Samsara is Nirvana, the passions are enlightenment

The final word of Mahayana Buddhism, as expressed in the Garland Sutra of China, is that Samsara, this world of suffering, is Nirvana, and the passions are enlightenment, bodhi. It is only illusion that causes us to see differences between them. ‘Samsara is Nirvana, the passions are enlightenment.’ This formula has sometimes been taken as a sort of slogan, in isolation from the spirituality of the rest of the Sutra, like the remark of St Paul, ‘To the pure, all things are pure.’

A man who set himself up as a Buddhist teacher began preaching the slogan that passions are enlightenment, claiming to exemplify it by himself drinking heavily and frequenting brothels.

This was reported to a real saint who remarked briefly, ‘No one who is a slave to passions can claim to see them as enlightenment.’ The teacher came storming round to the home of the saint and shouted, ‘You people claim to teach the doctrine that Samsara is Nirvana and the passions are enlightenment, but you are afraid to live it. You cower behind the little wall of your petty prohibitions and commandments. “Do this, don’t do that!” all the time. By giving all these silly rules, you are denying what you teach. Now I actually live it; perhaps you can see my. life as passions, but I see it as enlightenment, following the flow of change which is the Buddha- nature. That’s the difference between us. I am a real teacher because I live it; you are not, because you don’t.’

The saint said, ‘This kind of teaching will be of no use to the people.’

‘Why not, why not?’ cried the teacher.

‘We won’t argue about it,’ the saint told him, ‘but there is something else. We don’t drink here, but we do keep some wine for guests who may come. Now some time back I was given a little of a very rare wine – would you like to give me your opinion of it?’ ‘Why yes, yes!’

The saint went out to give instructions to his attendant; as he came back into the room he turned his head and called back, ‘Absolutely clean, mind!’

When the wine came, the guest could smell the delicious fragrance of it. But to his amazement, it was served to him in what would correspond in the West to an old chipped chamber-pot.

‘What’s this?’ he cried.

‘Oh, don’t mind that. It’s absolutely clean, I assure you – absolutely. What does it matter what the wine is served in? It’s a very rare wine, they say.’

The guest tried to drink, but found he could not. He put the chamber-pot down and said quietly, ‘Why are you doing this ?’

The saint replied, ‘This vessel has been specially made absolutely clean, and the wine is a choice one. But you cannot drink it because of the form of the vessel. Now you are serving the wine of the Garland Sutra in the vessel of your life, which may or may not be absolutely pure, but in any case is of a form associated with filth. The people will not be able to accept a teaching presented like that.’

The guest changed his way of life.

© Trevor Leggett – The Wine Pot

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