Fundamental View: Talk 6

Presented at the Buddha Centre, Second Life on July 20 and 23, 2013.

Talk 6

The Problem of Samsara

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Tathagata, the Buddha, exposed attachment, ego-conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. He exposed the gratification and danger of the world (sangsāra). The gratification of the world attracts beings to rebirth in the world. The danger of the world attracts beings to transcendence. Although the Buddha realized these things prior to his enlightenment, he did not claim to have discovered the way leading to the escape from sangsara until he became enlightened. Following his discovery of the way of transcendence, he proclaimed the way of transcendence as the solution to the problem posed by the dichotomy of the gratification and danger of the world.

When the Buddha was staying in Jeta’s Grove, in Anathapindika’s Park, the Buddha discussed these issues with the wanderers of other sects. With respect to the gratification and danger of the world, the wanderers and the Buddha agreed. But with respect to how to escape from the world, the Buddha disagreed with the wanderers, stating they did not understand the way of escape from the world in relation to sensual pleasures, form, and feelings. He declared their doctrines in this regard were deficient and prone to error. In these respects, the Buddha declared his doctrine to be superior.

To illustrate this point, the Buddha compared the wanderers of other sects to blind men trying to describe an elephant. According to this famous simile, some blind men experienced different parts of an elephant – the head, an ear, a tusk, the trunk, the body, a foot, the buttocks, the tail, and the tuft at the end of the tail. Limited by their inability to perceive the elephant as a whole, the blind men declared the part they experienced was the whole elephant. Thus, those who experienced the head declared the elephant is like a water jar. Those who experienced the ear said an elephant is like a winnowing basket. Those who experienced the tusk declared the elephant is like a plowshare. Those who experienced the trunk said an elephant is like a plow pole. Those who experienced the body said the elephant is like a storeroom. They all disagreed with each other and, because they disagreed, fell into disputatiousness.

In this brilliant simile, which may be compared with Plato’s famous metaphor of the cave, the elephant is the dhamma, and the blind men are those who do not know the dhamma or know only one aspect or part of the dhamma. Similarly, the adherents of sects, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, see only one part. Not knowing the whole, they fall into disputatiousness.

One sees this very keenly in the world today. Muslim fights with Jew, Christian fights with Muslim, Hindu fights with Buddhist, Chinese fight with Tibetans, and Buddhists all fight amongst themselves, each one convinced their religion is uniquely superior, yet everyone just sees part of the whole. In fact, the Buddha says this problem is so acute, it is the major cause of unwholesomeness: “I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen unwholesome qualities of mind arise and arisen unwholesome qualities of mind increase and expand so much as on account of wrong view.” Our time is not very different. The truth of the dhamma does not lie in any part, but in the whole. One might call this the perennial or primordial philosophy, the realization that underlying all religions and worldviews there is one, comprehensive, integral spiritual truth, which can only be discovered by comparing, collating, and reconciling all spiritual views by means of the methods of questioning and logical syncretism. When this approach is pursued to its logical conclusion, one arrives at the ekayana, the single or universal vehicle, in which all dissenting views are mutually harmonized and reconciled through a process of comparison and analysis.

The Problem of Samsara

The Pali word sangsāra literally means “faring on.” It refers to the process of rebirth, essentially cyclical in nature. Birth gives rise to life. Life ends in death, which leads to further rebirth based on unfruited kamma, in an endless, continuous cycle. The concept of sangsara is essentially involved with the idea of time. Life, death, and rebirth are a universal process that does not apply merely to human beings. It applies to all living beings. Indeed, it applies to all existent things or processes. It is the essence of each moment, the essential nature of which is change.

No matter how closely one examines any existent thing, one can subdivide it further into constituent existents. All existent things can be similarly subdivided ad infinitum.  The essential nature of things is found to be subject to change and time, and lacking any particularity, in the sense of any object that cannot be further subdivided. Non-particularity or non-locality leads inevitably to the ultimate realization that there are no ultimate, inherently permanent things or essences. This is the ontological reification of the doctrine of no-self (anattā).

The contemplation of the foregoing leads in turn to the realization that all existent things are essentially impermanent and of the essential nature of emptiness. Emptiness is no different from mind or sentience. Impermanence leads to the realization of the essential emptiness of things, which culminates in nibbana. Ontological emptiness is the essential realization that underlies the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. There is no substantive substrate modified by processes. Rather, process itself is the essential nature of reality. It is rather like the vibrating “rubber bands” of string theory.

The foregoing description of reality leads to the realization that sangsara itself is essentially infinite both in extent and in duration. Finite objects and experiences precipitate out of this fundamental reality, but sangsara itself can have no beginning. How can time have an originating moment? How can there be a time before time? The Buddha says, “this sangsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned by beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” In terms of the law of kamma, every effect results from a cause; every cause is equally an effect and every effect is equally a cause – a paradox noted by Nagarjuna. There are no uncaused effects, and no ineffective causes. The identity of cause and effect is the basis of the Buddhist rejection of the notion of theism. Theism posits a First Cause, itself uncaused or self-caused. The Buddha realized the self-contradictory nature of a First Cause. If God is self-caused, the Buddha reasoned, why not simply posit the self-caused nature of being itself? Thus, there is no necessity to posit a creator. Simply posit the beginninglessness of existence as such. In this way, one also realizes the identity of sangsara and nibbana, the finite and the infinite.

