Samsara is a word found in Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as other belief systems, and it refers to the unending cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, samsara is the cycle that we are all on, consisting of birth and death, which repeat many times. For a Buddha, the cycle ends with Enlightenment. Enlightenment freed Shakyamuni, the Buddha, from being reincarnated again, allowing him to break free of the unending cycle, samsara.
The life phase between rebirths is considered only one of many. During that life phase, the choices a person makes, the actions the take, the thoughts they think, the things they say, and all other aspects of how that person lived that life phase play into the concept of karma and help determine the quality, for lack of a better word, of the next life phase when that person reaches the time for death and rebirth again.
A common oversimplification of this concept is the confused belief that if a Buddhist is bad in this life they will be reborn as an insect or something seemingly unimportant in the next life. The Buddhist and Hindu concepts of samsara are closely related, which is understandable considering that the Buddha was likely raised to follow Hindu teachings prior to his Great Renunciation and path to forming Buddhism. In Hinduism and related Indian belief systems, the common belief is that the consciousness has a sort of rest period before being reborn, while in Buddhism the common belief is that the consciousness immediately departs at the time of death and begins to form in the next life. This is an intangible, immeasurable occurrence, however, so speculation and faith are going to influence individual beliefs on the matter.
Buddhist Teachings explain samsara as something that comes from our ignorance, and the continuous birth-death-rebirth cycle is a characterized by our fears or anxieties, suffering, and dissatisfaction in everyday life. These are emotional and psychological factors that greatly influence thought processes, actions, and almost all of a person’s psychological and emotional health. These are also things from which the Buddhist Teachings aim to free followers. By learning the Teachings and making an effort to apply them to everyday life, including thoughts not just actions, then Buddhism explains a person can free themselves from this unending cycle of samsara, which is accomplished by attaining Enlightenment and thus moving on.
In his book “The Path to Enlightenment,” the Dalai Lama explains we, “must learn the nature and patterns of the general sufferings that pervade all of samsara, as well as the specific sufferings of the individual realms, particularly the three lower realms.” By understanding the causes of suffering in each realm, and understanding that rebirth will occur within one of the realms, an individual has the potential to draw upon that knowledge, as well as the Teachings, and reach Enlightenment. Upon reaching the end of that life phase, the Enlightenment will allow a person to break free from samsara and their consciousness will pass on.
The end of samsara, with Enlightenment, is known as Nirvana. This nirvana can occur during life with the remainder of the life lived out and then at the end of that life, the cycle of samsara ceases and their consciousness moves on. Another type of Nirvana occurs at the time of death, with the same result.
What does this mean for me?
For new and current Buddhists, the process is considered the same. By learning about the Buddha’s Teachings, practicing the application of these Teachings to everyday life, following the Eightfold Path, and accepting the Four Noble Truths, a person has potential to reach Enlightenment. Suffering, anxiety, fears, and dissatisfaction are all symptoms of everyday life, and the Teachings are considered “treatment.” But like medical treatment, the “medicine” alone is sometimes not enough.
With conscious effort and patience, Enlightenment is possible and as a person moves closer to reaching Enlightenment, their suffering, fears, anxiety, and dissatisfaction will dissipate. This is the promise the Buddha made when he presented his Teachings. It is important to note that there are no shortcuts, and the life phase must progress naturally and end naturally, as it would otherwise. Thus, patience is an important factor in the process.