Samsara is the process of attempting to succeed at duality because we believe success is possible. Samsara is the process of acquiring wealth, relationships, occupations – because we believe their apparent form will make us safe and secure.
The experience of samsara is the base of Sutrayana. The teachings of Sutrayana arise in response to our experience of samsara as unsatisfactory. The idea of samsara experienced as dissatisfaction implies the existence of nirvana as a fulfilling experience. Nirvana may mistakenly be thought of as an ‘other-worldly state’, a pure land, heaven, or paradise. This is a misconception. Samsara is nirvana. Nirvana is samsara. They are the same environment. They are exactly the same circumstances. It is our relationship with environment and circumstance which changes our experience. When we gain realisation, we will not suddenly find ourselves reborn into a totally new physical existence. Rather, we will discover ourselves reborn in the reality of our present existence with awakened view.
Our bodies and our world are perfect as they are. There is nothing that we need to get rid of or purify in order to discover nirvana. We simply need to clarify our view. The belief that liberation requires us to discover another concrete realm where everything is perfect will not help us discover the perfection of where we are. The experience of pure happiness and pleasure is available to us in this life. We can experience the sparkle of enlightenment in a moment of loving or laughter. Then we may start to wonder why we lose these moments.
It is not actually possible to grasp the subtlety of our experience of the unsatisfactoriness of samsara if we are suffering too greatly. If my whole life has been deprivation, aggression, loneliness, anxiety, and painful confusion, then it would be easy merely to view bad luck, parental abuse, or societal injustice as the cause of my unhappiness. In order to actually perceive the hollowness of dukkha, we have to have some measure of success and pleasure in our lives.
I have to be able to maintain healthy relationships with friends and family, and make my own way in the world. It is when I find the feeling of dissatisfaction remains, even though my life is successful in samsaric terms, that I start to be suspicious that there might be a problem with my view. It is only then that I can begin to understand that duality is the source of dissatisfaction. My fear of the emptiness of pleasure – because it ends; my fear of the form of pain – because it happens; causes me to separate emptiness and form. When I realise that there is also the form of happiness and the emptiness of pain, I can begin to let go of my need to seek form and avoid emptiness.
We are all trying to be happy. We all want to be free of the experience of loss, pain, sorrow, and fear, and wish to only experience pleasure and happiness. This is universal. Our inability to achieve happiness in any lasting and meaningful way expresses the universal experience of dissatisfaction within dualistic experience. This is the unsatisfactory quality of the continually cycling patterns of perception and response in which no permanent happiness can ever be found.
When I intelligently perceive this underlying sense of dissatisfaction, there is the danger that it may undermine every achievement. Without an understanding of duality, I may begin to doubt and lose appreciation of the moments of happiness I do experience. Dharma offers a way to harness the recognition of dissatisfaction to the task of changing it into satisfaction.
Through feeling the suspicion that arises when I have proved myself to be a capable, competent, functional person within the bounds of what is possible within samsara – I become aware of the underlying sensation of unsatisfactoriness. Through the arising of the niggling feeling that the whole thing is vaguely hollow and that nothing is quite what it seems – I become aware of the underlying sensation of unsatisfactoriness. Through having worked for the good things I own and by living in a reasonable degree of comfort – I become aware of the underlying sensation of unsatisfactoriness.
I find that I can achieve almost whatever I set out to achieve in terms of what the world offers, yet I come to realise that these achievements are at best a pastime. This suspicion is an opening of view. It is an opportunity. It can be the start of my life as a Dharma practitioner. It can be the beginning of awakening.
The declaration that samsara is
ultimately unsatisfactory is not a statement that denigrates the body
and the world.
It is not the body or the world that are in
It is simply that our experience is
characterised as unsatisfactory.
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, in
answer to a question about the imperfection of human life and
conditions, Shakyamuni Buddha says,
I see no unsatisfactory
life or unsatisfactory conditions. They are illusory. The world is
perfect as it is.