Monday, February 25, 2008
Samsara literally means "wandering-on." Many people think of it as the Buddhist name for the place where we currently live — the place we leave when we go to nibbana. But in the early Buddhist texts, it's the answer, not to the question, "Where are we?" but to the question, "What are we doing?" Instead of a place, it's a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.
In addition to creating suffering for ourselves, the worlds we create feed off the worlds of others, just as theirs feed off ours. In some cases the feeding may be mutually enjoyable and beneficial, but even then the arrangement has to come to an end. More typically, it causes harm to at least one side of the relationship, often to both. When you think of all the suffering that goes into keeping just one person clothed, fed, sheltered, and healthy — the suffering both for those who have to pay for these requisites, as well as those who have to labor or die in their production — you see how exploitative even the most rudimentary process of world-building can be.
This is why the Buddha tried to find the way to stop samsara-ing. Once he had found it, he encouraged others to follow it, too. Because samsara-ing is something that each of us does, each of us has to stop it him or her self alone. If samsara were a place, it might seem selfish for one person to look for an escape, leaving others behind. But when you realize that it's a process, there's nothing selfish about stopping it at all. It's like giving up an addiction or an abusive habit. When you learn the skills needed to stop creating your own worlds of suffering, you can share those skills with others so that they can stop creating theirs. At the same time, you'll never have to feed off the worlds of others, so to that extent you're lightening their load as well.
Picture by: JRH43@Flickr.com