What is SAMSARA?
From SAMSARA by Daniel McKenzie / https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/mantra-books/
In popular culture, samsara is often portrayed as something exotic, sensual or pleasure-inducing. Its name has been used to sell everything from perfume to herbal supplements. However, according to Vedanta—an ancient wisdom tradition originating from India—samara isn’t something you should want, it’s something you should want to get out of.
Samsara’s most prominent characteristic is its ability to bind. It traps us by playing to our extreme likes and dislikes. Samsara elicits different meanings, from worldly existence to the transmigration of the soul, but when examined closely they all coalesce around the same idea that samsara is a negative psychological condition brought on by the misinterpretation of reality.
In the Vedic tradition, samsara is typically taught using the example of the warrior-prince, Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita there is a dialog between Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna before a great righteous war. Taking inventory of the battlefield, Arjuna comes to the unsettling realization that in order to win the battle, he must set out to destroy his own kin and beloved teachers who have taken sides with his cousin—a ruthless dictator that threatens the social order. Due to this predicament, Arjuna is overtaken by the classic signs of samsara which include attachment, delusion and despair. The end result is always suffering.
The entire first chapter of the Gita is an exposition of Arjuna’s attachment and grief culminating in him hopelessly throwing down his weapon. It’s only after Arjuna’s visible breakdown that Arjuna’s friend, Krishna accepts the role as guru and begins to methodically show Arjuna the way out of his confusion and back to doing his duty. Through Arjuna’s dilemma and tribulation we learn that samsara is not something “out there” but instead, a condition within the mind rooted in ignorance.
Ignorance, in this case, doesn’t mean “stupid” but instead suggests a sort of blind spot where one is unable to see the truth. The noble prince is confused about his moral duty to defend dharma—the universal laws that keep society together. He is unable to look past his fondness for his family, friends and teachers in order to do what’s in the best interests of the Total. In short, Arjuna misses the forest for the trees.
Krishna reminds Arjuna that he isn’t seeing reality for what it is and that he needs to step back for a moment and consider that “the wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead.” Krishna then uses the remaining sixteen chapters of the Gita to unpack this enigmatic assertion and help get Arjuna out of samsara.
Ignorance can be defined as a lack of discriminative knowledge and yet, it’s more than just not knowing. Ignorance is very intelligent in the way it guards itself by projecting the world, filling the mind with desire and turning our gaze outward. Ignorance, for example, is what magicians rely on to trick their audience. Magicians look for blind spots, vulnerabilities and the limits of their audience’s perception in order to influence how they view reality. Once the magician knows which buttons to push, they are able to play their audience like a piano.
Battling ignorance can be an uphill battle, the reason is because ignorance is hard-wired. One way it’s hard-wired is through our already firmly-established beliefs. Some of these beliefs were planted in us when we were very young, while others we have cultivated voluntarily in order to create a sense of security. Ignorance is also hard-wired because we are unwilling to challenge the foundation for what has taken us a lifetime to build. Most of us will defend our beliefs tooth and nail before admitting they don’t add up and that we are wrong.
There’s also our conditioning. Due to habits we’ve picked up over a lifetime, we have been programmed to behave in certain ways. Mostly, we fall for the same painful traps and delusions because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Sadly, many of us constantly act out in ways that go against our own best interests. You know ignorance is deeply entrenched when it takes all your will-power to not succumb to a desire you know you’ll later regret. “Just one more slice of pizza,” we tell ourselves, or “This is my last cigarette,” “drink,” “sexual encounter,” etc. It’s at that point that you have to begin asking yourself, who is in charge—me or my desires? So, ignorance doesn’t just work based on what we’re blind to, it can also work based on what we already are aware of but choose to ignore—in other words, a willful ignorance of the facts.
Over and over again, due to its keen ability to project and conceal, we fall under the spell of ignorance, or what’s known in Sanskrit as maya. If the negative psychological condition of samsara is the effect, maya is the cause. Figuratively speaking, maya is the trickster, the grand illusionist, the one that takes advantage of our blind spots and sets a trap for us to fall into.
Maya is a little like getting your world view from an unscrupulous cable news network. As viewers of the news network, we are kept ignorant of serious issues and the real business of government officials not because we are unable to understand the issues, but because of the network’s strategy of concealment and projection. The unprincipled news network hides the truth from us and in turn, replaces it with its own convenient, alternative reality. The presentation is so convincing and seems so real that we never question the veracity of its reporting. At some point, not only are we under its spell, we are inspired to take action. These qualities of concealment and projection are how maya does its work on each of us—sometimes with tragic consequences.
One of maya’s great deceptions is how it has us believe that certain objects will provide us with lasting pleasure and happiness. Maya does this by hiding the negative aspects of an object (concealment) and emphasizing the beneficial (projection). We know that no object can give us permanent happiness and yet we continue to chase them ignoring the simple fact that they are impermanent, inert and incapable of emanating joy by themselves. The expiration date on an object’s joy-emitting powers occurs because, like everything else in samsara, our body and mind are constantly changing and with them, our preferences. Familiarity breeds boredom and because we’re always looking for something more, better, and different—something that will give us those initial few seconds of excitement once again—our search for the next pleasure-inducing object never ends. Maya is what keeps us on the treadmill of samsara, putting the carrot of unfulfilled desire just out of reach so that we eventually end up on our knees from sheer exhaustion.
Once we start to look at all the ways maya fools us and keeps us in samsara, we might begin to wonder just how far it goes. And while samsara may seem to be an inescapable rabbit hole infinitesimally deep and complex, there is an escape. Samsara has no end but it does have a way out, and that way out begins with the knowledge about who we are and the impersonal forces that shape and bind us.
In eastern spiritual traditions, samsara has long been associated with the cycle of birth and death. But what are the hidden depths of samsara, and just how far does it go?
In eastern spiritual traditions, samsara is often used to describe worldly existence, the cycle of birth and death or the transmigration of the soul from one incarnation to the next. But the concept of samsara is actually much broader and includes psychology, universal laws of nature, the illusory quality of existence, and even the question of free will. In Samsara - An Exploration of the Hidden Forces that Shape and Bind Us, the author takes a look at the various aspects of samsara that influence our everyday experience and dares to ask, is life a setup? And if so, does it purposely push us toward the truth?
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