Ultimate stages of the path: Striving for liberation from samsara

Normally, we don’t like meditating on suffering.  We find meditation on renunciation to be terribly depressing, and as such we put little effort into it or we skip it altogether.  This is a terrible mistake.  If done correctly, the meditation on renunciation is one of the most liberating and joyful meditations on the path.  It is a feeling of having suddenly realized our biggest mistake and having been revealed the way forward.  It is a feeling of having definitely emerged from obscurity into a clear vision of the path to freedom.  In and of itself, the mind is extremely blissful, a feeling of total release as we let go of all that binds us.  In reality, samsara is nothing more than a self-imposed and self-created prison.  We are trapped within it only for as long as we don’t make the decision to leave it behind.  But once we decide to leave, we realize that, despite all that we have feared, nobody and nothing can stop us from joyfully walking straight out the door.

According to Sutra, the meditation on the wish to escape from samsara, or renunciation, is one of the three principal aspects of the path (the others being bodhichitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness).  According to Tantra, the meditation on renunciation is one of the five seeds of enlightenment (the others being bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage and completion stage). What we strive to escape from in Buddhism is samsara, what we try free others from in Buddhism is samsara.  It is impossible to gain a qualified realization of bodhichitta, which is the principal cause of enlightenment, without a qualified realization of renunciation (if we don’t know what it is we wish to escape from and we don’t even wish to escape from it ourselves, how can we know or wish this for others?).  In Tantra, we train in stopping identifying with samsaric aggregates and we train in identifying with pure aggregates – but how can we do this if we don’t even understand what it is we are abandoning or even want to abandon it?  Some of the meditations on the path are specific subjects, like the meditation on the lower realms or recognizing all beings as our mothers, but other meditations are the synthesis of all the previous meditations – how all of the previous meditations fit together.  The meditation on renunciation is one such meditation, so if we can learn to train in the meditation on renunciation correctly, we will be training indirectly in all of the previous meditations.  Conversely, knowing how to meditate on renunciation in a qualified way makes all of our earlier meditations far more qualified because we know where everything is headed.  For these and many, many other reasons, the meditation on renunciation is without a doubt one of the most important meditations on the path.  It is the synthesis of all that came before and the foundation for all that follows.

So what is this mind of renunciation?  It is quite simply the decision to do whatever it takes to leave samsara having understood its true nature.  Therefore, to understand renunciation we must first understand the true nature of samsara, then what it takes to leave it and finally make the decision to do what is necessary to escape.  The perfection of renunciation is the wish to gain this realization understanding it as an essential stepping stone on the path to enlightenment.  The ultimate perfection of renunciation is the perfection of renunciation conjoined with an understanding of the emptiness of samsara and nirvana.  These will now each be explained in turn.

Conventionally, we say the nature of samsara is suffering.  There are three types of suffering:  manifest suffering, or pain as we normally think of it; changing suffering, or pleasure as we normally think of it; and pervasive suffering, or identifying with our ordinary body and mind as we normally think of it.  Manifest suffering is self-explanatory.  Changing suffering says that every object of pleasure in samsara eventually becomes painful, for example the first ice cream makes us happy the tenth makes us sick.  Pervasive suffering is the most important type of suffering to understand.  Essentially, it means we experience human suffering because we impute our I onto the body and mind of a human; an animal experiences animal suffering because it imputes its I onto the body and mind of an animal, and so forth.  Samsara is also commonly understood as “uncontrolled rebirth”, meaning without freedom or control we are thrown into one form of contaminated rebirth after an another in an endless cycle.  Renunciation, therefore, is wishing to gain control over the process of death and rebirth.  All of the above is true, but for me personally what moves my mind the most is to think of the nature of samsara as deception.  Samsara takes me for a fool – it sadistically tricks me again and again into heading down wrong paths.  It promises me endless joys, only to reward me with endless suffering and problems.  When things are going badly, it fools me into creating the causes to make things even worse by encouraging me to respond with negativity.  When things are going well, it fools me into indulging in samsara’s treats whereby I burn up all of my merit and will be left with nothing to sustain me but the fires of hell.  It promises me life, but takes me to ritual slaughter again and again and again.  It promises me power, but makes me a slave.  It promises me riches, but leaves me always wanting.  It promises me joy, but leaves me in tears.  It promises me renown, but makes me hostage to what others think.  It promises me freedom, but condemns me to an eternity in prison.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool we twice, shame on me; fool me forever and it is pure evil.  There is no redemption ever to be found in it, no hope it will ever change its ways.  With such a place, there is only one thing to do – leave, and leave now.

