Samsara and Nirvana, Two Sides of the Same Hand

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-nirvana equal-ness’.

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.

three trainings

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.

tong-len, giving-taking

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

minor marks.

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.

guru yoga

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.