by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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.
The play and creativity in the process can sometimes be enjoyable.
In fact, it would be perfectly innocuous if it didn't entail so
much suffering. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing
us. Moving into a new world requires effort: not only the pains
and risks of taking birth, but also the hard knocks — mental and
physical — that come from going through childhood into adulthood,
over and over again. The Buddha once asked his monks, "Which do
you think is greater: the water in the oceans or the tears you've
shed while wandering on?" His answer: the tears. Think of that the
next time you gaze at the ocean or play in its waves.
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
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.
It's true that the Buddha likened the practice for stopping samsara
to the act of going from one place to another: from this side of
a river to the further shore. But the passages where he makes this
comparison often end with a paradox: the further shore has no "here,"
no "there," no "in between." From that perspective, it's obvious
that samsara's parameters of space and time were not the pre-existing
context in which we wandered. They were the result of our wandering.
For someone addicted to world-building, the lack of familiar
parameters sounds unsettling. But if you're tired of creating incessant,
unnecessary suffering, you might want to give it a try. After all,
you could always resume building if the lack of "here" or "there"
turned out to be dull. But of those who have learned how to break
the habit, no one has ever felt tempted to samsara again.
Source: Copyright © 2002 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Reproduced and reformatted from Access to Insight edition
© 2002 For free distribution. This work may be republished,
reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium.
It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication
and redistribution be made available to the public on a
free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other
derivative works be clearly marked as such.