But how?  This can be understood in two ways – changing the basis of imputation or our I and breaking the cycle of samsara.  As has been explained before, our “I” is nothing more than a mere mental label, an idea, that we impute onto the basis of imputation of our body and mind.  Currently, we identify with our ordinary body and mind.  Our ordinary body grows increasingly painful until it eventually dies and our ordinary mind is that collection of delusion we call our winning personality.  But our I is in no way fixed to our current body and mind.  Our I is bound to our ordinary body and mind only through the force of ignorant habit.  But like all ignorant habits, it can be broken with wisdom and effort.  Instead of identifying with a basis of endless suffering, with wisdom we can train in identifying with the pure body and mind of a Buddha.  No matter how beautiful you find your body, no matter how clever you find your current mind, they pale into petty insignificance compared to the luminescent splendor of a vajra body and the blissful omniscience of a vajra mind.  Our training in generation stage of Highest Yoga Tantra can be understood as nothing more training in the changing of the basis of imputation of our I from an ordinary samsaric being to a transcendental enlightened being.

The second way of escaping from samsara is by breaking its cycle.  The cycle of samsara can be understood by realizing how the five contaminated aggregates feed each other.  The five contaminated aggregates are essentially our ordinary body and mind.  The body is contaminated form, and the mind is contaminated discrimination, feeling, compositional factors and consciousness.  First, our contaminated discrimination discriminates objects as being inherently pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  Then, our contaminated feeling experiences these objects as being inherently pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  On the basis of these feelings, we generate contaminated compositional factors (basically delusions, such as attachment, aversion and ignorance).  On the basis of these delusions, we engage in contaminated actions which plant contaminated karmic seeds onto our consciousness, thereby making it contaminated.  When these seeds eventually ripen, they take the form of contaminated forms (or appearances).  We then assent to these contaminated forms with our contaminated discriminations and so the cycle continues without end.  The way to break this cycle is by training in the five omniscient wisdoms.  Our pure discrimination discriminates all objects as being equal manifestations of the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss.  Our pure feeling then experiences all objects as the dance of great bliss and emptiness.  On the basis of these feelings, we generate pure compositional factors (basically pure mental factors).  On the basis of these, we engage in pure actions which plant pure karmic seeds on our consciousness, thereby making it pure.  When these seeds ripen, they do so as pure appearances which we then discriminate purely with our pure discrimination in a self-perpetuating cycle of purity.

Having understood the true nature of samsara and what we need to do to get out of it, all that remains is the decision to do it.  There is a big difference between intellectually understanding samsara is the nature of suffering and deception and actually making the wisdom decision to do what it takes to leave.  Samsara will be relentless until the very end, using every trick in its book to distract or deter us from our purpose.  Our ability to hold the line depends entirely upon two things:  (1) wishing for the freedom of nirvana more than the pleasures of samsara and (2) the wisdom attentiveness to not be fooled.  Both are very hard.  Samsara’s pleasures seem immediate and definite whereas nirvana’s bliss seems a long ways off and quite abstract.  We will be tested, again and again, in every conceivable way, but the test is always the same:  do I sacrifice the eternal joy of enlightenment on the alter of my immediate desire?  Our ability to make the right choice depends upon our wisdom attentiveness to not be fooled by samsara’s lies.  This is why for me it is most powerful to consider the nature of samsara to be deception.  All delusions are, by their very definition, deceptive.  If you want to break the power of a delusion over you, realize its deception.  Once the curtain has been pulled back and we see the lie for what it is, the delusion will have no (or less) power over us.  And we should never grow complacent.  I still keep a picture of Gen-la Samden on my shrine as a reminder because here was a man who was so wise, was so far along the path, he had everything, but even he, who was likely quite close to completing the path, was fooled in the end and he lost everything.  If a holy being like the Gen-la Samden we all knew and love could be fooled, then surely we will never be never safe until we have purified the very last obstruction on our mind.  In the story of Buddha Shakyamuni’s moment of enligthenment, there was a final flurry of all remaining delusions and obstructions, any one of which could have knocked him from his path.  No, we must remain vigilent to the very end.

In the end, the entire universe is the ocean of the emptiness of our mind.  Through the force of delusion and karma, it has assumed the aspect of a terrifying acidic ocean of suffering.  Through the force of wisdom and pure action, we can reshape it into the aspect of a pure land in which all beings are eternally free.  Samsara will never revert to a pure land on its own.  So either we do whatever it takes to reshape it or we remain forever its victim.  There is no middle ground.

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