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The Defects and Dangers of Samsara

by Maitreyi

The Defects and Dangers of Samsara
by Maitreyi

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM743
Talk given at Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, 2005

Samsara and nirvana; separate selfhood leading to dissatisfaction and grasping

My talk today is on the defects of saṁsāra. It’s the last of the mind-turning reflections,
and the second of the last pair of mind-turning reflections. The law of karma and the
defects of saṁsāra work together to help us overcome clinging to future pleasures and
encourage us towards the greater happiness of freedom. I thought we could just check in
with ourselves and ask how much of what has gone through our mind today is about
looking forward to future pleasures, and how much about the planting of the seeds of
skilful action. I know for myself I’ve been feeling quite tired, because I’ve been up late
writing this talk, and I’ve been thinking a lot about a nice bath, and bed, and a good
book to read!
A defect is a lack or a deficiency, and I think it’s important that we clarify this. We’re not
saying that saṁsāra is evil or horrible, but we’re saying that it doesn’t give us what we
most deeply need, and that it is permeated by all kinds of suffering, as well as giving us
pleasure. When we talk about something being defective, then it needs correcting.
Saṁsāra is not a place that we go. It’s easy to fall into this way of speaking, as if it’s a
place we find ourselves in, that we loosely equate with ‘the world’, and there’s another
place called nirvana that we might get to if we’re very good or we work very hard at our
practice. At the same time we’re not sure that we want to go there, because it does seem a
bit much or it’s a bit lonely or somehow featureless. Saṁsāra and nirvana are not
somewhere that we go. It’s something that we do. We ‘samsarise’. Literally, it means to
go round, or to spin.
There are various images associated with it which have this circular or cyclical nature
or character. It is like an ill-fitting chariot wheel. It’s the wheel of life with the six
realms, and the outer circle of becoming or re-becoming. It is like water in a water
wheel in which we circle helplessly. It’s like bees buzzing round and round a pot. It’s
like the turning of a potter’s wheel. A circle is endless, or it ends in itself. A cycle is
recurrent, repetitive. It returns to the beginning. Nothing new comes out of it.
We create this saṁsāra in which we go round and round. We create it initially by what
we come with. We’re hard-wired, as Ratnadharini put it in her talk, with the four tma-
kle as, that sense of ourselves as centre of the universe, and the subject of every
experience. There’s no blame in this; it’s just how things are from the perspective of how
we are. It’s part of the human condition to experience the world as subject and object, and
it’s part of our precious human birth that we have a self-reflexive consciousness and an
ability to discriminate which allows us to explore and question that experience.
So far so good, it would seem. But already there is an underlying tension. Saṁsāra is a
condition in which our minds are not functioning in accordance with reality. We believe
in a separate self. We believe in the importance of that self. We are determined to
protect and defend that self. At the same time, on some deeper level we know this not to
be the case. Our experiences confirm it and yet contradict it. For instance, other people
also think they are the centre of the world. They are wrong, of course. We can’t all be
the most important person, but that is their experience. Within it all there’s a sense of
incompleteness, a lack of wholeness. An unease and an insecurity accompany our
experience. That unease causes us to want to become more secure, more substantial, so
we feel the need to acquire things, to bolster up that sense of self. Then we think we own
these things, which might be material objects, other people, skills, opinions, experiences.
First, conceiving an ‘I’, we cling to an ego.
Then, conceiving a ‘mine’, we cling to a material world.
Like water in a water wheel helplessly we circle.
I bow down to the compassion that arises for all beings.
But the unease and the insecurity persist. Having feared we might lose ourselves in
some way or other, the situation has been compounded. We now fear we might lose our
possessions, our standing in the world, our points of view, as well as fearing the loss of
self. Again there is no blame. Our craving for security and substantiality arise out of
ignorance. It’s a very human response. And it causes suffering.
Saṁsāra is cyclical because through our actions based on ignorance we feed that
ignorance. Seeing objects in the world as ‘mine’, we compound that view of a separate
sense of self, increasing that sense of alienation and insecurity which then reaches out
to draw more towards it. It’s not only a cycle, but it’s a vicious circle. Helplessly we
circle, digging ourselves deeper into that ignorant view.

The three lakshanas of conditioned existence - dukkha (suffering); anitya
(impermanence); anatman (emptiness of essential being); blame

Another way of describing the defects of saṁsāra is that it is characterised by the three
marks or lakṣaṇas of conditioned existence: the unsatisfactory or painful (duḥkha), the
impermanent (anitya) and the emptiness of self or essential being (an tman). The
connection of duḥkha and anitya is obvious: that things are impermanent is often a
cause of suffering. Anātman is less obviously connected, but emptiness of self means
that we are not in control. We are a process, not an entity. We too arise day by day,
moment by moment, in dependence on conditions. There is no self that is in control of
those conditions. We can only have some influence as a part of those conditions.
There is suffering and there is no blame. I think it is very important to see that we tend
to equate these two states, suffering and blame, and very important that we can
distinguish them. I think equating blame and guilt with suffering is probably the result of
Christian conditioning in our culture. While I was brought up an atheist, I was still
horrified as a child by the idea that Christ died for our sins. While we are in a culture of
guilt or blame, whether self or other blame, it will cloud our ability to understand
suffering and its causes.

Three forms of suffering; eight kinds of suffering; six kinds of suffering; Conze's
view of suffering and pleasure; the wheel of life; experiences of suffering in our

There are many forms of suffering in saṁsāra. Traditionally there are three lists. To
begin with and, probably most encompassingly, there are three kinds of duḥkha. There’s
the suffering of pain, of unpleasant experiences, the unsatisfactory (duḥkha duḥkha);
there’s the suffering of change and impermanence, and there’s the existential suffering:
that insecurity, lack of wholeness and lack of fulfilment. These three sum it up really,
but they have been expanded out considerably, which brings it home more to us.

There are the eight kinds of suffering. There’s the suffering of birth, which is traumatic
for the child and painful for the mother. There’s the suffering of sickness, which we all
know about to some degree. There’s the suffering of ageing, especially old age, loss of
mobility and faculties, loss of memory and independence. There’s the suffering of death,
our own death and that of others. There’s being separated from those who we love, which
sometimes happens quite outside our control. There’s being with what and whom we
dislike. There’s not to have what we desire, and having what we don’t desire. Then there
are also the six kinds of suffering: an uncertain lifespan, indefinite rebirth, repeated
conception, fluctuations of loss and gain, the fact that we are alone at birth and alone at
death. But this isn’t all.
There’s also the suffering underlying some kinds of pleasure, which Conze has
enumerated. There’s the fact that our pleasure may involve suffering for others. We may
buy new clothes that are produced in sweat shops, in dire conditions. We’re afraid of
losing that which gives us pleasure. Conze says that’s particularly so for wealthy people
who struggle with guilt about the amount of money that they own and their fear of losing
it. There’s the fact that that which brings pleasure through the senses, the body, also
equally brings pain. And that pleasures which derive from conditioned things cannot
satisfy the longings of the human heart, which is the existential suffering of the three
kinds of duḥkha.
Sometimes lists don’t quite do it for us, so it’s also brought to mind more imaginatively
in the images of the wheel of life, the suffering of the six realms: the realm of the animals
which is brutish, focussed on food, sex and sleep; the hungry ghosts always longing,
never able to satisfy themselves; the gods blissfully ...

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