Despite the Buddhist doctrine of the beginninglessness of sangsara, the Buddha clearly states sangsara can be transcended. Through the realization of one’s essential nature, the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha), the essentially mirage-like nature of sangsara may be discovered. Thus, one gains control of the process of kamma and liberation from it. The transcendence of sangsara leads to a metaphysical quandary, for, if sangsara is beginningless, how can it have an end? Let us look at this more closely, in terms of the individual karmic continuity.

Since sangsara is beginningless, this means each individual karmic continuity is co-extensive with it. The Buddha says,

For a long time, monks, you have experienced the death of a father … the death of a brother … the death of a sister … the death of a son … the death of a daughter … the loss of relatives … the loss of wealth … loss through illness; as you have experienced this, weeping and wailing because of being united with the disagreeable and separated from the agreeable, the stream of tears that you have shed is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, monks, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. … It is enough to experience revulsion toward all formations, enough to become dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them.

In other words, transcendence arises within sangsara because of the experience of sangsara itself. At some definite point in this process, out of the blind instinctual craving that is sangsara, beings achieve a level of complexity where the realization dawns, either because of hearing dhamma or even without hearing dhamma, that sangsara itself is inherently unsatisfactory. Because of the realization that sangsara is unsatisfactory, one formulates the desire or intention to escape. Eventually, this desire or intention toward transcendence results in the realization of transcendence itself, and one is emancipated. The realization itself is identical with the attainment, but this process may take eons to develop, and more eons to be established, consisting of millions or even billions of rebirths, or it may be instantaneous, but it is ultimately attributable to this realization of unsatisfactoriness. Thus, unsatisfactoriness arises in time and eventually results in the annihilation of time, at least for the individual subject.

The arising of this realization occurs in time and results in the liberation from time. It is a finite process, and yet sangsara itself is infinite. If the karmic continuity is beginningless, if we have all experienced not merely many, but an infinite number of rebirths, then logically it should be the case that everyone has had this realization. If this realization leads inevitably to transcendence, eventually, it follows that in infinite time all beings should all have experienced both this realization and its result. Therefore, all beings should already be liberated and sangsara itself should already have ceased to exist. Clearly, this is not the case. One is still here, mired in sangsara, mirage though it is. Thus, it seems that there is an essential self-contradiction inherent in the idea of sangsara itself.

I puzzled over this problem for several years before I discovered the solution. When I did discover the solution, I wrote this poem. It became the final poem of my book, Khatas. It is called “The Gordian Not.” It commences with a quotation from chapter 76 of the great Dzogchen text, the Kunjed Gyalpo: “Never having been born, it cannot cease.”

There is no former, there is no future.
All is endless now,
Samsara a mirage of time
Cast upon the mind.
One wills to stay entwined
And so experience the dream of time
Or not. So dawns the life divine.

Reading it now, I realize I anticipated this poem in another prose poem that appears earlier in the book, called “Long Koan.”

The present moment alone is real. Where does it come from? It seems to have come out of the past. Where is it going? It appears to be going into the future. But neither the past nor the future is real. Therefore the real comes out of the non-real and goes into the non-real. Since the future is unreal, there is nowhere to go. Just be as you are, and the world will go its own way. Attachment leads to a degenerate age. But, without a past or a future and of the essential nature of emptiness, what is the present moment doing?

Buddhism refers to the three times – past, present, and future. Kamma creates this experiential structure. One experiences it as the sequence of cause and effect. However, neither the past nor the future actually exists, any more than cause and effect exist as separate entities. One imagines they exist because of memories encoded in the brain. Memories create the perception of past causes. From the notion of past causes, one extrapolates future effects, but memory is just information. It too exists in a single timeless moment, the present. Paradoxically perhaps, the essential nature of the present is change. One also distinguishes cause and effect. Upon analysis, one realizes these are not two things. They too are singular; every cause is also an effect, and every effect is a cause. The great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, discusses this.

In this way, one realizes that kamma itself is singular, momentary, and ever-present. What one calls the karmic continuity or mind stream is just a perception. Therefore, rebirth too is just a perception. It is as illusory as sangsara itself. This is not to say that rebirth does not occur in a samsaric sense. The Buddha clearly taught rebirth is experienced.

One may doubt the historical veracity of the specific rebirths described in the Pali Canon, especially the Jataka tales. These stories are largely based on Indian folklore. However, the concept itself is so pervasive all through the canon, it is hard to believe either the Buddha did not teach this or he himself did not experience past life memories. The whole canon witnesses to the fact that he did. It is not the phenomenon of rebirth we are contesting. Rather, we are contesting its nature.

