Having had the pleasure of recently visiting the Rubin Museum in NYC and going on a mini tour they provided about the Buddha, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the term samsara. The word samsara literally means “continuing on”, “wandering on”. It signifies the repetitive cycle of birth, ageing, death and rebirth. The only thing that is passed on from the current life to the next life is a set of feelings, a set of impressions, a set of present moments, and the karma that is created in previous lives and the current life. The Buddha did not discuss how similar they may be. The key piece to focus in on is that from life to life, we have the ability to become closer to the goal of breaking the cycle of samsara.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism share the concept of rebirth, but the Buddhist concept differs in details from the Hindu definition. According to Hindu tradition, rebirth is understood to involve a “permanent” soul, a conscious entity which goes from one body to another. According to this theory, the soul lives in one body and at death, the soul leaves that body off and goes on to assume another body. Whereas in Buddhism, rebirth is not viewed as the transmigration of a conscious entity, but as the repeated occurrence of the process of existence. There is a continuity between one life and another. But there is no soul, no permanent entity which transmigrates from one life to another.
Karma refers to the natural law in Buddhism that deals with cause and effect in a person’s life. The idea is that what you put out in this world comes back to you, what you plant you harvest. Buddhists believe you go through a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. All of life is a process that is guided by the natural law of karma. Going a step further, what you do and what you say and how you do things in this lifetime is based on your experiences in previous lives, as well as your experiences earlier in this life. Buddhist teachings tell us that those who do good become good. Likewise, those who do bad will become bad. A new individual in the next life will not be the same as previous lives. The circumstances of Karma affect the condition of the rebirth. Karma is a reflection of the essence of being human. For Buddhists, what you become in the next life depends on what you did in this life. just as what you are in this life is a distillation of what you were in previous lives. That said, karma is a thread woven through all of our lives.
Nirvana is an eternal state of being. It is where the laws of karma and samsara cease to be. Each lifetime presents opportunities to do good, to learn the lessons, and to bring ourselves closer to the goal of nirvana.
Nirvana differs from the Christian concept of heaven. Nirvana is not a place, but rather a state of being. You can be in Nirvana while living the present life. It is the end of suffering and desire. It is the end of individual consciousness. Speaking to his disciples, the Buddha described Nirvana as:
“… a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing away nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor stand still.”
Often people look at the Buddhist concept of nirvana as annihilation, but rather it is an assimilation of the energy into the pool of energy that is Nirvana. Buddhists believe that no one can cleanse you, nor can anyone defile you. No one can rid you of your sins but you. Clearly, the responsibility of karma, samsara, and nirvana is our own to manage. If you follow that reasoning, the Buddhist idea of salvation is also our own responsibility.
Buddha spoke of the middle way. Buddhism is a description of a path to harmony. It is up to us to bring that harmony to ourselves and the world around us.