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The Yogis of Samsara

Waves of SamsaraWandering through the internet some years ago I found the online text of a book entitled: The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism by Min Zhen Shakya. In it I found some incredibly insightful sections on the ways of samsaric (deluded and bound) human beings, including the fifth chapter called “Six Worlds of Samsara.” There I found an interesting delineation of various types of meditators according to their evolutionary level. For serious meditators this contains valuable information: first, so they can determine what class they fall into and work to get out of it, and second, to understand the truth about their fellow-yogis and respond to them accordingly. Anyone sincerely desiring to establish a yoga center or ashram for the benefit of humanity needs the information for the safeguarding of themselves, the sincere seekers, and–frankly–their valuable time that should not be thrown down the gutter-gullets of the unworthy.

We hope that this essay will be taken seriously and help worthy yogis avoid a great deal of hassle, confusion, disappointment and disillusion–as well as waste of their time.

—Abbot George Burke

Six Worlds of Samsara

Spiritually speaking, human existence is divided into ten worlds. The first six of these worlds are depicted as segments of an endlessly turning wheel; the last four are seen as stories of a high mountain.

The six worlds belong to Samsara, the realm of illusion in which reality is distorted by an intervening ego.…

We speak of the six worlds of Samsara because of the six types of human beings who inhabit it. People are categorized according to the manner in which their ego accomplishes its distortion of reality. Each type or “world” represents a style of adaptation, a pattern of response or method of coping with the exigencies of life. Every individual, from the time of his infancy on, through trial and error determines which style suits him best and is most efficient in gaining him the attention and the status he craves. The six worlds, then, may be considered six basic survival strategies. (Their identification, incidentally, constitutes the oldest psychology system in history.)

In Buddhism, we learn to recognize these six strategies, not so that we may identify them in others, though that can be helpful if the observations are objective, instructive, and non-accusatory, but so that we may learn to identify them in ourselves whenever we use them to evade responsibility, to maneuver other people into acting in our best interests, to gain us whatever advantages we seek, and so on.

In the every day world of samsaric existence, every person in every society uses one of these strategies. But we shall first describe them as they are found in religious life. In monasteries, temple complexes and Chan Centers, monks and devotees who are still caught on the samsaric wheel are jokingly said to practice Six Worlds” Chan.

The six classifications are Hungry Ghost Chan, Devil Chan, Human Being Chan, Animal Chan, Titan Chan, and Angel Chan. Again, these are not Chan but are merely styles of adaptation used by egos that have religious pretensions. (In Japanese Zen these classifications are called, respectively, Gaki, Jigoku, Ningen, Chikusho, Shura, and Tenjo. In the Tibetan “Wheel of Life” the six classifications are Pretas, Hells, Men, Animals, Titans, and Gods.)

  • Human Being Chan

This is the Chan of mundane affairs. The people who practice it are practical people who excel in improving earthly existence. In monasteries Human Beings are always involved in non-spiritual activities, doing jobs which they perform with exemplary efficiency. Their strategy is simply to become indispensable and it succeeds admirably since, invariably, they are fearless and proficient in all tasks which scare the wits out of Chan masters and other spiritual persons. They know how to fill out forms, handle media, arrange excursions, regulate crowds, collect fees, profitably manufacture and peddle religious articles and other souvenir items, compile mailing lists, and operate restaurants, bakeries, retreats, hostelries, etc. When it comes to developing monastery real estate and putting the bite on tourists, pilgrims and congregation members to pay for the improvements, Human Beings have no peers.

These worthy people become Buddhist devotees or monks because they appreciate the many ways in which their lives are improved by the Buddhist way of doing things. Human Beings generally believe that Chan is more a way of life than a religion and, as such, they value it for the poise which its meditation cultivates, for its healthful low-cholesterol diet, for its stress-free environment, for the orthopedic excellence of its sleeping mat, for the intelligence, variety, and non-fanatical decency of its followers, for the comfort of its loose, natural-fiber clothing, and so on. They do not neglect spiritual matters. Sometimes they concern themselves with which mantra produces the most salubrious effect upon the nervous system or which chant most inspires joyful fellowship. Sometimes more is involved. They may have ambitious sex lives and word may have reached them that there are techniques in Buddhist Yoga which when successfully employed can prolong an orgasm for twenty minutes. This is nothing if not self-improving and so they rush to join a Zen or Chan center.

