Samsara and Nirvana, Two Sides of the Same Hand by Khenchen Könchog Gyaltshen RinpocheTranslated from the Tibetan by Khenchen Rinpoche and Terence Barrett
Namo Guru Bhye!
I bow down to the lamas of unequaled kindness
Whose compassionate hands pluck the migrators
From their wanderings throughout limitless samsara and
Set them down in the land of enlightened bliss.
All the varied happiness and suffering of samsara and nirvana
Arise from the appearance-emptiness non-dual nature;
To refresh my recollection of the Dharma, and that of others as well,
I have written these words, relying on the Conqueror’s teachings.
Even though all these phenomena (dharmas) are naturally pure
Free of arising, free of abiding, free of ceasing
The Teacher, skilled in means, taught all the Dharma
So that we may realize authentically this reality nature.
The glorious Chandrakirti spoke of this with these words:
“The Teacher taught that all dharmas are
Pacified from beginningless time, are free of arising, and are
Naturally and wholly transcendent of suffering;
Therefore, they have always been unborn.”
Samsara and nirvana are actually
Of the same mode of abiding; and as such
There is not the smallest distinction between them in the
Samsara is mind with its conceptions;
Nirvana, nonconceptual freedom from action and actor –
So samsara and nirvana of two sides of the same hand,
Mind-as-it-is: self-arisen, unchanging, and spontaneous.
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All us sentient beings who wander the three planes of samsara
Wrapped up tight in the myriad and adventitious afflictive emotions
Possess the luminous and unfabricated buddha-nature,
Like a seed in the husk and gold in the muck.
Confusion is samsara’s aspect; its
Characteristic, unceasing suffering;
Nirvana is confusion purified and awakened –
Our suffering has no established basis.
What is samsaric confusion?
(1) innate dharmadhatu, the basis of confusion
All dharmas have the characteristic of space,
Beyond any limiting existence / non-existence elaboration;
At the same time, as various dharma-instances,
Clouds of holder-and-held obscure (confuse) the expanse.
(2) wavering of fundamental non-knowing (ma-rigpa), the cause of confusion
Failing to recognize (ma-rigpa) the innate wisdom among the
Disarray of habitual conceptual thought, our
Tangled mess of afflictive emotions
Continues to wander in samsara.
Buddha, Nagarjuna, and Jigten Sumgön all taught
“It is the body that cycles through samsara”;
Our propensities of karmas, afflictions, and sufferings
Cycle through samsara in dependence upon a body.
The countless types of mental afflictions,
Desire-attachment, aversion-hatred, and ignorance,
Pride, jealousy, and all the rest, are the
Creators of our samsaric existence.
Some of their negative work is
Suffering and unhappiness,
Restlessness and muddled thought –
Making untoward both this life and the next.
The afflictions create the sufferings of becoming, birth, and the rest1,
Corrupt our happiness and virtue, obstruct our liberation,
1 The twelve links of this wheel of becoming are listed in the endnotes.
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Discourage and exhaust us, cause us to squander our
Leisure and endowment, and lead us to the lower realms.
The afflictions wake up and stabilize the
Dormant propensity for grasping-as-real ignorance,
Pervert our observations, and reinforce each other,
And so continue without interruption.
The afflictions cause prosperity’s decline in both
Existence and peace, and are objects of criticism for sublime beings –
For all these reasons, it is clear that there is
Immeasurable fault in this collection of mental afflictions.
Because the afflictions have no sickness and death
Samsara will be without beginning or end
Until concurrent shamata-vipashana
Cuts them off at the root.
(3) no beginning, the timeframe of confusion
Self-expressivity arises unceasingly from the
All-basis equal-ness dharmadhatu; this is
Patterned by the confusion of fundamental non-knowing and
Ingrained as pernicious grasping-as-real.
Until the clouds of conceptual thought, profused since beginningless time
In the free-of-arising-and-ceasing sky of mind-as-it-is, are
Scattered by the wind of wisdom, we will continue to
Experience our own self-made suffering.
(4) self-fixation, the entity of confusion
Self-awareness, unrecognized, grasping at ‘self’;
Self-appearance, misunderstood, grasped as ‘objects’ –
Oh, how emotionally afflicted are we sentient beings,
Trapped in the wheel of samsara by this dualism!
Holding unclean to be clean, impermanent to be permanent,
Suffering to be happiness, and the selfless to possess self-ness –
These four perverted mindsets are the anchor keeping us in the
Artificial and temporary cyclic existence that is samsara.
