Let me be upfront: I love the BuddhaDharma. It comprises the majority of my day and night. It is my practice, entertainment, enjoyment, and that which constantly helps me be non-deceiving with myself, non-deceptive about anything in any moment. At least, that’s my aspiration! Why? Because I feel a great longing for the end of the calamities in our world and in the lives of people I know; and I do not think that a transcendent being will or can wave a magic wand to erase our difficulties. My life of 65 years has reported to me that change has to come from within. Daily I muse on and invoke the collective intention of humanity to apply ourselves to this. Then the miracles of Presence and the blessings of innate limitless potential are available to us for wise, compassionate addressing of the world’s issues along with our individual ones.
Around 1400 A.D., Tsong Khapa wrote the following verse.
If you do not contemplate the noble truth of suffering – the fallacy of samsara –
The wish to be free of samsara will not arise.
If you do not contemplate the source of suffering – the door to samsara –
You will never discover the means of cutting samsara’s root.
Base yourself on renunciation of samsara;
Be tired of it.
Cherish knowledge of the chains that bind you to the wheel of cyclic existence.
I, a yogi, did that myself;
You, O liberation seeker, should do likewise.
A brief interpretation of this verse is:
- Contemplate the truth of suffering. Understand that it is true. Do not be deceived about this.
- The fallacy of samsara is the Matrix quality of life; and the ruse is so complete that it’s hard to fathom. As such, one rationalizes samsaric tendencies throughout each day which, then, keeps the waterwheel of samsara in motion. This is done on all scales: personal, national, cultural, in business, education, medical models, and in each different society’s image of what good or right or of value.
- The source of suffering is craving. Craving is also its door. Because of craving, all types of beings grasp at, cling to, and rely upon varied sources of temporary pleasure, satiety, security, or comfort not recognizing that discontent is sure to follow because the solution was temporary in the first place. Feed craving and samsara follows. Cease feeding craving and samsara ceases. We crave for others to be a certain way, for our body to be a certain way, for the taste of chocolate or salt, for health, love, and for poverty, war and pollution to end. Craving will not produce lasting desired results; but extinguishing craving will produce harmony and peace for you, others, and the world.
- Tsong Khapa says, be tired of samsara. Be tired of it and the causes of samsara that we personally or societally put in motion. Instead, base yourself on words and actions that support life and foster Awareness-Wisdom.
- Realize that life lived just happy enough, avoiding that which is unpleasant, and chasing after satiety, wealth and praise is a set of chains. One is bound to repeat these until the sky falls unless one cherishes the truth and chooses wisdom instead.
Samsara is a Pali word and is the same in Sanskrit. It implies something “going around,” referring to the cyclic and thereby continuous nature of relative existence coupled with the state of delusion that fuels its revolving character. The delusion is both individual and collective.
Delusion and the perpetuation of samsara is produced through repeated misidentification. For example, one may take a job, stay in a marriage, or not explore new things in favor of a status quo. Perceived as necessary or as stability, such as a sense of security or seeming prevention of insecurity seems wise. The misidentification is one of limitation: thinking that one is limited to, or supposed to be like, or that options do not exist. Yet, are any of these factually so? One might need to shake things up a bit, have an honest conversation with someone or with one’s self and be open to personal change, but limitation is not one’s lot.
Misidentification of all kinds is one cause of samsara. If a tree is identified as lumber, its life span is truncated. Most species of tree used to lived hundreds of years, many over 500. But, if a tree is a commodity, it no longer is a tree, nor let to live as a tree. If an animal that has evolved to certain behavior in the wild has been domesticated, forced to live in a cage, or its habitat reduced, a number of misidentifications are in play. The result for the animal, like the tree, is that it no longer has the freedom of being itself, living as it would, participating in the holism of life as designed by Nature. For human beings, children are trained in misidentifying from birth. Gender, race, cultural expectations, parent’s desires and projections routinize an identity onto the child that is not intrinsic. A documentary on babies called Babies is riveting in this regard. In each case, a set of expectations, unfulfilled potential, and limited life experience and life scope are the result. You are invited to stop for a moment (right now) and contemplate your life in this regard. Also reflect upon the people in your various circles, the food you eat, the resources you use, and how replete misidentification is in your life, thoughts, and views.
The primary purpose behind the BuddhaDharma is not to create depression in people but to reveal unrecognized deception. Then one can change behaviors and thoughts that bring no benefit.
Additionally, samsara refers to a general and ongoing misdirection of perceptions through partially correct or patently incorrect information; information, nonetheless, believed and/or valued. For individuals, this is the source of bias, prejudice, favoritism, and denial. The same are fostered in communities, cultures, and nations. A current example of this in the U.S. is around the idea of democracy. How can the U.S. think itself or tout itself as a democracy when a large percentage of the citizenry doesn’t vote or for whom voting is made difficult or impossible by others? The nation of the U.S. has a perception that it is a democracy even though the country does not fulfill the definition of one.
