July?” And your friend responds, “Yes.”

In this example, we see that sameness refers to location and difference refers to function or actualization (you can’t swim in the frozen pond.) Perhaps this is why people get confused. Samsara and nibbana are present here and now. Samsara being an uninformed wandering driven by craving and grasping through worlds born of sense contact. And nibbana is the ending of that process.

We can reflect on this whenever we witness someone (or oneself) rationalizing unwholesome behavior by taking up the view of sameness. Then we can remind them (or ourselves) that although nibbana is ‘present here and now’ it just doesn’t present like that.”

Lastly, when you get lost, check the map. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path teaches us that ‘samadhi’ is comprised of three path factors. Noble effort, noble mindfulness, and noble concentration. Concentration collects the mind and temporarily suppresses the hindrances that block the forward movement of spiritual insight. Mindfulness reveals the texture, the quality, and the tone of the embodied experience. When these two path factors work together, we gain insight into this present-moment-arising as it is arising. So, what is the role of right effort?

Right effort brings a transforming influence to the practice. Abandoning and preventing the arising of unwholesome states of mind and cultivating and maintaining wholesome states of mind. When these three path factors work together balancing and supporting one another, we gain genuine insight into the causes of suffering. We see which patterns of the mind need to be abandoned and which virtues and path factors need to be cultivated. This is the dawning of wisdom.

In time, wisdom erodes the taints that distort our perceptions. Then, just as a prism clearly diffracts light to manifest the various colors in its spectrum, a more purified heart diffracts our life energy in such a way that actions of body, speech, and mind manifest as joy, compassion, goodwill, and peace.