What is Samsara? To have an idea of what it is and what it means, let us imagine that there is a new video game on the market that everyone is excited about.
In this video game, you are given a character, and there are different “world systems” and “levels” in which one’s character can appear.
When the character “dies” and disappears from one world, he reappears in another one, seemingly at random. There are high-level and low-level worlds, heavenly worlds and hellish ones, worlds where your character can be appear as an animal or an insect or a fish, along with the world of humanity.
This is not really a normal video game, because it does not have an “aim” as such, and you are not given the rules from the beginning; you have to figure them out as you go along by experience, or else collaborate with other players who know more than you do about the rules. There is no end point either. There is no conclusion to be reached. The game can continue ad infinitum if the player wants.
The player of a video game knows well that he is just playing a game, and can stop any time he wants. He has a long view, an overview of all the many times his character disappears in one world and reappears in another one.
Yet, if the character in a video game had consciousness and could think, he would not realise that he was just a character in a video game, but would believe that this was real life and that he was a real person, and in each new world in which he popped up, would believe that it was for the first time, that this was the only life he had ever lived and was ever going to live. He would therefore think of himself as very important.
But what do you think: if this character could wake up and see the real nature of his existence, if he could understand that he is in a game, that his whole body is built of nothing but a few pixels of light, that this “life” is just one of a great many unrealities, all of which have ended and all of which will end – would he still be happy to keep playing in this game? Would he want to continue in it?
The rules of the game (in real life)
The idea of Samsara essentially means that our world is very like this video game, and that we who are the cycle of birth and death are like the characters in the game, those made out of only pixels of colour and light.
For us, the overriding law of this game is the law of kamma: that everything that happens to you is the inheritance of your own actions. It means, whatever you put into the system, you get back from it. In other words, when you cause good things, you receive good things, and when you cause harm and pain, harm and pain is what you will receive.
But we don’t know the rules, we are not told. We go along through life without knowing the law of the system in which we live. Not knowing it, we blindly create our own future – sometimes doing more harm than good, sometimes doing more good than bad. Yet whether we know or not, we inherit the effects of our actions all the same.
Like the character in the video game, every time we are born, we believe it is for the first time. Every time we are born, we think this is the only life we will ever get to live and we end up thinking of ourselves as very important. As we go about our lives in this world, we gather around us all the things we love and want to keep, all the things that it hurts to lose, thinking and behaving as though this life we are living is permanent and will last forever, as though everything we gather around us could be kept, as though it will not end.
And yet end it always does, and always without warning, without consideration, without anyone asking our opinion, with nothing whatsoever that can be done to prevent it happening.
Do we have an ultimate aim in Samsara?
Like this imaginary video game (which I believe hardly anyone would want to play for long,) there is no ultimate aim in this game we are playing, no logical progression to the trajectory we take through the system of Samsara. There is no grand prize to be won as long as one stays inside the system, beyond being born for a while in one of those heavenly “high-level worlds”; after which one will again die, to reappear somewhere else that we cannot choose (perhaps as a pig or a mosquito, perhaps as a god, perhaps in a hellish world where there is only suffering to be had.)
We appear somewhere for a while, play, gather around us a comfort zone of things we like, and then disappear suddenly from that place and have to start all over again. There is nothing that can be carried from one life to the next, except for the kamma that one has made, good and bad. There is nothing in this system that we get to keep, nothing that remains ours, nothing that we do not lose without warning.
Whenever, at some point, poof – this life of ours is ended, for us it is as if all the world vanishes with us. All those pretty things we collected, all those others we made connections with, all that we did in this life – all that we believed belonged to us – suddenly all of it is over, finished, eliminated, of zero consequence. We start again somewhere else, not remembering from where we have come, ready to do the same thing all over again. Don’t we get fed up of this at some point? Don’t we want to find out what is beyond it?
The practice of the Buddha’s teaching is ultimately for this aim: to learn the law on which this system operates, to stop running around blindly in it, to decide to cut off the source of suffering, the pain of the loss of everything we love again and again and again, and eventually to go out of it all completely.
It’s as if suddenly a group of characters in the video game were to start saying “I’m not playing anymore!”; to begin refusing to follow the orders of the players, to stop running around after girlfriends and boyfriends and children and dogs and ice-cream, and instead all sit down cross legged under trees. (Now is when those who have bought the game have to complain to the manufacturer that their game is malfunctioning. “We want our money back!”)
What is outside?
And what is beyond the video game? What is outside of Samsara? Where is “Out of it all,”? That is another question.
They call it “Nibbana,” or “the unconditioned.” It is a place that is not a place. It is a state that is impossible for us to describe or understand. As a turtle cannot make a fish understand what it is like to live on land (“What do you mean, you can’t blow bubbles there? What do you mean you can’t swim there?) nobody can describe to us what it is like to be outside completely of our system: we have only heard that there is no more duality there – no more heat and cold, no more soft and hard, no more suffering. If we decide that this is what we wish for, we have to go on faith in those who have experienced it. There’s no “trial runs” here. You can’t go and check out what Nibbana is like and then decide that, after all, it’s not for you.
That is why it is rare for people to choose this aim, as it is really a rather frightening idea; as far away from one’s comfort zone as it is possible to imagine. That is why, to really aim for this, one has to be deeply fed up with the suffering of this world of Born-and-Die, Born-and-Die, and no longer comfortable in one’s comfort zone.
It does not mean that in order to practice meditation, we have to already know from the beginning that we are fed up of Born-and-Die, and that the aim is to go out of Samsara: this is the case for very very few people, even for those who already have faith in Samsara and the system of re-birth. For some people it might become the aim after they spend a certain time in the practice of meditation; and for some people it never does.
Yet, regardless of where you are starting from, where you are at and what is your level of understanding, there is still something in this teaching that is true, alive and relevant for all: We can see that it is good thing to do good, that it is a good thing to become less selfish and more kind. We can all see that we suffer when we lose what we love; We can all see that the less we are sticky, the less we are attached, the fewer things we need in order to be happy, the less we suffer. We can all see that we have no choice but to either lose everything one day, or to give it up before it is taken from us.