In the next post, I want to talk about surface meanings, mid-level meanings, and deep meanings, but if I included it this time, the blog would be too long. So I'll just say that I see many things as having at least three levels of meaning, and I want to explain one quote in the book through that lens.
In Buddha on the Backstretch, I explained the concepts of nirvana and samsara this way:
Nirvana is enlightenment, sometimes thought of as a place that enlightened beings go. Samsara is its opposite, the world of striving and suffering, greed and envy. However, for Buddhists, such sets of opposites are examples of "dualistic thinking." By freezing concepts into "either/or," we fail to see the possibilities of "both/and." We do not realize that what we think about the concepts, such as "these are opposites," can never be as big or as all-encompassing as the concepts themselves (in turn, the concepts are never as big as reality itself). Instead, Buddhists think in terms of interpenetration, the idea that one concept goes through and into another. To put it as the Buddha did, samsara IS nirvana -- because without the reasons to practice that samsara offers us, we would never find nirvana. Moreover, once we gain some level of realization, we understand that although the world might be samsara, we can hold nirvana in our minds and embody it in our actions and words, thus filling the world (samsara) with nirvana. Or, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's charming phrasing, "Earth is crammed with heaven."
When my friend John read the manuscript, he said he didn't completely get this passage and asked if I was trying to repeat the adage that we can't truly know joy until we've known pain. That's not exactly what I wanted to say, but at the time I couldn't think of a better way to describe it.
What I meant (and what the teaching "samsara IS nirvana" means, at least as I understand it) is akin to taking a glass of fresh water and adding salt to it grain by grain. When does the glass become a glass of what we would call salt water? Not with the first grain, which would be imperceptible. At some point, you have ceased to have fresh water and begun to have salt water, but no one knows exactly when that happened.
Along the same lines, one Buddhist teacher took his students outside and placed a grain of sand on the ground in front of him, asking "Is this a hill?" He kept adding grains and asking the question. Every pure, unselfish act is a grain of salt or sand, a grain of nirvana. We add grain after grain, and eventually, this suffering world of samsara has a hill, or a salty taste. At some point that we may not recognize, the suffering world has nirvana in it. You won't know when the change occurs, but you will realize suddenly that, hey, nirvana is here, in this world. You can point to it, taste it, let it run through your fingers. Nirvana has interpenetrated samsara.
So when it comes to the teaching "samsara is nirvana," the surface meaning is a paradox. The two seem to be opposites, so saying that they are the same is a paradox. That is the case with a lot of Buddhist teachings. Because they are paradoxical on the surface, you must look deeper to find a meaning. What I just described is the mid-level meaning, the idea that our actions can bring nirvana into the samsaric world.
The deepest meaning is that once you are enlightened, then anywhere you are is a manifestation of nirvana, because you will see the inherent enlightenment (the nirvana) in everything. To an enlightened being, then, nirvana and samsara are exactly the same thing. They are both an ocean. The hill is always there.