Samsara’s End

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Buddhism is its rejection of theism in any form, specifically in the context of cosmology, i.e., a creator god, such as the followers of the Abrahamic traditions adhere to. The gods still appear in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, but they are transmogrified into celestial beings (devas, literally “beings of light”), more intelligent, energetic, beautiful, long-lived, nobler, and happier than human beings, but qualitatively similar to all other beings and, like all living beings, subject ultimately to old age, suffering, and death. In fact, the Buddhist texts assert that in some ways the gods are less fortunate than we human beings, since human beings have exactly the right disposition to recognize the problem of existence in a way that the gods, with all their privileges and pleasures, cannot.

Buddhism rejects the concept of a creator deity because of the problem of infinite regression. If one posits a God that is the creator of the world, then that begs the question of who or what created God. Since theists typically assert that God is self-created, Buddhists ask why the world cannot be self-created? Since there is no satisfactory answer to this objection, Buddhism simply asserts the tautology that “existence is,” without positing an unnecessary first cause.

In the Buddhist world-view, there are an infinite number of “spherical” worlds, each passing through repetitive cycles of creation, preservation, and destruction, very similar in fact to the current world-view of the physical sciences. When a world disappears, all of the karmic inhabitants of that world pass into a state of potentiality, or are reborn in other worlds, and when a world reappears, the highest gods are the first beings to appear therein based on their karma. Such a world, therefore, exists in a high energy state initially, which over time progressively decays – again, exactly as in the current cosmological view of the “big bang” so-called. This process has no beginning, since the concept of a beginning of everything is inherently self-contradictory. This is samsara, literally, “faring on.” Such, in summary, is Buddhist cosmology.

Samsara is an infinitely complex process of “interdependently originating” and re-originating moments, characterized by change (anicca), non-self-identity (anatta), and suffering (dukkha) – the so-called Three Marks of Existence (tilakkhana). This construction is driven forward by karma, the law of cause and effect. Every thought, word, and action is itself simultaneously a cause and an effect, which will inevitably result in some condition, exactly proportionate in quantity and quality to that which gave rise to it. Everything is connected to everything else in just this way. Everything experienced is the result of karma. This is the principle of causality.

Buddhism does not hold, however, that living beings are irremediably trapped in samsara forever. The traditional view, summarized very nicely in Kundun, Scorsese’s 1997 life of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is that sometimes a being appears in the froth of samsara, not necessarily human either, that achieves a glimmering of the realization of the First Noble Truth, that the pursuit of satisfaction (of any and every kind) based on attachment is a hopeless endeavour doomed to failure. Everything that one loves, everything that one aspires toward, every passion, every possession, every hope, ideal, or belief, absolutely and without exception, is inevitably doomed to disappear and be forgotten. Nothing is permanent.

Consequently, the thought spontaneously arises in the mind of such a being of escaping samsara itself. It may take googolplexians of rebirths, ranging in duration from infintesimal moments to infinite numbers of years, to arrive at this realization, but, once arisen, it creates the karmic seed of realization that germinates in action and, finally, matures into the fruit of emancipation itself in the literal transcendence of the samsaric state. It must do so, for every cause must have its effect, and every effect is the result of some cause, and samsara itself is impermanent. It was for the sake of the few that are capable of comprehending this arcane truth due to their own past karma that the Buddha taught the dharma (lit. “the truth of reality”), after some initial hesitation that required divine intervention to resolve. The truth of this world-view comes home very strongly when one realizes that emotion (attachment) is the root of all human social and psychological dysfunction. For most people, pleasure, especially sex, is their highest value. Consequently, most people suffer endlessly. When the pain of suffering becomes too great to bear,  it results in the actual psychotic dissociations and criminal behaviours that we see proliferating today. For this reason, Buddhism regards the consumer society of contemporary man as at the nadir of human civilization and trending toward imminent self-extinction.

This world-view presents a problem, however, no less significant than the problem of theism itself. Religious Buddhist soteriology holds at root that the individual may escape or transcend the endless cycle of rebirth, first, by recognizing it for what it is, and, second, by removing all attachments to it through a process of self-perfection. The original impetus of this process, i.e., dissatisfaction, arises within samsara itself. Therefore, the question arises, why does samsara continue to proliferate? Samsara continuously creates infinite numbers of finite beings over endless time.[1] Clearly the potentiality of differentiation must be inherent in samsara/time itself, yet it never seems to be resolved. If the individual has existed since beginningless time, then the realization of dissatisfaction must have arisen infinite numbers of times already.

