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Saṃsāra or Sangsara (संसार), a Sanskrit[1] and Pāli term which translates as "continuous movement" or "continuous flowing", which, in Buddhism, refers to the concept of a cycle of birth (jāti), and consequent decay and death (jarāmaraṇa), in which all beings in the universe participate, and which can only be escaped through enlightenment. Saṃsāra is associated with suffering and is generally considered the antithesis of Nirvāṇa (Sanskrit) or nibbāna (Pali). There are several Chinese translations, including 生死 (shēngsǐ, "life-death"), 輪迴 (lúnhuí, "wheel turning"), and 流轉 (liúzhuǎn, "wandering"). The Tibetan term is འཁོར་བ་ 'khor ba; Mongolian: orchilong.

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Buddha's view of Saṃsāra

According to the Buddha, the beginning point of Saṃsāra is not evident, just as there is no beginning point to a circle. All beings have been suffering in Saṃsāra for an unimaginable period, and they continue to do so until the attainment of Nirvana. The Assu Sutta [2] of the Pali Canon provides an explanation of our existence in Saṃsāra:

At Savatthi. There the buddha said: "From an inconstruable (sic) beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?"

"As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans."

"Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

"This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father... the death of a brother... the death of a sister... the death of a son... the death of a daughter... loss with regard to relatives... loss with regard to wealth... loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans. "Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

Saṃsāra in Nikāya Buddhism

Whereas in other Indian philosophies, some being (ātman, jīva, etc.) is regarded as being subject to Saṃsāra, in Buddhism the rejection of such metaphysical theories is fundamental. Buddhism accounts for the process of rebirth/reincarnation by appeal to phenomenological or psychological constituents. The basic idea that there is a cycle of birth and rebirth is, however, not questioned in early Buddhism and its successors, and neither is, generally, the concept that saṃsāra is a negative condition to be abated through religious practice concluding in the achievement of final nirvāṇa.

Saṃsāra in Mahāyāna Buddhism

The elimination of samsāra is the main goal of Buddhism. The Buddha himself was concerned with samsāra and the nature of suffering. He offered an understanding of the cyclic nature of suffering. ”Ignorance (avijja) is defined in terms of the four Noble Truths, as ’ignorance concerning suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering’” (Waldron, quoting the Nidāna-Samyutta. 2003:14). Ignorance leads to suffering and forms Karma (sańskāra). Kárma creates formations, which condition the arising of consciousness or cognitive awarness, the so called viññāna (Waldron. 2003:14). Viññāna is also considered to be a rebirth consciousness. This appears to be a direct explanation of how Kárma is transferred from one life to another. Waldron describes viññāna as a rebirth consciousness which descends into, ”takes up,” and thereafter animates the newly forming fetus (Waldron. 2003:14). He quotes the following dialogue with the Buddha: ’I have said that consciousness conditions name-and-form. … Were, Ananda, consciousness not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name and form coagulate there?’ ’No, Lord.’ ’Were consciousness, having descended into the mother’s womb, to depart, would name-and-form come to birth in this life?’ ’No, Lord.’ (Waldron. 2003:14) It appears that the Buddha is emphasising the point that consciousness descending and remaining in the mother’s womb is crucial for the rebirth of samsāra into a new life. Therefore, it would be natural to say that viññāna occurs throughout one’s life. Waldron says: ”It occurs uninterruptedly throughout all of one’s worldly lifetimes. It ’descends’ into the mother’s womb at the beginning of each life and ’departs’ at its end. And it only comes to a complete cessation with the end of samsaric existence itself, that is, with Nirvana” (Waldron. 2003:21). Interestingly, viññāna is not only linked to the growth of kármic formations: it is also connected to the „four sustenances”. As Waldron explains: ”First, as one of the four sustenances – along with edible food, sensation, and mental intention – consciousness ”sustains” each single life as well as one’s stream of lives” (Waldron. 2003:21). Viññāna thus can be viewed as one of the four sustenances of life. It appears that the cycle of samsāra is hard to break and needs a concerted effort. The destruction of viññāna is essential for this path to liberation. Waldron explains: ”While the process of vinnana grow and increase, thereby sustaining samsaric life, they can also be calmed, pacified, and brought to an end, marking the end of the cycle of birth and death. Indeed, the destruction of vinnana (along with the other four aggregates) is virtually equated with liberation” (Waldron. 2003:22). The end of suffering can be attained by Buddhist practice. To put this into simpler terms: through various practices Buddhists attempt to counteract grasping and begin to reverse the samsāric cycle. As Waldron describes it: ”As a result of such practice, vinnana is no longer increased by grasping; on the contrary, a monk ’who is without grasping (or appropriation, anupadana) attains Nibbana’” (Waldron. 2003:22). It would appear that with insight into the nature of suffering Buddhists have found a way to end it. Samsāra, or suffering, which may have lasted countless lifetimes, can end or be radically changed. As Waldron describes it: ”Upon realising Nirvana at the end of the process of karmacally driven rebirth, vinnana, the stream of worldly consciousness which persists throughout one’s countless lifetimes, also comes to an end, or at least is radically transformed” (Waldron. 2003:22). How do these processes encourage the growth of consciousness, and perpetuate the cycle of rebirth? According to Waldron, the Buddha used a series of simple vegetative metaphors to describe this. He quotes the following dialogue: 'If these five kinds of seeds are unbroken, unspoiled, undamaged by wind and sun, fertile, securely planted, and there is earth and water, would the five kinds of seeds come to growth, increase, and expansion?' 'Yes, venerable sir.' 'Monks, four stations (thitiya) of consciousness should be seen as like the earth element. Delight and lust should be seen as like the water element. Consciousness together with its nutriment should be seen as like the five kinds of seeds' (Waldron. 2003:26). These metaphors demonstrate the interconnectedness between consciousness, Kármic deeds, desire and craving, in the cycle of Kárma. Viññāna appears to be the only quality which leaves one’s body at death and enters another at conception. Viññāna therefore can be seen as a link between one life and the next - collecting Kárma and then transmitting it over many lifetimes.