Rebirth is not extended in an infinite past and future continuum. If it were, sangsara would not exist, for the reasons I have cited. It is right here, right now. It is the essential nature of present, momentary, changeable being. Once one realizes this fact, the whole problem of sangsara falls away. It is not that one is reborn infinite numbers of times in an infinite, objective continuum. Rather, one is being reborn continuously, right now, right here. The now is all there is. It is the nature of the experience of the present.

The ignorance at the root of the volition or intention to be reborn also exists right here and now as its essential nature. The potential for awakening also exists right here and now and nowhere else. Therefore, awakening itself also exists right here and now and nowhere else. I believe this is the essential viewpoint of Zen, or at least some schools of Zen.

From time to time, one hears about certain schools of Zen. They say there is no such thing as rebirth. This way of putting it is somewhat distorted. Clearly, there are an infinite number of these moments; reality is infinitely differentiated. I am not you and you are not me; there is a metaphysical point of view. Being singular, it is inherently indestructible and therefore immortal, or “deathless” as the Buddha said. What one experiences as kamma is simply one’s progressive realization of one’s individual relationship with all that is. It defines and limits our momentary experience of the present. It is our “identity,” but it is not an isolated self. It is not a “thing” (atta).

The body is just an assemblage of such points of view. It is a colony of beings. All these beings are inter-associated by kamma. Extending outward, the body includes all beings ultimately. One speaks of a sequence of such points of view. In reality, this is just an illusion. There is only the singular momentary point of view that changes continuously. It is this dynamic that generates the illusion of time, sangsara, rebirth, and everything. It is all rooted in volition. The essential nature of reality must be volitional. If it were not essentially volitional, it would be conditioned, but what can the absolute be subject to other than itself? To be subject to nothing other than oneself is the definition of volition. Thus, to become awakened all that is necessary ultimately is to choose to be awakened. One chooses to be what one already is essentially. Nothing else is required. The difficulty of actually doing this is not because the task is complex. It is because it is simple. In fact, it is the simplest thing.

One might object to this line of thinking, does not this view of the infinitely differentiated present moment contradict the Buddha’s view of anatta, “no-self”? To respond to this, one must precisely delineate what the Buddha was rejecting. It is striking when one reads the Pali Canon that the Buddha refers to the self just as often as he denies its existence. The problem lies with the English word “self” as a translation of atta or attan. Atta is the Pali variation of the Sanskrit word, atman. The literal meaning of this word is “breath.” The PED glosses this as “[t]he soul as postulated in the animistic theories held in N India in the 6th and 7th cent. B.C. It is described in the Upanishads as a small creature, in shape like a man, dwelling in ordinary times in the heart. It escapes from the body in sleep or trance; when it returns to the body life and motion reappear. It escapes from the body at death, then continues to carry on an everlasting life of its own.  … A ‘soul’ according to general belief was some thing permanent, unchangeable, not affected by sorrow.” The Buddha clearly rejected the word “self” to describe this doctrine. It is a very misleading translation. It has led to endless confusion, not only amongst English-speaking Buddhists, leading to the idea the Buddha denied the reality of the individual person – an absurd conclusion, since here we are, discussing it, illusory but nonetheless sentient.

The English word self comes from the Indo-European root *s(w)e-, meaning “separate, apart.” It refers to individuality or the metaphysical point of view. “Soul,” referring to the spiritual and emotional part of a person, is a much better translation of Pali atta. What the Buddha is denying is the reality of a soul, a living being associated with the heart, separable from the body, permanent, changeless, and intrinsically blissful. It is clear the idea of the metaphysical point of view does not correspond to the Pali concept of atta at all. It is more akin to what Mahayanists call the mind stream (sangtāna). This concept resurfaces in Einsteinian relativity in the idea of the four-dimensional continuum. The metaphysical point of view is non-spatial, non-local, non-extended, kinetic, and neither different from nor identical with what one experiences. Although it is experienced as a continuum, its essential nature is non-continuous and momentary. The mind stream is the reality of our self. It is not identical with the concept of a soul.

The absurdity of the notion that the Buddha rejected the idea of a person in any sense is shown by the fact that all through the Pali Canon he refers constantly to the Deathless. Thus, he clearly posits immortality in some sense. The irreducible is by definition permanent, changeless, and blissful. This element is the dhamma, the subject of realization. Impermanence itself posits permanence. To say otherwise is to posit the error of nihilism. The Buddha explicitly rejected this.

The Buddha does not refuse to discuss doctrines like eternalism and annihilationism, etc. because he has no theory of ontology. Rather, it is because of the inherently confusing and paradoxical nature of the trans-dual. Whenever the Buddha appears to repudiate these doctrines, or avoids their discussion, they are always set up as systems of logical contraries. This structure clearly indicates the paradoxical nature of the trans-dual. The trans-dual must be the essential nature of reality in its ultimate or absolute aspect. The non-recognition of the trans-dual has become the source of endless confusion, especially amongst the adherents of the Therawada sect.

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