37 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 3: Seeking, Self-Nature, and the Matter of Life-and-Death
39 - Buddhist History 7: Indian Buddhism After the Buddha – The First 200 Years

 

Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two sides, and both are essential. The first side is cultivating “samadhi power,” or our ability to perceive – or be awake to – the absolute aspect of reality. We do this through practices including meditation, mindfulness, and studying teachings such as impermanence and emptiness. The second side of our overall practice is working on “karma relationship,” or learning to live our daily lives in an enlightened way. We do this by working with our karma, keeping precepts, honoring relationships, and understanding how the absolute aspect of reality corresponds to the relative aspect. If we neglect either side, our practice can stagnate or go awry.

 

 

Defining “Samadhi Power”
Defining “Karma Relationship”
Two Side of Practice, but Only One Reality
When We Neglect Karma Relationship
Attachment to Absolute Truth
Trying to “Skip Over” Karma Work
When We Neglect Samadhi Power
Samadhi Power Supports Karma Work
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
Sources

 

In this episode I’ll explain more about what I mean by “samadhi power” and “karma relationship,” but I won’t go into great detail about how we cultivate each side of practice. Instead, I want to concentrate on how it’s important to recognize each side, and not neglect either one. Most people have the tendency to dwell on one aspect more than the other, and consequently face difficulties in their practice.

The terms “samadhi power” and “karma relationship” are ways my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Jiyu Kennett,[1] described the two sides of Buddhist practice. I’m not sure whether she more or less made them up, or whether they have their origin in Japanese terms. (If you happen to know, please send me a note!) I suspect Roshi Kennett innovated in using these particular terms to get across an important message about Japanese Zen practice to an English-speaking audience. However, even though these particular terms may be relatively new, or aimed at westerners, they refer to aspects of Buddhist practice that have been present from the beginning.

Defining “Samadhi Power”

Samadhi is an ancient Sanskrit word, and according A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, it literally means “establish, [or] make firm.”[2] The Concise Dictionary then goes on to define the term as a “nondualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing ‘subject’ becomes one with the experienced ‘object’ – [and therefore] this is only experiential content.” The dictionary also explains that while samadhi is often translated as “one-pointedness of mind,” “samadhi is neither a straining concentration on one point, nor is the mind directed from here (subject) to there (object), which would be a dualistic mode of experience.”[3]

I agree with the Concise Dictionary’s definition. Samadhi is about a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality. In Zen, we refer to this as the absolute, or ultimate, nature of existence, as contrasted with its relative, or phenomenal nature. The absolute and relative aren’t two different realities, or even two different experiences of one reality; they’re two simultaneously-true levels of truth.

Here’s an analogy that might help you understand how absolute and relative truths apply at the same time: at the one level of truth, analogous to the relative, each finger on your hand exists. Each one is different, and separate, which is what allows them to function. At another level of truth, the fingers are inseparable from one another, or from the hand of which they’re a part. Each finger only exists in order to function relative to other fingers, and therefore each finger’s existence is in part defined by the existence of the other fingers. And where does a finger actually begin and end? What about the muscles that are necessary for the finger to function, but extend into the rest of the hand? It’s meaningless to conceive of a finger existing utterly independently of a hand; even if removed, a finger is identified by the relationships it used to have. At the larger level of truth – analogous to the absolute – things are considered as a whole. This hand analogy is, of course, very simplistic. However, it points to how absolute and relative are just two truths about one reality.

(If you want to study more about absolute and relative, there’s a link in the show notes on the website to a chart I made, which lists and defines a bunch of terms used to describe the two sides of existence, including principle and phenomena, equality and difference, and emptiness and form. I also discuss the “two truths” teaching in depth in my episodes on Dogen’s Genjokoan.)

Buddhism offers many ways for us to deepen our direct experience of absolute truth, or cultivate samadhi power. We meditate, or sit zazen, learning to let go of our discriminating thinking and just be. The more still our mind becomes, the less we differentiate self from all things “other” than self, and the sense in which we aren’t separate from anything else in the universe becomes palpable. We meditate regularly, but may also seek to deepen our meditation in a profound way by participating in silent, week-long meditation retreats. In addition, we practice mindfulness throughout our day, letting go of our mental commentary and narrative in favor of directly experiencing the fullness of this moment. We challenge our beliefs that relative objects, concepts, and relationships are inherently real by studying Buddhist teachings about the absolute side of reality.

