Samsara and nirvana

Jun 7, 2019

Nirvana and samsara are probably the two most well-known Buddhist words on the planet. But what do they mean? The clichéd idea is that somehow we’re supposed to give up samsara, which is where we can have sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and then enter into boring old nirvana, a place a bit like heaven.

Inevitably it’s not like that at all. Being “in samsara” simply means being caught up in the dramas of daily life as a result of being swept along by attachment, anger, jealousy, depression, low self-esteem, and the rest. We’re all utterly familiar with these neuroses, so much so that we totally take them for granted. We just assume they’re a normal part of our being.

Then there’s the longer-term component of being in samsara: as a result of these neuroses we are compelled to take life after life in samsara, because our consciousness, our mind, is beginningless and endless. Fortunately, however, samsara is not endless.

If I were to ask my therapist to please give me methods to get rid of all ego, anger, fears, jealousy and so on and develop infinite love and compassion for all living beings, she would definitely think I’m insane! There is no concept remotely like that in our contemporary models of the mind. There is simply the deep assumption that a “normal” person has a balanced mix of anger, kindness, generosity, jealousy and the rest; we give equal status to all these emotions. In fact, we’d be considered abnormal if we didn’t have anger, for example.

However, Buddha’s view of our human potential is far more radical than that. He has found from his own experience that we all have the potential to get out of samsara; to give up these neuroses, utterly. Then, simply speaking, we would be “in nirvana”. All of Buddha’s methods lead us to the discovery of that potential, innate within us.

What is called “Buddhism” is essentially the experience, the actual findings of the person called Buddha. It is not revelation; it doesn’t not come from on high. And anyone practicing Buddhism is essentially trying out those methods for themselves, experiencing and verifying for themselves those findings each step of the way. In this sense Buddhism is not a belief system.

It’s so easy to mystify words like samsara and nirvana. Simply, they are states of being, states of mind; nothing mysterious at all. We’re not used to equating “spiritual” with “psychological”, but that’s exactly the point here.

Buddhism has no terms like soul or spirit. It talks about the mind, or consciousness – these terms are generally used synonymously – which is not physical. In fact, the mind is Buddha’s expertise. In the Buddhist literature over the centuries there are vast and in-depth explanations of the mind and how it functions, including especially the far subtler, more refined levels of mind that we don’t even posit as existing in our modern views of the mind, and which we eventually need to access by utilizing the marvellous psychological techniques called meditation in order to achieve our nirvana, our freedom from suffering.

Nirvana, too, has its longer-term component: when we’ve cut the root of samsara we stop being reborn. We achieve our final nirvana.

So, what is this root of samsara? It’s the term used to refer to the deepest neurosis, so instinctive within us that we don’t even have an equivalent term for it in modern psychology. It’s known colloquially as “ego-grasping”: a fear-based, primordial, mistaken sense of self. It runs our lives, and as long as it’s there, we will never stop suffering, never stop being reborn in samsara.

But we can go further than achieving our own nirvana. There’s a nice analogy in Mahayana Buddhism: “A bird needs two wings: wisdom and compassion.”

We’ve achieved the wisdom wing with nirvana; we’ve ended our own suffering. But what about everyone else? We’re all in the same boat. Combining this wisdom with the extraordinary techniques for cultivating infinite love and compassion, we can accomplish buddhahood, which enables us to never stop taking rebirth after rebirth, but now out of choice. If I don’t help, who will? This is the brave attitude of the bodhisattva.

With buddhahood we have achieved our full potential.

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