What is Samsara?

Category: Buddhist Path

A nighttime sky at dusk, symbolizing the darkness of ignorance of samsara setting in

Samsara Definition And Meaning in Buddhism

Until we are awakened, we live in samsara. Habit keeps us trapped in this cyclic existence, which is characterized by suffering. The cycle of samsara in Buddhism is broken when we choose to follow the noble eightfold path toward nirvana.

Samsara is a Pali and Sanskrit word which can be translated as wandering, flowing onward, or cyclic change. The concept of samsara is related to the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death, which is also known as the wheel of life, the wheel of existence, or the karmic cycle.

According to the Buddhist world view, all life cycles through a process of becoming, existing and dissipating. We have been doing this since the beginning of time, and will continue to do so without end. This cycle can be understood on a gross level, as we mark birthdays, lifetimes and the day of death. It can also be understood on a moment-to-moment level, as we ‘die’ to one chapter of our lives and get born into another.

In Buddhism, this cyclic existence is particularly characterized by suffering. For it is our habitual dissatisfaction and discontentment with the present moment, our ignorance, that keeps us in the self-perpetuating cycle of samsara. Not understanding the true nature of reality, we keep placing our hope for happiness and contentment in the ordinary existence of the mundane world.

Some of us have even managed to craft ourselves a designer samsara, with all the comforts of material luxury and supportive, kind and loving communities. And yet, our material goods break down, become obsolete or out of fashion, our families and friends grow old and leave us, and our world continues to change. Even in the best case, samsara can never lead to anything but pain. And so, where else can we go?

Escaping Samsara

Although samsara may also be translated as ‘world,’ it is not a place. Samsara, and its partner, nirvana, both arise from the mind. The prescription for exiting the cycle of suffering, therefore, is to train the mind. By training the mind, we see samsara for what it is, and develop the capacity to intentionally step out of the cycle, onto an alternate path.

When we train the mind, we can see in detail the workings of dependent origination, the endless cycle of karmically propelled confusion. The four noble truths, a teaching common to all schools of Buddhism, offers us an overview of the method required to end the cycle of rebirth and the suffering associated with it. The cessation of samsara is referred to as nirvana. Nirvana is also not a place, but a perspective – one of freedom.

Recognizing Samsara

The first of the four noble truths is about coming to terms with where we are. It’s about accepting that samsara, even its most luxurious manifestation, can only lead us to further disappointment, pain and suffering. In samsara, nothing good lasts forever.

What’s more, as we cycle through samsara, we are not automatically reborn into repeating, favorable circumstances. Instead, we pass in and out of the 6 realms. At one moment, we may feel on top of the world. In the next moment, we may very much feel like we are living in hell. If we pay close attention, via meditation and trained awareness, we come to realize that we are responsible for our own rebirth.

How Samsara Works

The results of our actions in the preceding moments (our karma) are what propel us forward into the next moment. Yell at someone, for example, and you may find yourself in a world where everyone seems angry. Be generous, and you may find yourself in a world that feels abundant.

We use this realization not to blame or shame ourselves for our current circumstance, but as an empowering truth. If we are the cause of our own suffering, we can cause the end of suffering, too. By choosing to act not out of habit, but with intention, we can improve the chances that the next moment’s reincarnation will be a positive one. Karma is not fate, but an opportunity.

Exiting Samsara

We can exit samsara and find ourselves in nirvana by following the noble eightfold path. When we apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the threefold training of ethics, meditation and wisdom, we create causes and conditions which transform our experience.

Meditation helps us to slow down, let go of past habits, and act with greater patience, kindness and generosity. When we act in meritorious ways, we increase the odds that our next rebirth will be even more favorable than the last. As wisdom develops, we gain new eyes with which to see our world and become awakened to a new reality.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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