Reference: Waldron. S. William. 2003. The Buddhist Unconscious. The ālaya-viñjāna in the context of Indian Buddhist thought. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.


According to several strands of the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, the division of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is attacked using an argument that extends some of the basic premises of anātman and of Buddha's attack on contemporary orthodox accounts of existence. This is found poetically in the "Perfection of Wisdom" literature, and more analytically in the philosophy of Nāgārjuna and later writers. It is not entirely clear which aspects of this theoretical move were developed first in the sutras, and which in the philosophical tradition.

Saṃsāra in Tibetan Buddhism

Saṃsāra is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, filled with suffering and problems (according to Kālacakra tantra as explained by Dr. A. Berzin). In this sense, Samsara may be translated "Wheel of Suffering."

The term Samsara has been translated many ways which include but are not limited to endless suffering, cyclic existence, perpetual wandering, and transmigration. There are six realms that one can go to through this cycle of Samsara. Many believe that when one goes through the process of rebirth that they are the exact same person when they are reborn. This however, is not true. They bear many similarities with their former selves but they are not the same person. This is why many use the term reborn instead of reincarnation. The term reincarnation implies that there is a transfer of conscience or one’s soul to the new life and this is not the case in Samsara. buddha101.com gives a good example that shows an easy way to better understand the transfer of consciousness “Like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball. While nothing physical transfers, the speed and direction of the second ball relate directly to the first." This means the previous life has just as much impact on the new life.

There are also some who believe that Samsara is not the question but the answer to what we are doing here. They consider it to be a process to why we are here. They believe that one creates their own worlds on their way to enlightenment. Meaning when their world is starting to collapse due to their death they will create a new world and move into it. Some also believe that while they are continuing to go from world to world they encounter others who are on the same path that they are on. It is also believed that all of these different worlds impact the worlds of those who are in a similar place/path that you are on.

Buddha was the first person to grasp the belief of Samsara and figure out how to end it. He taught that the only way for one to end their journey through Samsara was enlightenment. The only person who could stop one’s cycle of Samsara was the one who was traveling through their path. Some thought that Samsara is a place and thought that it was selfish for them to be able to stop it and leave the others behind. Most believe that Samsara is a process. In this process people are being born into new lives and since it happens to everyone and everyone has the ability to escape it, it is not selfish. Being said the process of Samsara may take a long time to complete and even with no time limit there may be some who can never actually escape this endless suffering.

See also

References

  1. ^ Wiktionary
  2. ^ Assu Sutta

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