Human beings simply do not understand that Chan is Buddhism and Buddhism is a religion, a religion of salvation. Though Buddhism may well provide for such ancillary functions, it is not a health club or a social center, a guild, an arts and crafts studio, a sanitarium, a study group, a philanthropical society, a boarding house or a profit making enterprise. The aim of Buddhism is not to cope with earthly existence but to transcend it, not to gain material comfort but to dispense with the notion of it, not to enhance or to rehabilitate reputations, but to be born anew without earthly identity in the glorious anonymity of Buddha Nature. Being a good fund raiser is a little off the mark.

  • Titan Chan

In mythology, Titans were the crudely powerful ancestors of ancient Greece’s more genteel gods. And following in that tradition, people who practice Titan Chan have a brutish, sadomasochistic approach to religion. They are strict disciplinarians who can go no other way but “by the book.” Whether inspired by martyrs, crusaders or drill-sergeants, they are convinced that their commitment to Buddhism and to the welfare of the monastery exceeds everyone else’s. And they truly believe that the indices of that commitment are pain, sweat, discomfort, deprivation, and compliance with a code that would make the KGB blush.

Even though Titans are noticeably hard workers and reap considerable–if grudging–praise for their efforts, they still find it necessary to glean a last measure of satisfaction by denigrating the work of others. Though they grouse and nit-pick in differing verses, the chorus is always the same: “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.”

As Titans understand religion, evil can be purged and goodness acquired by a variety of colorful ordeals. In addition to their daily rituals of sacrificing themselves in the performance of chores, they will, with all due fanfare, undertake prolonged fasts the difficulty of which is greatly lessened, they will modestly note, by considering the slop manufactured by the present kitchen crew; or they will take vows of silence, a tactic which allows them to glower, scribble, hiss or otherwise graphically mime their criticisms.

During the leg-stretching, walking period that mercifully divides a long meditation session, Titans will remain seated in perfect posture demonstrating that they never abuse others more than they abuse themselves. In Japanese meditation halls one monk is assigned the duty of keeping everyone alert. He prowls the aisles with a long stick and if he catches someone nodding, he whacks him on the shoulder. These blows are rather bracing and should anyone decide for himself that he requires this stimulant to keep awake, he bows to this fellow and is flogged accordingly. Needless to say, Titans bow repeatedly. Witnessing their battery does not conduce to tranquillity though it is considerably more relaxing than having one of them on the other end of the stick.

Traditionally, in Chinese Buddhism, after completing seminary training, both men and women novitiates go through an ordination ceremony during which three or twelve cones of burning incense are placed on the crown of their shaved heads. When these cones burn down they sear the scalp leaving permanent scars. At some later time the newly ordained priest might decide to repeat this cone-burning ordeal as a special penance or offering of some kind. Titans, of course, are among this practice’s most enthusiastic followers. Much like college football players who get little stars glued on their helmets to advertise their meritorious acts, Titan monks can have their scalps decorated with little round burn scars. (In Guangdong province, I met an old monk who had a few dozen more than the obligatory three or twelve. He laughed about them, attributing the excess to youthful exuberance. “Much like tattoos,” he said with some regret.)

To strangers, i.e., anyone who has not yet proven lazy, incompetent, spineless or immoral, Titans can be surprisingly congenial. But their initial friendliness is only a beachhead from which they will later stage attacks of righteousness. Intimidating martyrdom is not a strategy for winning close personal friends; but it does succeed in gaining attention and status.

  • Animal Chan

This Chan gets its name from the chief characteristic of domestic animals….dependency. A person who practices Animal Chan needs to be cared for the way that cows and canaries need to be cared for. Let us consider these two creatures and the contractual arrangement they have with us. One of them gives milk and the other sings in exchange for room, board, and whatever other perquisites they can negotiate. Stop feeding a canary and he will stop singing. Stop feeding a milk cow and see what you get. Turned loose or set free, neither survives for long. Perhaps at one time both could have prospered in the wild, but it is now too late. They have become too timid and have lost the ability to fend for themselves and to act or even think independently.