(5) in what way is it confused?
When mind-as-it-is is not realized to be free of elaboration, the
Resulting object-design is outer and inner, container and contained –
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All confusion of attachment and aversion, holder and held
Arises from fixation on this ‘self and other’.
(6) the result of being thus confused
The afflictions are both cause and condition
For the arising of all karma; from that karma
Manifests the six realms of samsara,
Oppressed by the three sufferings.
Thus, this variegated wheel of becoming
Does not come from nothing, without cause and condition, but
Arises from the confusion-wheel of one’s own mind, and so is the
Object to be realized by the wheel of wisdom.
Some of the time from beginningless time through today
We have enjoyed the glory of the gods; some of the time,
We have experienced the blazing fires of hell – but these experiences of
Happiness and suffering are no more than a dream to us now.
All manner of attractive things are possible with
Modern science and technology, but
Trying to obtain happiness from them is like
Trying to quench our thirst with mirage-water.
While wanting happiness, we experience only suffering, and
We will not find release from this abysmal suffering
Until we have abandoned our karma and afflictions –
We each must do our own investigation into this.
When we attain unsurpassable enlightenment,
We will find the nature of confusion to be none other than
Wisdom, and all that will remain of suffering will be its name –
This is the way to annihilate confusion.
(7) examples of this confusion
During sleep and dream, we are
Burned by fire, carried away by floods, and the like;
We either experience the happiness and suffering, or
Wrap ourselves in a protective cocoon.
Nothing appearing to our senses has ever been real,
They are all experiences of a dream-state; likewise it is the
Hope and fear involved with ignorance, grasping-as-real, and
Attachment-aversion that produces our state of samsaric confusion.
All these dharma-instances are in fact reflections of our
Habitual tendencies, and are illusory, like a bubble or a dew-drop; the
Moon reflected on water has no nature of moon, but
Dependent as it is on causes and conditions, appears as if by magic.
How is this confusion purified?
(1) the method with which to eliminate confusion
Any fortunate one there may be who desires release from the
Great inescapable prison of cyclic existence needs to
Use the following method – the liberation-path that cuts off confusion in
Dependence upon the scripture and realization of the sublime Dharma:
For all appearances, these composite interdependencies of causes and conditions,
All birth is followed by death, all meeting by parting,
All accumulation by exhaustion, and all youth by dissipation;
Do not be attached to this life – contemplate its impermanence!
Appearances of the past are like a dream, not here now;
Those of the future are like the horn of a rabbit, not here now;
The momentary ‘now’ is like a ripple on a lake –
Hold in your heart the quintessential, sublime Dharma!
In the three miserable migrations of hell-being, hungry ghost, and animal,
Beings are powerless to prevent their enslavement and killing;
Their suffering is like waves of fire, never-ending –
O my! Wise one, generate compassion for them!
Tossed violently by the waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death
In the ocean of samsara with no bottom or shore,
Desiring happiness but craving the causes of suffering –
O, how weary are the sentient beings who have no protector!
None of us can prevent the results of preceding causes and conditions,
They are infallible for us all; furthermore, there is
Moment-cycle causality, the arising of variegated
Samsara-nirvana as the self-expression of virtue and non-virtue.
In the absence of cause, the result is turtle’s fur; therefore, all possible
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Happiness and suffering arises from virtuous and non-virtuous
Causes and conditions; this is the mode of abiding of all phenomena –
Intelligent one, pay close attention to causality!
To cut off confusion, take refuge from the bottom of your heart
In the perfected Buddha, the one who knows, directly and precisely,
All dharmas, gross, subtle, and hidden; in the sublime Dharma of
Scripture and realization; and in the Sangha of aryas.
Dharmakaya, co-emergent luminosity;
Sublime Dharma, free of production, cessation, and elaboration; and the
Sangha of aryas, beyond coming and going – embodying them all is the
Ultimate refuge: one’s own empty, luminous mind.
A compassionate hand holding a hook of loving-kindness,
A face of bodhicitta emblazoned with the major and minor marks,
Matured from a youth devoted to scripture and realization, and
Skilled in means – respectfully adhere to this kind of spiritual master.
In a wide field of renunciation,
Clear away the rocks and weeds of non-virtue,
Plant potent seeds of the ten virtues, and
Ripen the fruit of the three trainings.
Moral conduct is bountiful when desire-attachment has been dispelled;
Samadhi is happy body-mind after one is free of anger;
Insight-wisdom arises when delusion has been defeated –
Cherish the three trainings, the foundation of the Conqueror’s Teaching.