When we manage, even for a moment, to drop the conceptual filter we usually hold over our experience of life, we wake up to the absolute aspect of reality. This isn’t a far-out, transcendent, event we force to happen by working ourselves into a rarefied spiritual state; rather, it’s waking up to a truth that’s always there, but we can’t usually see it because we’re so busy thinking, and looking out for ourselves. Our impression of absolute truth, when we experience it, isn’t always the same, but it can usually be described by words like infinite, boundless, luminous, precious, complete, full, or unconditional. Learning to perceive the absolute aspect of things, and strengthening our ability to perceive it at will, gives us great solace and strength.

The “power” in Roshi Kennett’s “samadhi power” doesn’t refer to power in the sense of control or dominance, or to supernatural abilities you could use to impress people. Instead, “power” refers to the ability to drop your dualistic thinking, allow subject and object to fall away, and experience the absolute aspect of reality. The term “power” also points to the energy, strength, and effort required to cultivate samadhi – which is ironic, because samadhi is more about not doing than doing. It actually takes great effort to allow ourselves to settle into a nondualistic state of consciousness, because our habits of clinging to discriminative thought, and pushing for self-centered agendas, are very strong.

Defining “Karma Relationship”

Any experience of the absolute aspect of reality passes, and we become more aware of relative truth again. Even profound and astonishing experiences of samadhi don’t instantly transform us into saints. Frankly, this fact is, perhaps, one of the more surprising, confusing, and initially disappointing parts of human spiritual practice. Once you see clearly how all is One, or how luminous and precious all of existence is, or how all beings have Buddha nature, or how God is present in everything, you’d think you’d subsequently spend the rest of your life walking around blissed-out and sublimely compassionate. But you don’t. At least, not forever, and usually not for long. Which is why we have the other side of practice: Karma relationship.

Karma is another Sanskrit term, and it literally means action or deed. Over time, however, it has come to refer to the universal law of moral cause-and-effect – so, in other words, in encompasses not just a deed, but the effects of that deed. According to Buddhism, the effects of any action are determined a large part by the intentions behind the action. So, for example, if you accidentally cause a death, the results are very different than if you commit murder. Traditionally, Buddhists believed in the cycle of transmigration, or rebirth, and figured that even if you didn’t reap the negative or positive consequences of your actions in this life, you’d experience them in a future life. Because of the disruption and problems harmful actions caused for self and other, the Buddha was very clear: moral behavior was a prerequisite for any progress on the path to liberation. Appropriate action, speech, and livelihood were included in his first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The idea of karma relationship as an essential aspect of Buddhist practice doesn’t require a belief in rebirth, of course. What’s important is an emphasis on paying attention to our actions and their consequences, and aiming to minimize suffering and maximize wisdom, true happiness, and compassion for ourselves and others. Working on karma means taking responsibility for our behavior, cultivating an intention to do better, and carefully observing the process of cause and effect so we develop an understanding of how to do better.

I suspect Roshi Kennett added the word “relationship” to karma in order to make it clear she wasn’t suggesting we need to study the law of karma in some abstract sense. Instead, working on our karma relationship is all about real-life relationship – with other people, other beings, objects, roles, effort, ideas, our sense of self, and even law of karma. There are many parts of our Buddhist practice where we work on karma relationship, including following moral precepts, the practice of vow, and interacting with other people in the Sangha, or Buddhist community. We also work to strengthen our mindfulness so we can be aware of our own mind states, intentions, and behaviors, and notice their consequences. This awareness is a prerequisite for us to undertake any kind of change.

Two Side of Practice, but Only One Reality

I’ve heard people say karma relationship work is about the “relative world,” while samadhi power is about the absolute. There’s some truth in this statement, in the sense that relationships between beings and things are part of the relative aspect of reality. From the absolute perspective, there are no inherently-existing, separate beings and things that can be said to interact, and discriminations such as good and bad, right and wrong, don’t apply.

Still, it’s problematic to speak in a way that implies we can do some work in a “relative world,” which exists separately from some sublime, if confusing, “realm” of the absolute. Relative and absolute are two levels of truth about the exact same reality. Therefore, our work on karma relationship must be informed by, and reflect, absolute truth; this is what results in compassion, selflessness, and equanimity, because we’re empty of any inherent, separate self-nature, and all phenomena arise and pass within one, seamless, luminous reality. And our awakening to absolute truth must never be disembodied and removed from the relative reality of life. If our samadhi power feels disconnected from the mundane experience of everyday life, our work isn’t done. We have to learn to manifest our insight about the absolute, or the insight is incomplete and of limited usefulness.