A person who does Animal Chan cannot tolerate the anxieties of secular life. He simply cannot hold his ground in the hectic give-and-take of sexual or working-place politics. In the monastery he knows that he will receive at least three meals a day, a room of his own, medical care, retirement benefits, a small but adequate paycheck every month for a job from which he can never be fired, supplemental donations from kind relatives, and life-long respectability which permits him to thumb his nose at all those people who said he’d never amount to anything. On festive occasions he never has to worry about getting an invitation since there is always a seat for him at the banquet table. And, of course, on New Year’s Eve, he never has to worry about getting a date.

People who do Animal Chan may be timid, passive and dependent, but though this suggests a certain stupidity, such an inference would be wrongly drawn. They are neither stupid nor uneducable. Those who are not already trained before they enter the monastery are encouraged to pursue an academic interest, take music lessons, or learn a craft or some other skill.

On the other hand, it does not follow that because they are socially helpless they are socially nonreactive. They notice everything, recording who does what and when in a brain that is defensively programmed to minimize good conduct of others and to exaggerate that which is not so good. Such information is their ammunition which, should they ever be found wanting in the execution of their own duties, they will use in any way they can to defend themselves. They are not above poison pen letters. They also whine a lot.

  • Angel Chan

This is the Chan of sophisticated neo-intellectuals who are captivated by Chan’s lofty, philosophical principles, its cool, esthetic presentation and the dignity of its priesthood which they enter as though pledged and pinned to a good Greek House. These are the people the Prophet Mohammed had in mind when he said that, “A philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics, is an ass bearing a load of books.”

Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, one of the great Zen masters of the modern era of Antaiji Temple, notes that in Japanese monasteries it is Americans nowadays who swell the ranks of Angel Zen. They seem to excel, he says, in “polishing the scepters” of high-ranking, spiritual persons. Exquisitely superior, they are called “angels” because, while being less than God, they are ever so much more than mortal men.

People who do Angel Chan stroll meaningfully in temple gardens where they frequently are caught, en flagrante, in acts of sublime cogitation. Daily they have intercourse with the cosmos–encounters which leave them a little breathless and pregnant with a poem or two. Usually they come to Chan because they are fed up with the crass materialism and moral degradation of American cities. They despise the “plastic” world and yearn for the elegant simplicity of Chan’s Natural Man. But despite their convictions that Urban Man is corrupt, they are very fussy about where they get their university degrees and which symphony orchestra has recorded their favorite classics. And though Chan describes itself as “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters” a description which somehow suggests that to whatever degree canonical works provoke disputation their study does not foster “natural” living, people who do Angel Chan scan the voluminous tonnage of Buddhist scriptures just to be able to calumniate each other in the name of scholarly exegesis. They will argue for hours about the most abstruse or insignificant trifle, calling out chapter and verse like so many quarterbacks.

Inevitably they are published. But it does not matter whether they make a best seller list or merely have an occasional byline in newsletters or other in-house publications. The printed acknowledgment of their erudition is proof to them that their strategy is working.

A person who does Angel Chan believes that knowing about something is the same as being something, as, knowing about grammar makes one a grammarian or knowing about snakes makes one a herpetologist, so, he reasons, knowing about the Dao makes one an Immortal. His knowledge is so precise and exhaustive that he feels justified in dismissing whatever is beyond it (the actual spiritual experience) as spurious or defective. Affecting an expression of deep insightfulness and an air of benign condescension, an Angel, who has not personally experienced so much as five minutes of true meditation, will try to present himself as an enlightened being. But if taken for anything other than window dressing, he can be spiritually dangerous. For should some poor fool (someone who does not know the ontological argument when he sees it) seek to discuss the ecstatic vision of Buddha he has just had during an hour’s worth of deep samadhi, the Angel is likely to assure him that he has been hallucinating and only thinks he has had a spiritual experience. Further, he will warn the fool that such flights of imagination are quite pernicious and must be guarded against.

Incredible as it seems, in Japanese Zen but not in Tibetan or Chinese, Angels have succeeded in standardizing their advice: “If while meditating you should see the Buddha, spit in his face and he will go away.” Well, I guess…..

  • Hungry Ghost Chan

A Hungry Ghost is a person who fervently desires things that he is constitutionally unable to use. If he were to haunt a Smorgasbord to satisfy his hunger, he would discover at the very first dish that he could not consume it; but that would not deter him from haunting the second dish and then the third and so on. In looking for a cause of his failure to ingest the food, he would never investigate himself. He would simply fault the recipe, ingredients or chef and flutter on to the next offering. This type of person is often depicted as having a belly that is swollen with cravings and a neck too narrow to allow satisfaction to pass.

