Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two parts, and both are essential. The first part 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 part 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.
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,[i] 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.”[ii] 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.”[iii]
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.
Next week: How samadhi power and karma relationship are really just two aspects of the same reality, what happens when neglect either side, and how the two sides of practice support each other.
[ii] Fischer-Schreiber et al. Samadhi definition.