What we’re ultimately looking for in Buddhist practice is integration of absolute and relative, or samadhi power and karma relationship. Our practice is maturing when these no longer appear to be two separate things. However, we can’t just skip to that point because we intellectually know absolute and relative aren’t separate! We have to walk our own path of practice, and – as my teacher was fond of reminding me, to my chagrin – it will take as long as it takes. No use comparing ourselves to others, or to ideals. As we practice, then, it’s extremely useful to keep in mind that we need to devote ourselves to samadhi power and karma relationship.

When We Neglect Karma Relationship

If we neglect either samadhi power or karma relationship, our practice can stagnate or go awry.

When we neglect karma relationship and focus on samadhi power, there’s a strong possibility we’ll become rather cold – emotionally distant, rejecting our own human limitations as well as those of others. We may be obsessed with spiritual insight or meditative experiences, as if they’re more important than anything else, or will solve everything.

Based on whatever understanding we have of absolute truth – even if it’s primarily intellectual – we may draw conclusions about life that cause pain and suffering from a relative perspective. For example: Ultimately, everything is “just-as-it-is” and precious, so there’s no compelling need to address injustice or work for positive change in the world. Because, in an absolute sense, distinctions between right and wrong don’t exist, you can do anything you want. It’s possible to be free from suffering by just letting go of attachment, so the people you hurt can just get over it. This kind of delusion – springing from an overemphasis on samadhi power and neglecting karma relationship – is part of what lies behind the problems you may have heard about happening in some Buddhist communities, where male teachers suddenly figure the rules about not getting sexually involved with students don’t apply to them. Trying to apply absolute truth at the relative level of reality is like cutting a finger off the hand we discussed earlier because in an absolute sense fingers don’t inherently and independently exist. Ouch!

Attachment to Absolute Truth

In addition, when we neglect karma relationship, we may become attached to whatever insights we have had about absolute truth. We dream longingly of our past sublime experiences, and resent the necessity of responding to the demands of daily life. Karma relationship may seem like an irrelevant drag, or a practice for beginners who lack the profound understanding we have. Many Zen stories about interactions between teachers and students involve the teacher provoking the student in order to get him or her to let go of attachment to the absolute and come back to earth. This isn’t just about making sure students don’t hide out in enlightenment experiences and avoid their mundane responsibilities; as long as there seems to be a separation between enlightened and mundane, your insight is still dualistic and not complete.

It’s certainly possible to overemphasize samadhi power even if you don’t think you’ve had any special insight or meditative experiences. Then you’ll probably either keep hoping something really cool will happen during your meditation, or you’ll feel inadequate and discouraged, and conclude samadhi power isn’t in the cards for you. It’s tempting to idealize spiritual insight and the people who have supposedly “awakened” to some degree or another – imagining that a direct experience of absolute truth gives you access to an alternate reality where everything is beautiful and easy. It’s good to resist this temptation to idealize insight as much as possible. Basically, if you don’t think you’ve had a personal experience of the ultimate aspect of life, such an experience isn’t what you think it is.

Trying to “Skip Over” Karma Work

Finally, some practitioners of Buddhism hold on to hope that if they can just get enough spiritual insight, the problems in their daily lives will resolve themselves – so there’s no need to waste time working with karma relationship directly. Karma work gets complicated and messy – much better to skip over it and fix everything by sitting in meditation or studying profound teachings! Unfortunately, this isn’t how spiritual practice works. If you’re making a mess of your life by acting carelessly and selfishly – indulging in anger, greed, or addiction; stealing, lying, etc. – you’re extremely unlikely to be able to cultivate the stillness of mind and body required for samadhi power. All those self-centered activities, and their consequences, are too agitating, and reinforce the delusion of an inherently-existing self-nature.