Just as a numismatist may possess a thousand coins none of which he can use to buy a morning paper or a philatelist may possess a thousand stamps none of which he can stick on his mortgage payment, so, in Chan, the Hungry Ghost collects techniques for achieving exalted states of consciousness none of which has ever served to raise his own one centimeter above its present notch.

His desires are so intense that to satisfy them he regards nothing as too foolish, bizarre or dangerous. He will take drugs, climb mountains, float in isolation tanks, trek through deserts, sit in caves, stand on his head, chant, pant, wear pyramid hats, get hypnotized, consult ouija boards and tarot cards and join the most outlandish cults imaginable. He initiates each new endeavor with enormous enthusiasm; but when, after reading a few books, attending a few meetings or practicing a few hours, he does not experience satori, he moves on to something else. If we meet him in January, he has joined an ashram to learn yoga. By June he has chosen a more scientific approach and is taking biofeedback lessons. In December he has become a novitiate at a Chan monastery where on Monday he has dedicated his life to reciting the names of Buddha and on Tuesday he has committed himself to years of silent sitting-meditation, and on Wednesday he paces the garden mumbling the possible solutions to a koan to which he has pledged a lifetime of inquiry–should that be what is required; but, of course, on Thursday he has discovered that all that is needed to attain Nirvana is the practice of mindfulness and so he consigns himself to an eternity of vigilance.

On and on he tries this and joins that. Soon he possesses an enviable library and receives so much international junk mail that neighborhood postal clerks and stamp collectors stand in awe of him. As the years progress, he becomes what, in his heart, he is actually striving to be: a compendium of esoterica, a catalog of techniques, an encyclopedia of beliefs, a sample book of the occult, and an anthology of religious practice. Having so much information at his fingertips, he is regarded as an expert, a “source.” If he has once paid dues to a religious organization he is entitled, he believes, to discuss it with the authority of an insider. And, of course, he is always happy to lend his expertise precisely because he does have the serious collector’s peculiar zeal for offering information, opinions, references, advice and anecdotal digressions. This is his strategy for obtaining attention and status.

In religion’s Bazaar, the Hungry Ghost is the proprietor of a popular kiosk. He offers acquaintance passed off as intimacy, the superficial touted as the profound, and all in amazing variety.

  • Devil Chan

This is the Chan of appearances. It is Impostor Chan. Though they would vehemently protest the charge, the people who practice it are merely posing as religious persons. Criminally vain and brainless to a fault, Devils actually believe that looking the part is being the part. They subscribe without reservation to the garment maker’s dictum, “Clothes make the man.”

The name Devil comes from the wretched hell these displaced thespians feel whenever they are forced to sit in drab silence during long periods of meditation. They have no more use for meditation than they have for manual labor. Processions and ceremonies are their forte; and they prepare for such occasions with more solemnity and fastidiousness than is required for an act of Hara Kiri. Though such satisfaction as they derive from their religion is always limited to the presentation of it, it is no small satisfaction. We all know how it feels to experience a rush of pleasure when we are seen wearing garments in which we think we look particularly attractive. We also know that this rush is intensified if the garments convey membership in an elite group to which, when naked, we would not dream of including ourselves. Though we be unable to run the mile in less than two hours, an expensive jogging suit and running shoes will assert that we are serious athletes. Though we are certain that Shangri-La is a seaport in southeast China and that the Hilton associated with it is a hotel there, we need only don a turtleneck sweater and a good tweed jacket with suede elbow patches to be rightly considered a campus intellectual. And in the same meretricious manner Buddhist robes can be worn; for, though we have the humility of a South Bronx pimp and the compassionate nature as well, a black robe will proclaim that we do indeed possess such gentle virtues. Though we be as sexually restrained as a rutting moose, a cassock will convince the most jaded cynic that we are practically virgins. We may be so devious and manipulative that we cannot purchase a postage stamp without resorting to Machiavellian intrigue, yet little cloth slippers will boldly declaim our simplicity.

