Living in Samsara

The Buddha accepted certain traditional Indian beliefs concerning the nature of reality, the chief one being the notion of a continuum of existence, a cycle of birth, death and rebirth called samsara.

Samsara (“going or wandering through”) was conceived as a three-layered system, consisting of arupa-dhatu (“world of immaterial form”), rupa-dhatu (“the world of form”) and karma-dhatu (“world of feeling”). The three are also referred to as arupa-loka, rupa-loka, and kama-loka – the word loka meaning world or realm as well. In samsara living beings move up and down through vertical realms (human, god-like, and hell realms), and all beings, including devas (gods, celestial beings) are trapped in this world dominated by suffering. Nothing is static – everyone is in a state of constant motion – rebirth is the mechanism of horizontal movement and karmic seeds or imprints help determine vertical movement.

It’s not important whether samsara exists in exactly this way. What is important is that samsara symbolizes the mundane, conventional world, the world of life and death, the world of suffering and problems, where all phenomena, including thoughts and feelings, rise and fall, act and react, according to the law of cause and effect.

The problem the Buddha considered was how to put an end to cyclic existence conditioned by suffering, not an end to cyclic existence itself.  In other words, he wondered if it were possible to rise above suffering. Transcend it.

The Buddha envisioned a state of life in which a person was somewhat impervious to suffering. Suffering will not, go away. Beings will always experience suffering, and yet, he believed there must be a way to minimize the impact of suffering emotionally and psychologically. The gist of the idea, not unique to Buddhism, it can be found in Taoism as well, is to take things in stride.

The 13th century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren once wrote, “Never let life’s hardships disturb you. After all, no one can avoid problems, not even saints or sages . . .  Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life . . .”

Pretty simply stated, but not always so easy to accomplish. Additionally, there is a much deeper and complex underlining system of thought that supports this process. But that’s it in a nutshell.

There are persons in some quarters who feel the concept of rising above suffering, realizing a state of life that we could call “happy”, is somehow trite, watered-down dharma, or that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes with “feel good” philosophy.

In the Buddha’s time, it was actually a radical statement to make, this idea that one can rise above suffering. Life was hard then. Most people worked from sunup to sundown and in the East, there were no days off. They lived in a hostile environment, permeated with filth and disease, and survival on the most basic level was the major concern.

Most cultures accepted suffering but not in the same way the Buddha did. They rationalized it. You were supposed to suffer in this world and then after you die, then you would have peace, happiness. There was no escape. One of the first persons after Buddha and Lao Tzu who suggested that there was another way to look at it was the same person who wrote these words: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That revolutionary statement was the real shot heard ’round the world.

Some of the individuals who think this is just “feel good” stuff have a better way. Of course. They say, don’t worry about trying to be happy, you can be enlightened instead. They know it can be done because they have attained enlightenment. Naturally. No surprise there.

I am not sure what the difference is between the Buddhist sense of happiness and enlightenment. Classic bait and switch, is what suspect. Don’t be concerned about your problems. Unimportant stuff. Your time would be better spent trying to understand meditation techniques and the teachings as we give them. That way we can impress you with how much we know, how intelligent we are, how enlightened . . .

Look, I am not trying to suggest that there are no wool-pullers out there or folks with watered-down versions of dharma. However, I feel that in some cases they are a picture is being painted with brush strokes much too broad.  Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it is not good dharma.

I think the key is to be able to develop some radar. Get to the place where you can sense whether it’s a sales job or not. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, but if you get burned don’t give up on the dharma.

And definitely, absolutely, whenever anyone tells you they have attained enlightenment, run for the hills.

Chinese character for happiness
Chinese character for happiness

What is the nature of this joy? How can we touch true joy every moment of our lives? How can we live in a way that brings a smile, the eyes of love, and happiness to everyone we encounter? Use your talent to find ways to bring happiness to yourself and others—the happiness that arises from meditation and not from the pursuit of fruitless pleasure. Meditative joy has the capacity to nourish our mindfulness, understanding, and love. Try to live in a way that encourages deep happiness in yourself and others. “I vow to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon.” Ask yourself, “Who can I make smile this morning?” This is the act of creating happiness.  – Thich Nhat Hanh


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