Misdirection of perception is a premise understood well by those who design packaging for products, create advertising, and who want you to think something regardless of if it is correct or true. For instance, a pharmaceutical might lower one’s blood pressure but, in time, it will also cause kidney failure. The second half of this equation is not given equal voice by the creators and promoters of the drug. This is a misdirecting of perception. Monsanto did similar with its pesticides and herbicides. Yes, it will kill the bug or undesired plant but it will also poison the ground water, kill the microbiome of the soil, and if breathed can cause cancer in the person spraying it. Misdirecting the perceptions of the would-be users brought profit to Monsanto and destruction to all else in its wake.
Tsong Khapa tells us that samsara is a fallacy. Some similes used in the Dharma for this idea are a mirage, a dream, a magician’s illusion, an echo, or a reflection of the moon in water. A mirage gives the impression that it will serve a need, but the mirage is false. Not only is the need such as water not addressed but energy and time have been wasted. Disappointment or futility is what one is left with. For someone dreaming, everything in a dream seems real while one is dreaming. Upon waking, the characters, emotions, visions, and experiences within the dream are gone. They did not actually disappear because they had no factual existence in the first place. A magician’s illusion works to the extent that the audience wants to believe the illusion. Otherwise, the trickery is known to be just that: entertaining but not real. An echo can only repeat. It cannot change its tune. And, no matter what is reflected in water, the image in the water is merely an image just like a mirage, the magician’s show and a dream. If one believes any of these displays, one is deceived. All of them are deceptive to the untrained mind. Therefore, if one wants happiness and does not want suffering, one is well served to cultivate seeing things as they are. (non-deceptive 3) There is no water in the mirage of water. It’s that simple.
Mindfulness serves here. Why? Because craving is in one’s mind, as are beliefs, preferences and fears, doubts and confidence, projections and assumptions. The same is so of characteristics like color, size, texture, pleasure, trouble, and so on. As one is mindful in noticing the usually not noticed workings of emotion-mind, the habituated responses or reactions to anything/everything becomes less automated. A gap ensues in which the mind or emotion, clinging/craving, fear or inquiry is empty of habituated projected content. But, because one takes the bait of the illusory as real, of the limited as boundless, and of the transitory as lasting, or believes that perceived control is security, one predestines oneself to the carriage that comes with that horse. And since that choice (horse) is rarely recognized as causative, this fuels the overall samsaric condition. Hence, the Buddha encouraged “Be mindful and thoughtful; this is my instruction to you.”.
Everyone is bound to the wheel of cyclic existence except those who have depleted its causes. “Ah, happy indeed the Arhats! In them no craving is found. The ‘I am’ conceit is rooted out; confusion’s net is burst. Lust-free, they have attained. Translucent is the mind of them. … Attained to the stage of ‘tamed,’ they are victorious in the world.” Everyone has this potential.
There are spokes to this Wheel of Cyclic Existence. The spokes are all forms of discontent, uncertainty and disquiet, dissatisfaction and unsatisfactoriness. In Pali, the word is dukkha, or “suffering;” but it refers to and describes the comprehensive experience of the samsaric Wheel of Existence.
The word suffering in western cultures has a coloration derived from Judeo-Christian roots. Suffering on a cross, suffering persecutions, or suffering in exile are, of course, examples of dukkha; but their connotation includes a sense of martyrdom which is not within the meaning of dukkha. Dukkha is experienced emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually. For human beings, this includes the gnawing of craving and restlessness, the ping-pong of preferences and avoidances, and the rollercoaster or tidal swells of our moods and emotions.
The discontent experienced by a mother animal when her offspring dies and the sorrow of a human parent when something equally grave occurs is dukkha. For a polar bear, dukkha includes the experiences of confusion, hunger, and heat amidst the fluctuations of climate change. For a bee colony, dukkha is the experience of malnutrition and disease caused by non-variety of pollen due to monoculture agriculture. For a newborn sea-turtle, suffering is confusion and then finding itself stranded and dying of desiccation in the morning sun because it followed a street light’s glow instead of the moon-glow over the surf.
Dukkha is the suffering of a plant in need of rain or a houseplant drowning in too much water. Dukkha is the experience of a hungry, migrating humming bird in late summer when few flowers remain. Dukkha is the condition of a person who is cold and wants warmth, hungry and wants food, lonely and wants companionship, or feels marginalized and is living that state. Dukkha has many guises which is why the all-encompassing word “suffering” has been used by translators for centuries.
