What Does "Samsara" Mean in Buddhism?

The Beginningless Cycle of Repeated Birth, Mundane Existence and Dying Again

Man Rising From the Ashes, Energy, Aura, Power, Reincarnation

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In Buddhism, samsara is often defined as the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Or, you may understand it as the world of suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha), the opposite of nirvana, which is the condition of being free from suffering and the cycle of rebirth. 

In literal terms, the Sanskrit word samsara means "flowing on" or "passing through." It is illustrated by the Wheel of Life and explained by the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. It might be understood as the state of being bound by greed, hate, and ignorance, or as a veil of illusion that hides true reality. In traditional Buddhist philosophy, we are trapped in samsara through one life after another until we find awakening through enlightenment.

However, the best definition of samsara, and one with more modern applicability may be from the Theravada monk and teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu

 "Instead of a place, it's a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them." And note that this creating and moving in doesn't just happen once, at birth. We're doing it all the time."

Creating Worlds

We aren't just creating worlds; we're also creating ourselves. We beings are all processes of physical and mental phenomena. The Buddha taught that what we think of as our permanent self, our ego, self-consciousness, and personality, is not fundamentally real. But, it's continually regenerated based on prior conditions and choices. From moment to moment, our bodies, sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive "me." 

Further, in no small extent, our "outer" reality is a projection of our "inner" reality. What we take to be reality is always made up in large part of our subjective experiences of the world. In a way, each of us is living in a different world that we create with our thoughts and perceptions. 

We can think of rebirth, then, as something that happens from one life to another and also something that happens moment to moment. In Buddhism, rebirth or reincarnation is not the transmigration of an individual soul to a newly born body (as is believed in Hinduism), but more like the karmic conditions and effects of life moving forward into new lives. With this kind of understanding, we can interpret this model to mean that we are "reborn" psychologically many times within our lives. 

Likewise, we can think of the Six Realms as places we may be "reborn" into every moment. In a day, we might pass through all of them. In this more modern sense, the six realms can be considered by psychological states. 

The critical point is that living in samsara is a process. It is something we're all doing right now, not just something we'll do at the beginning of a future life. How do we stop?

Liberation From Samsara

This brings us to the Four Noble Truths. Very basically, the Truths tell us that:

  1. We are creating our samsara;
  2. How we are creating samsara;
  3. That we can stop creating samsara;
  4. The way to stop is by following the Eightfold Path

The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination describe the process of dwelling in samsara. We see that the first link is avidya, ignorance. This is ignorance of the Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths and also ignorance of who we are. This leads to the second link, samskara, which contains the seeds of karma. And so on.

We can think of this cycle-chain as something that happens at the beginning of each new life. But by a more modern psychological reading, it is also something we're doing all the time. Becoming mindful of this is the first step to liberation.

Samsara and Nirvana

Samsara is contrasted with nirvana. Nirvana is not a place but a state that is neither being nor non-being.

Theravada Buddhism understands samsara and nirvana to be opposites. In Mahayana Buddhism, however, with its focus on inherent Buddha Nature, both samsara and nirvana are seen as natural manifestations of the empty clarity of the mind. When we cease to create samsara, nirvana naturally appears; nirvana, then, can be seen as the purified true nature of samsara. 

However you understand it, the message is that although the unhappiness of samsara is our lot in life, it is possible to understand the reasons for it and the methods for escaping it. 

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O'Brien, Barbara. "What Does "Samsara" Mean in Buddhism?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/samsara-449968. O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). What Does "Samsara" Mean in Buddhism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/samsara-449968 O'Brien, Barbara. "What Does "Samsara" Mean in Buddhism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/samsara-449968 (accessed May 28, 2023).