Escaping the wheel of Samsara, and why you'd even want to
A central, and controversial, feature of early Buddhism is the doctrine of rebirth. In this article we'll take a look at what it meant in the time of the Buddha, what it means to us now, and how to make sense of it as 21st century practitioners.
The views presented herein are not what would be considered 'orthodox Buddhism' by the majority of practitioners worldwide, and no offence is intended toward anyone with a traditional understanding of rebirth. My aim here is instead to make these teachings accessible to people who don't resonate with classical Indian metaphysics.
The challenge of translating teachings across 2,500 years
Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag sometimes. Certain aspects of it are clearly perennial and speak to universal human problems - for example, the notion of the impermanent nature of all things, that in the long run we are separated from everything we love and hold dear. Teachings which help us address our existential situation - the evidence of which we can easily see all around us - are clearly valuable.
But then there are bits that need a bit more translation to make sense. The concept of anatta, for example, is a tricky one. Usually you see it translated these days as 'non-self' or 'not-self', and teachers will typically talk about how our sense of self is a kind of illusion. But when we see or hear the word 'self', we tend to view it through the lens of Western psychology, influenced by Freud and Jung, with concepts like ego and id, shadow and Inner Critic. In the time of the Buddha these concepts didn't exist - and, actually, anatta was a rejection of the Indian spiritual doctrine of the 'atta' or 'atman', a kind of 'eternal soul' that was seen as a kind of 'fragment' of the divine Brahman. Indian religion at the time of the Buddha was typically concerned with how to reunite the atman with Brahman and escape the wheel of Samsara; Buddha was pushing back on that notion, by pointing out that, no matter what part of your experience you examine, you can't find this supposedly eternal, unchanging 'atman'. That would have been a striking, challenging statement in the context of a classical Indian spirituality that was built around this concept of atman. But since you and I probably aren't starting out with a clear idea of what the atman is and why it's so important, it isn't obvious why we really need to negate it.
Hence most teachers tend to do a bit of sleight-of-hand, and reinterpret the classical terms in a way that makes sense to modern audiences - while staunch traditionalists point out that by doing so we risk missing the point of what the historical Buddha was actually talking about, because we've 'reinterpreted' his teachings to the point that they no longer bear any resemblance to the origins of the Buddhist path.
With that in mind, let's take another look at that 'wheel of Samsara' that I casually threw in a moment ago.
Cyclic existence and rebirth
Many of the discourses of early Buddhism talk about a process of 'rebirth'. You live, you die, you are reborn in another body as another person. And, because life is suffering (the First Noble Truth), this means that we're doomed to suffer forever and ever. Which sucks. This endless cycle of rebirth into a world of suffering is called Samsara (literally 'wandering'). So what we want to do is escape Samsara and never be born again - which is why practitioners who have reached the third stage of awakening are called 'non-returners', because even if they don't achieve full awakening in this lifetime, they at least won't be reborn into Samsara yet again.
Wait just a second, though. There are a number of problems with this. One is that, if we don't have an eternal atman after all, then what exactly gets reborn from life to life? That's a particularly knotty problem that has troubled Buddhist philosophers for millennia, and led to a variety of creative responses and doctrines, many of which bring back a kind of 'eternal true self' in the form of Buddha Nature.
Leaving aside the philosophy, though, a more obvious objection for modern readers is 'What's so bad about being reborn anyway?' If anything, most of us would be quite happy to be reborn again and again and, effectively, live forever. Wouldn't it be cool to be still around in some form a thousand years from now, go into space and terraform Mars, and so forth?
But this latter objection highlights another crucial way in which our world view is different to that of the classical Buddhists. They saw time as cyclic, whereas we see it as linear.
What does that mean?
Cyclic existence is a pretty alien paradigm to us now (unless you're a fan of the reboot Battlestar Galactica, I guess), but it actually makes a kind of sense if you live in the natural world and observe the fact that everything comes and goes in cycles. In spring, flowers burst forth; in autumn, everything dies off; the following spring, the flowers are 'reborn' and sprout up again. In just the same way, old people die, and new people are born. So we can form a kind of naturalistic picture of the world in which rebirth follows death as naturally and inescapably as death following birth.
Now, when you combine the cyclic nature of existence with the troubling problem of suffering, we end up in a Groundhog Day scenario. We're born into suffering, life is suffering and death is suffering too - and then it happens all over again, basically the same as last time. In this world view, nothing ever really changes - we just suffer over and over and over. Ouch.
We don't think that way. The Western conception of history is shaped by the stories of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in which things change. Adam and Eve screw up, and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden - never to return. The Israelites escape their slavery in Egypt and travel to the Promised Land - they don't just stay stuck in endless slavery for the rest of time. After you die, you don't come back to Earth for another go-around - you (hopefully) move instead to Heaven, where everything's great, there's no suffering and you live forever.
More conventionally, we talk about 'progress' - moral progress, cultural progress, scientific progress. The whole idea of science, actually, is based on the idea that we can improve and refine our ideas across successive generations of research and innovation. Humanity as a whole changes over time as we learn and grow.
In the context of change and growth - particularly if you see that change and growth as being pointed to or convergent on something better - then why wouldn't you want to be reborn? Right now things might be a bit rubbish but they'll be better in the next life! So the prospect of doing Buddhist practice in order to ensure that we won't be reborn seems pretty weird to us.
So what are we going to do with this? Attempt to convince ourselves that time really is cyclic after all? That's a hard sell - we're so steeped in a different world view that it's extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to retrain ourselves to see things in cyclic terms. Alternatively, we could ignore rebirth completely, as many modern Buddhists do - but then we can't help but squirm or fidget every time we encounter the concept in a discourse or teaching. Is there a third way?
Escape from Samsara in this very life
Many teachers point out that the Buddha often talks about the Eightfold Path as showing the way to liberation in this very life. Not just at the point of death - ahh, no more rebirths, so no more suffering - but even while we're alive. (In Zen you'll sometimes find the imagery of 'dying before your death' as a poetic, if slightly grim, allusion to the same thing.) By looking at the way the Buddha described this liberation, we can see another way of understanding Samsara - this idea of being trapped in an endless cycle - which accords much better with our direct experience, and isn't at odds with our world view.
We've all had the experience of trying to break a bad habit (or form a good one) - and finding it surprisingly hard! No matter how sincerely we want to stop eating unhealthy foods, we find again and again that the habit has taken over our behaviour, and there we are yet again, doing the very thing we said we were going to give up. We find ourselves trapped by ourselves, unable to break out of this recurring loop of behaviour.
The Buddha wanted to know what was going on here - why we do things we don't want to do, why we allow ourselves to be pushed around by our instinctive, habitual reactions to our environment. Why can't we follow through on our intentions? What actually happens in the moment when we lose our presence of mind and fall back into the same old habit yet again? And how can we cultivate that very presence of mind so that we don't lose it in the future?
That investigation, as simple as it sounds, is ultimately what led to the formulation of the Four Noble Truths, one of the most foundational aspects of Buddhism. The Buddha observed four key points:
And so it's precisely through cultivating this presence of mind - more commonly called mindfulness in Buddhist circles - that we can escape the cyclic existence of our habitual reactions, and be liberated from a kind of Samsara in this very life. This reclamation of our autonomy, this process of becoming more fully alive in each moment, is of value to everyone, no matter what we might believe about death, rebirth and the nature of time.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!