Clouds of loving-kindness suffuse the mind’s sky and their
Misty rain of compassion falls at just the right time; the
Bodhicitta harvest fills up the store-house,
Dispelling the ignorance-famine of the limitless migrators.
No matter how much influence, magnificence, wealth, and
Renown one has in this world, they are impermanent, and
Fall apart quickly; and so without attachment to them,
Habituate bodhicitta, which is of benefit to oneself and all others.
Following the flight path of all the conquerors of the three times, the
Jumbo jet of relative and ultimate bodhicitta
7-Jun-09 Samsara and Nirvana, Two Sides of the Same Hand 7
Soars through the sky on the wings of the two accumulations and
Lands smoothly, with no delays, at the four-kayas airport.
With a positive attitude of loving-kindness and compassion,
I give to the down-trodden
Sentient beings of the six realms all my happiness and
Roots of virtue, without reservation.
With a natural manner of brave heart-mind,
I take into my mind-stream every one of the
Qualities of abandonment and realization of all the
Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the three times.
In samsara, from beginningless time through today, the
Sole cause bringing the suffering is always my own
Self-fixation / fundamental non-knowing –
I give this away, right now, without a second thought.
Knowing that all sentient beings of the three realms have been my mother, I
Recall their kindness, wish to repay their kindness, and connect to them with love;
I generate compassion for them, then the mindset to attain enlightenment for their sake –
I take all these mind-trainings into the center of my heart.
Without clinging or attachment, I give my entire
Bounty of resources and roots of virtue to these kind mothers; and in
An authentic manner – like an illusion, like a mirage –
I take on all their karma, afflictions, and suffering.
Negative conditions are spiritual teachers;
Spirits and demons are emanations of conquerors;
Sickness is a broom sweeping away defilements and obscurations –
All sufferings are dharmata’s waves.
Purify without remainder in the presence of the Buddha
Any type of fault or downfall, natural or imposed,
Committed by body, speech, or mind under the control of the three poisons
Using the four powers of remorse, resolve, antidote, and reliance.
In the sky of mind-as-it-is, an expanse free of center or edge,
Clouds of adventitious conceptual thought condense; from these the
Confusion of duality arises, and then various karmas begin to accumulate –
Purify these in the transparent, non-referential experience of dharmata.
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Generosity, moral conduct, and patience,
Perseverance, meditative concentration, and wisdom –
With these six transcendent actions, the highway of the
Conquerors of the three times, realize the two-fold selflessness.
Generosity is the all-desires wish-granting jewel;
Moral conduct, the stairway to temporary higher status and liberation;
Patience is the beautiful and resilient mighty Mount Meru;
Perseverance, hands scooping up the jewels of enlightened qualities.
Meditative concentration is a fine mansion where one may rest from the afflictions;
Wisdom, a bright lamp dispelling the gloom of the two obscurations;
Supreme method is a wise man filling up his treasury with the two accumulations;
Aspiration, a wish-granting tree that completes the two benefits.
Supreme strength is a warrior victorious over the four maras;
Primordial wisdom, an ambrosial medicine that realizes the nature of mental afflictions.
Riding the thoroughbred horse of the ‘thirty seven factors in accord with enlightenment’2,
The capitol city, Dharmakaya, is in reach – how wonderful!
end of bodhicitta section
After the practice of the primordially-established deity has wholly purified the
Stains of impure confusion, the universal purity of the union of the
Generation and completion stages is perfectly completed with the enlightened
Qualities of separation and maturation – the ten strengths and the rest3.
Purify the mental afflictions, the direct cause of suffering, with
Practice of the generation-completion method-wisdom divine form,
But take care – if the afflictions gain control,
Birth as a divine-form spirit or demon may result.
Kyob-pa Rin-chen-päl has said: “The Buddha teaches that
‘Deities who experience desire-attachment are hungry ghosts;
Deities who experience hatred-aversion are hell-beings; and
Deities who experience delusion are animals;
A poisoned deity is non-virtuous, and
From it suffering comes’; and so
Keep close watch on the deity.”
2 These thirty seven factors are listed in the endnotes.
3 The enlightened qualities of separation are the ten strengths, the four fearlessnesses, and the eighteen
unmixed dharmas; the enlightened qualities of maturation are the thirty two major marks and the eighty
To follow these words, one’s own mind must be one’s witness,
Ensuring that the practice of bodhicitta, yidam deity, and the rest
Remains a method with which to eliminate the mental afflictions.