If that realization is the original impetus of emancipation, why are all we still here? The bodhisattva vows to be reborn again and again until all living beings are emancipated. Once all living beings are emancipated, samsara should cease. Thus, the Bodhisattva Vow speaks of “the end of samsara” (the paradoxicality of which was also noted by Gampopa in his Jewel Ornament of Liberation). This is not only a problem of the Mahayana, however. Even the arhant, who strives only for himself, is inexplicable, for over infinite time everyone should have had infinite time to escape samsara.  According to this mechanistic view, samsara should not exist! Since samsara clearly does “exist” in some sense, even if only in the sense in which a mirage exists, we must look more deeply into the matter, since dharma is definitely and irrefragably true.

It is clear from the foregoing that religious Buddhism, with its rules, prescriptions, prohibitions, observances,  organizations, etc. cannot possibly be true. All of these fall into the domain of karma, infinitely interinvolved and interinvolving. One cannot “squeeze” oneself out of samsara by following a set of rules, ethical or otherwise. As the Buddha himself stated, every spiritual practice only results in a rebirth in a state of being corresponding to that type of practice. One may achieve a superior rebirth in this way, but one cannot achieve qualitative emancipation, because emancipation, the transcendence of samsara, being acausal, cannot be generated or produced by any causal thought, word, or action. And yet the Buddha clearly taught that emancipation is possible, experienced it himself, and taught it and the method of its attainment to others.

The Buddha himself was reluctant to discuss ontology, and held that the ultimate truth of ontology is unknowable, but it is clear that samsara is in some sense illusory, i.e., a construct of the mind. It is certainly not material in any meaningful sense of the world, as science itself shows increasingly that reality is simply patterns of information. The doctrines of anicca and paticcasamuppada prohibit any ultimately real materiality. Again, the genius of the Buddha anticipates the current scientific paradigm. In quantum physics particles appear to be infinitely subdivisible and resolve into “waves,” extended fields of potentiality characterized by probabilities that are progressively resolved into energy and finally information/mind (“the act of observation”) the basis of which is just illusory matter again. At this level, materiality entirely disappears. Thus, there is no substrate, no ultimate or more fundamental reality than reality itself, which is essentially empty. Particularity is resolved into universality. Samsara has all the characteristics of a mirage.

When we speak of mind in this context, we are not speaking of any particular mind, because all mental particularities are themselves reflections of samsaric or karmic tendencies. Particular mind and matter are themselves characteristics of samsara. However, direct introspective intuition that is accessible to every human being clearly shows as a matter of direct knowledge that mind in itself is not only particular. Mental particularity itself presupposes mental non-particularity. This is what we mean by mind in its transcendent aspect, which the Tibetans simply call rig pa, “knowledge of the ground” (Sanskrit vidya). Interestingly, this view of mind has all the characteristics of emancipation: it is non-theistic, permanent, unchanging, self-identical, blissful, acausal, non-temporal,  undifferentiated, non-attached, non-particular, wavelike, energetic, and ultimately real. Mind is not merely the negation of samsara. It is also its essence and ground and fully identical with it.  Mind is not a “thing.” It is rather the essential condition of things, and therefore simultaneously other than and inseparable from them. It is transdual and immediately apprehensible. The realization of enlightenment is nothing other than this. Consummatum est.

The view of mind enunciated above resolves the problem of the relationship between emancipation and samsara. As our fundamental Buddha being (tathagatagarbha) all that is required is to attend to the primary fact of mind itself, with its essential quality of sentience in itself, devoid of content, implicit in everything. The true character of all of the rules, prescriptions, prohibitions, and organizations of religious and ecclesiastical Buddhism, all of the schools, sects, traditions, denominations, and techniques with all their “diverse Rinpoches, Tulkus, Holinesses and what-not” (H.V. Guenther, Teachings of Padmasambhava, p. 7) is now clear. These are all “skilful means” (upaya), the only value of which is to put the karmic mind-body complex into a suitable frame or state wherein the primacy of mind itself is more or less easily apprehended, just as it is easier to read a book in a quiet room than in a noisy room. Otherwise, they have no absolute value or significance in themselves whatsoever.


1. How does infinity create finite beings? Consider this. Since karma is created in every moment of becoming, and samsara is beginningless, there must be infinite karmic propensities (sankharas), but, like all existents (subject to the law of change), karmic propensities themselves are created, persist for a time, and disappear. What causes the disappearance of the karmic propensities is their ripening. When a karmic propensity comes about, it persists for a time (ranging from moments to eons) in a state of potentiality, until the conditions are optimal for its fruition. Once manifested, it loses its effectiveness.  Thus, although over infinite time infinite numbers of karmic propensities are produced, at any given time there are a finite number of “unfruited” karmic propensities, and it is these that constitute the differing characteristics of existents. Sankharas also tend to “clump” together according to their mutual affinities. It is this that creates the illusion of individual identity.