Even if you’re really good at meditative concentration and able to push the circumstances of your life out of your mind in order to achieve some kind of spiritual insight, you still have to learn how to apply that insight to your actual, daily life in the relative sense. Skillfully navigating the relative truth of our existence requires a whole different skill set. This is a brutal surprise for people who strive hard for awakening experiences and then have to face their messy lives after the experience fades. How to face this challenge is the subject of Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. On the other hand, if we’ve done our karma relationship work all along, we’ll already be living in a way that’s more consistent with absolute truth – so any insight we achieve will be more easily integrated and manifested. Then we’ll just have the satisfaction of personal insight to back it up and inspire us further.

When We Neglect Samadhi Power

What about neglecting samadhi power, and overemphasizing karma relationship? This is when we try to get free from our suffering, be a good and wholesome person, have harmonious relationships, and/or aspire to greater wisdom and compassion – and then we struggle in our efforts in same way we struggle with the rest of our ordinary tasks. Approaching things only from the relative perspective, we set goals or adopt ideals, work hard, notice when we’ve fallen short, devise another way, and try harder. Chances are good we also criticize ourselves, compare ourselves to others, and experience a mixture of frustration, pride, and shame. Caught up in the drama of the relative, we fail to see things from a larger perspective, and may succumb to arrogance, depression or despair.

Alternatively, we may think we’re fine just the way we are, and we don’t have much karma relationship or samadhi power work to do, but this is another trap. When we don’t have personal and profound conviction about absolute truth, our sense of self remains front and center – and most of our worldly problems stem from ignorance or neglect of what we touch in samadhi. Unaware of the sense in which we are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature, and how things just-as-they-are participate in one luminous, seamless reality, it’s easy to give in to our greed, fear, anger, judgmentalism, low self-esteem, etc.

Samadhi Power Supports Karma Work

Samadhi power complements, supports, and strengthens our karma relationship work.

First, our meditation practice teaches us to sit still and face reality, not run away or turn away – and this kind of stillness is necessary in order to do karma work. In the spaciousness of meditation, where we let go of all agendas and judgments, we have a chance of seeing our life clearly. Our discriminating mind only helps so much; if we’re facing a complicated life problem, our thoughts will often end up spinning – going over and over the same material, conceiving a million different plans, endlessly weighing pros and cons without coming to a conclusion. In meditation, or in the midst of a daily life supported by regular meditation, an answer, resolution, or way forward will sometimes arise out of our deeper intelligence and intuition.

Second, strengthening our samadhi power gives us a growing appreciation of absolute truth, and that larger perspective keeps us from getting too down on ourselves as we work on our karma relationship. A sense of the absolute balances and sustains us as we do the hard work of facing our karma, changing habits, and learning to take care of others. Over time, we find it easier and easier to remember that Buddhist practice is not a self-improvement project, but an awakening to our true nature, which lacks nothing.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

From a Buddhist point of view, a fully enlightened person has no need for moral restraints imposed by will. Having freed themselves from grasping, aversion, and delusion, they naturally act selflessly and skillfully. Beware of anyone claiming to be fully enlightened, though, especially if they seem to be acting selfishly and immorally. The Buddhist precepts, as I have discussed in the episodes on the precepts, can be said to describe enlightened behavior – so, bad behavior is a sign of incomplete understanding and integration.

Until we gain a direct and personal understanding of reality – of absolute truth, as well as how relative and absolute are not two separate things – the practice is to “fake it ‘til we make it.” In other words, we act as much like a buddha – or a fully enlightened person – as we can, even though it takes some effort to do so. Through our karma relationship work, we put the relative aspect of our lives in harmony with the absolute aspect. This gets things in order for the integration of insight, so we can quickly manifest whatever we learn. It also makes insight more likely to happen, because our lives are more peaceful, and our minds and hearts more open.

Ultimately, when we “make it,” we recognize how all of our efforts around both samadhi power and karma relationship, all along, have been the manifestation of enlightenment. No practice is wasted. It’s nice to consciously awaken to reality and have your doubts resolved, but even before that point enlightenment is there. In a moment of realization, you can look back at your struggles as confirmation of your awakened nature.


Sources

Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener (Michael H. Kohn, Translator). A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. (Original copyright 1991.)

Endnotes

[1] http://brightwayzen.org/us-menu-placeholder/our-lineage-and-tradition/
[2] Fischer-Schreiber et al. Samadhi definition.
[3] Ibid

 

37 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 3: Seeking, Self-Nature, and the Matter of Life-and-Death
39 - Buddhist History 7: Indian Buddhism After the Buddha – The First 200 Years
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