Adhere to an archetypal lama, a lamp for migrators; one with a
Glorious treasury of benevolent blessings, and boundless,
Inexhaustible, melodious, vast and profound teachings on the
Three baskets of sutra and the four classes of tantra.
Utmost respect and devotion for a four-kayas-entity
Vajradhara-lama, a bodhicitta-manifested illusory-kaya, an
Unexcelled leader of the protector-less migrators, is how the
Treasure of dharmata is discovered.
Resting in the uncontrived state of the luminous, free of coming-or-going,
Innate character is the supreme meditation;
Conduct free of acceptance and rejection is marvelous; the
Result of these two devoid of hope and fear is the mahamudra.
The unarising nature of the mind is dharmakaya;
Its unstopped self-lustre, various nirmanakayas;
Its union of luminosity and emptiness, sambhogakaya; and the
Three kayas, inseparable – mind-as-it-is, mahamudra.
Under the gaze of the buddhas and bodhisattvas of all times and directions,
Dedicate your entire collection of virtue – both that innate and that
Accumulated in the three times – for the unsurpassable enlightenment of all your
Mother sentient beings – enemy, friend, and the rest – the supreme dedication.
summary of the five-fold path
This profound five-fold path, the essence of sutra and tantra, is the
Purification of the five poisons, the annihilation of the five demons, the
Possession of the five wisdoms, the manifestation of the five buddhas, and the
Spontaneous establishment of the five marvelous activities.4
This graduated path, complete and unmistaken,
Is the method-path by which to eliminate confusion;
Fortunate ones who desire release from the land of samsara
Need to know that there is no second door to peace.
4 For explication of these qualities, see the table in the end notes.
(2) an example of eliminated confusion, waking from sleep
Our various positive and negative dreams experiences – such as
Anxiety and terror from enemies and victimizers and enjoyment of
Glorious divine palaces – are real to us when they are happening, but
Are gone when we awake, neither real nor unreal.
Our heads are left spinning at this confusion within confusion; but
All the various outer phenomena are just the same –
Other than merely appearing, they are not actually there.
The Samadhi-Raja Sutra states it in this way:
“A young woman in a dream gives birth to a son
Only to watch him die; she is happy when he is
Born and unhappy when he dies –
Know that every single phenomena is just like this.”
All this current world of appearance
Appears real to a confused mind, but when
Fundamental awareness rests in the sphere of dharmata,
There is not even a speck of anything, real or fake.
Because everyone – oneself and others – die, we are not real, and
Death itself is not real, but like an illusion;
Because the material world is destroyed by fire and water, it is also unreal,
And the four elements themselves are unreal, interdependently.
(3) the cause-and-condition dependency of the method to eliminate confusion
Confusion is dispelled when the cause that abides in the
Basic character, buddha nature, meets the condition of a
Qualified lama’s instruction, taken into a disciple’s heart –
Similar to what happens when ice is exposed to heat.
Make every effort to put into practice the instructions of a
Benevolent spiritual teacher, skilled in means.
Dharma Lord Rin-chen-päl has taught:
“ ‘Phantom men ford mirage-rivers’,
‘Sky-lotuses are sipped from by dream-bees’,
‘Barren women’s sons sing the gandharva’s songs’;
‘The Ultimate may be realized in the midst of busy activity’ –
These are the words of childish ones devoid of experience and realization.”
“When our minds, stainless and virtuous,
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Melt into the sublime Dharma, the
Forest of great bliss flourishes
On the non-dual mountain;
Undistracted, mindful deer graze here, consuming the
Grass and water of bliss, clarity, and non-conceptuality –
Seeking solitude? This is the place.
I, the yogin, will keep to this mountain retreat.”
(4) when confusion may be reversed
We of the six realms with a good body-support of leisure and endowment,
Who are also possessed of faith, will renounce the samsaric state;
We will then have an opportunity to wear the armor of perseverance in the
Sublime Dharma and free ourselves from the ocean of suffering.
Leisure and endowment are difficult to find – recognizing the
Importance of this precious life, be smart and strive for the ease of freedom
With supreme bodhicitta, relative and absolute, and
Without distraction to matters of this life alone.
(5) what remains after confusion has been eliminated
Our mind’s stainless mode of abiding manifests
With the unification of awareness and emptiness –
This innate, ordinary awareness is what is called
‘Confusion dawning as wisdom’.
Unstoppable mere-dawning self-lustre is the basis of interdependence;
Non-establishment of any existence or non-existence is emptiness;
Unified, they do not abide as one or separate –
Self-disposition, free of directionality, the all-pervasive basis.