It does not matter whether the person who does Devil Chan embraces religion because he is compensating an evil nature or whether he is not venal at all but merely vacuous and is simply stuffing himself with the fixin’s of religion. He may, in fact, be as devoid of content as the display-window manikins that are his source of inspiration and guidance. He may believe not a single syllable of creed nor feel a single pulse beat of love or pity for any living creature save himself, yet, let him costume himself properly and wear a pious expression and he will find his substance and meaning in the approving glances of all who observe him.

These are the types who inhabit the six worlds of Samsara.

It may seem from all of this that a monastery is the last place in the world we should expect to find a genuinely religious person; but in truth, we can and do encounter many saints in such places. They pass among us unheralded by drum or trumpet. The sound they make is what St. John of the Cross called, “silent music,” and we must strain to hear it. In Chan, nothing is accomplished without attention.

These, then, are the six basic survival strategies as they are encountered in religious life. To see these Samsaric types as they exist in the secular world let us imagine that in a certain society women are compelled to marry at age eighteen. A reasonably mature woman who is genuinely in love has a good chance of entering into an abiding union with her husband; but those women whose marriage is not so sanctified are likely to respond to this traumatic event according to type. The Hungry Ghost will launch a series of reckless affairs; the Devil will pretend to be a loving wife while secretly despising the role and, presumably, her husband; the Human Being will take advantage of the partnership to merge assets, diversify incomes and investments, and organize doubles in tennis. The Titan will martyr herself; the Animal will passively submit to her fate; and the Angel will join the Junior League and the Symphony Society, take courses in Continuing Education and in record time emerge as one of society’s leading young matrons.

And if it should happen that one of these marriages begins an unhappy dissolution, the woman, alone, miserable and confused, is sure to receive from family and friends advice that accords with these same six worlds’ perspectives. The Hungry Ghosts will counsel her, “Get out and get yourself another man! There’s more than one fish in the sea!” The Titans will chastise, “What did you expect marriage to be, a Tupperware party? Stop your griping! You made your bed, now lie in it.” The Human Beings will recommend that she immediately get a lawyer, a financial counselor, and a membership in the YMCA. The Animals, seeing no problems at all since she holds title to her home and is assured of enough alimony to get by on, will ask incredulously, “What do you have to be miserable about? Do you know how many divorced women get stuck with nothing? Count your blessings!” The Devils, however, will have no trouble in recognizing the cause of her grief. “How do you expect to hold a man looking like that? Lose ten pounds, see a beauty consultant, and above all, get yourself some decent clothes!” And, of course, the Angels will insist that she seize the opportunity to expand her horizons by studying philosophy, psychology or, now that she’s a “woman of experience” and has a certain “depth,” creative writing.

In Samsara, the world which the ego dominates and distorts, whenever someone is involved in an emotional crisis he receives or he gives advice of these six types. Such counsel is considered eminently sensible and no one perceives any contradiction in believing, for example, that happiness consists in being wealthy and that there is a lot of money to be made exploiting the discontented rich.

Samsara is strife, itself. Every segment is a war zone. And the simple cause of the conflict is that the ego, by its very nature, exists in a perpetual state of desire, wanting love, fame and power and, unfortunately for us all, not much caring how it gets them. To succeed in its ambitions it will lie, cheat, steal, betray, kill, and generally manipulate other egos without the smallest mercy. If in the course of its development it has noted how loyalty, gratitude, or generosity are prized, it seeks fame for being grateful, generous or loyal. But when it perceives that such virtues are not to its immediate advantage, it defers to Number One and dispenses with such sentimental notions. Seemingly altruistic acts that are performed because the ego desires the esteem such actions generate are not altruistic at all; on the other hand, altruistic acts which are performed from genuine love and selflessness are acts which have transcended the ego and are not Samsaric at all.

May any man dare to hope that after he has unscrupulously striven half a lifetime to gain an objective he will, upon finally possessing it, enjoy it for more than two weeks? No. The moment an ego gets what it has fought for, it devalues the prize. The goal loses its fascination and the bored, competitive ego quickly sets its sights upon another, more worthy challenge. To live in the Six Worlds of Samsara is to live in constant conflict, winning some battles and losing others, but never being able to secure the peace. The Wheel of desire turns relentlessly, one possession after another, one relationship after another, one conquest after another. Such is life under the ego’s tyranny.

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