These examples highlight the interconnected relationship between dukkha and samsara. They also illustrate the complete interdependence of life. For example: refugees and asylum seekers are on the borders of almost every country in the world. One reason for this modern global storm of people is due to climate crisis’ effects to their homelands, or war which is fueled by the effects of climate crisis in their homelands Why is there climate crisis? Because of human-craving. It’s a circle: samsara, dukkha, samsara, dukkha. It’s also chicken and egg.
The Buddha said, “The world is established on suffering, founded on suffering.” Wisdom lies in changing the foundations of suffering which will in turn transform both samsara and dukkha. As the Buddhist prayer says, “May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” Therefore, anything that you and I can do that faces personal deception head on and concurrently chooses non-deception halts the wheel from turning for a split second. A life dedicated to this can be practiced by any traditions of the world. As Thich Nhat Hahn said and was an example of, “Peace is every step.”
In each of dukkha there is a “me” that wishes to flourish or at least have the sensation that it is safe, comfortable or content. In the case of a person, the “me,” creates a mental story about the situation, holds certain feelings about that story, and forms an analysis of what to do or what cannot be done in a given situation. This feeling of individuated identity cherished and clung to by beings is one component in the feedback loop of samsara and dukkha. Correct understand includes two ideas: a) no one and no thing is factually individuated on this planet. All exist solely through interconnectedness, partnership and mutuality. If one questions that, look in your refrigerator or don’t pay your utility or phone bill. b) An even larger consideration is ‘what is identity? If one says, “I am me,” to whom or what are you referring? The hair part of me, the liver part of me, the beliefs that me thinks it has, the affection for a food the me has, and so forth. What is “me?” Who is “me?” From a Buddhist psychology point of view, there is no truly existent “me.” “Me” is a collection of factors, features, thought-forms and processes, which themselves produce and sustain habits of consciousness. Oh, and each of them is a collection born of causes and conditions through and beyond time. So, here is a -if not the- primal mistake in identity and a foundational misdirection of perception. Neither can bring lasting true happiness. Ah, samsara/dukkha at its core. Yet, correcting misidentification will cease the perpetuation of suffering for all. How so? Through interdependence. “The greatest protection for one’s self is to be of benefit to others.”
Unto itself, being unable to address a situation engenders hopelessness and discontent; while doing something provides the feeling of accomplishment even if the situation remains unchanged or is worsened. “Well, at least you tried,” is a common supposedly reassuring phrase. Since motility and effort feel productive, we do rather than be. In all cases, the fundamental issue is not the situation at hand; it is that one believes the situation at face value, like a mirage. One is deceived and not attempting to see things as they are. For example, one might have terminal cancer or other disease, or be in a job that is soon to be outsourced or eliminated. My sister had terminal cancer, my friend Grace had a heart issue that was fatal, and I have Multiple Sclerosis -complications of which will likely cause the end of this incarnation. If the cancer or disease is terminal, it is terminal whether one wants to believe that or not. Acceptance of that physical fact is wisdom and compassion because then that which will support the well-being of one’s mind and failing body for the duration of the incarnation can be assessed and put into place. For the disappearing job, acceptance also is needed. Acceptance provides new mind on any situation and fresh creative solutions. In both cases, acceptance stops the samsaric wheel from turning for a moment or two. Acceptance is seeing things as they are and also provides intuitive space for insights into what gifts of transformation the current situation (of any kind) is offering.
True acceptance is not giving up or giving in, however. The Underground Railroad in America was born from the acceptance by some that slavery was a cruelty beyond words. Action, including heroism, resulted and some slaves were smuggled to freedom. The French Underground in WWII is another example of acceptance. Hitler and German troops were going to invade France, intended to add French Jews to the Nazi program of extermination, and the world’s art abiding in France was coveted by Hitler who wanted it all. Action resulted. The French Underground was instrumental in the defeat of the Germans in Europe through partnership with allied troops and the intelligence that the Underground provided. Acceptance acknowledges things as they are. Neutrality, equanimity, and acceptance are powerful mindsets that counter samsara.
The pursuit of “What will make me happy?” or “This will satisfy my craving” can only provide temporary satisfaction. Ephemeral happiness will pass and one will again crave and grasp at something. Additionally, one wonders if the majority of satisfactions that one seeks actually are detrimental to one’s well-being. Yet, overall discontentment persists with just enough intermittent happiness to fool oneself and the collective. This is a primary fallacy of samsara: just enough pleasure, happiness, or contentment to keep beings confused about the actual pervasive condition of anxiety, worry, frustration, death and loss that is the state of existence.
If this sounds depressing, such a response arises due to fundamental misidentification. Why would anyone choose samsara and dukkha once one sees it clearly? Therefore, the Dharma encourages investigation into one’s self, also to contemplate the question as well. Be open to your heart and its innate direct awareness.
* Next up: nirvana.