(6) the opposite of confusion
The omniscient wisdom that realizes the mode of abiding
Comprehends in the dharmata-sphere dharma-instances in all their complexity;
Integrated body-mind has no fixation on either – no
Clinging-attachment to the body nor to awareness-emptiness mind-as-it-is.
The omniscient wisdom that unifies the two truths
Has no attachment to retinue or relatives and
No aversion to any enemy or victimizer;
All are equal in the dharma expanse – how wonderful!
(7) the result of reversed confusion
Riding the horse of the unexcelled bodhicitta
Encouraged by the whip of undistracted mindfulness
Gallop across the plain of the ten grounds and five paths and
Arrive easily to the three-kayas jewel-island.
Firm and deep are the wish-granting tree’s roots of three trainings;
Its branches and leaves of two-fold bodhicitta flourish infinitely;
Blooming beautifully are its flowers of unified generation-completion; and
Its fine fruits are three kayas of benefit for the migrators.
All-pervasive, un-rivaled, luminous mahamudra, the
Mode of abiding of our own non-arising mind, that called
‘Confusion dawning as wisdom’, and the enlightened qualities of
Separation and maturation – all parts, wholly completed.
In a single atom are all atoms of the universe;
All atoms of the universe are pervaded by a single atom –
Know one object of knowledge and be expert in them all;
Know them all and understand the one.
Dharmakaya: the two obscurations are purified to sky-like, so it is pure; all
Elaborations of self and non-self are pacified, so it has entity; its
Dharmadhatu has no fluctuation, so it is permanent; and its mental-body is
Purified of gross and subtle latent tendencies, so it is at ease.
Emanating naturally, without wavering from the sphere of
All-in-one-taste, the various rupakayas train every being
Pure and impure; and their enlightened activities,
Every possible object of knowledge, are as boundless as the sky.
Until every drop of the ocean of existence is dried up
Limitless activities of enlightened body, speech, and mind will
Reach to every sentient being non-conceptually and spontaneously,
Like the sun, the clouds, the earth, and the water.
And so, regarding the mind’s mode of abiding:
Whoever has not realized it cycles endlessly in samsara;
Whoever has realized it is liberated to nirvana; therefore,
In the practice of the nature of mind, be diligent!
Even though the mode-of-abiding nature of samsara-nirvana is inseparable,
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Interdependent causality is what dominates on the relative level, and so
I composed this brief text in reliance on a pure teaching-tradition
In a way appropriate to various beings’ mental states.
I am not well trained in academic subjects and have
Little mastery of these profound points, and so my mind
Remains confused; therefore, in the presence of the
Wise bodhisattvas, I confess whatever mistakes I may have made.
Into the mandala of unexcelled bodhicitta, I bring
All my accumulation of virtue, including that of this work,
So that I may swiftly attain the state of Vajradhara and
Engage beneficially with the infinite migrators.
Perceiving the stainless and precious, unsurpassable and sublime Dharma of the Teacher to be the source of all relative and ultimate benefit and happiness, I have spent many long years, with pure altruistic intention, obtaining whatever of it I have been able in the far-flung countries of this world. Unfortunately, these days both my body and mind are sometimes overpowered by a strong exhaustion that does not respond much to medicine or treatment, and so I recently took some time to rest and recover in the American city of Madison.
While there, in early spring of 2009, with an altruistic mind hoping to benefit those who seek the meaning of the Dharma, and contemplating how the demarcation between samsara and nirvana is delineated by virtue and non-virtue, I, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen, composed this text, entitled Samsara and Nirvana, Two Sides of the Same Hand (literally: “The Wheel of Wisdom: Samsara and Nirvana, Front and Back of the Hand”), in dependence upon Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön’s profound Dharma and skilled teachings – may it bring about infinite benefit for the Teaching and for all the migrators! Sarva kalayan bavantu – may all be virtuous!
Translated from the Tibetan by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche and Terence Barrett during the 2009 Spring Retreat at the Tibetan Meditation Center, Ratnashri Dharmachakra, while outside the rains fell and the flowers bloomed, and inside the precious, sublime Dharma was taught, received, and practiced well. Many thanks to Lama Gyaltshen for his kind assistance with typesetting of the Tibetan. May all mistakes of this work be purified in the expanse of dharmata; and may its merit and wisdom speed all migrators on to attainment of the non-abiding nirvana. http://www.drikung.org/texts