cycle of existence,
uncontrollably recurring rebirth,
wheel of suffering
|Sanskrit||saṃsāra, sangsara, (Dev: संसार)|
|Chinese||生死, 輪迴, 流轉
(RR: Yunhoi, Saengsayujeon)
Samsara (Sanskrit, Pali; also saṃsāra) is commonly translated as "cyclic existence", "cycle of existence", etc. It can be defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences.
Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence,[lower-alpha 1] where each realm can be understood as either a physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Realms of existence
- 3 Characteristics
- 4 Cause
- 5 Liberation
- 6 Relation to other Buddhist concepts
- 7 Within the Buddhist traditions
- 8 Contemporary glosses
- 9 Alternate translations
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 Web references
- 14 Sources
Samsara is the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence.[lower-alpha 1][lower-alpha 2] Each of these six realms can be understood as a physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a specific type of suffering.
- The term samsara, the wheel or round of existence, is used here to mean going round and round from one place to another in a circle, like a potter's wheel, or the wheel of a water mill. When a fly is trapped in a closed jar, no matter where it flies, it can not get out. Likewise, whether we are born in the higher or lower realms, we are never outside samsara. The upper part of the jar is like the higher realms of gods and men, and the lower part like the three unfortunate realms. It is said that samsara is a circle because we turn round and round, taking rebirth in one after another of the six realms as a result of our own actions, which, whether positive or negative, are tainted by clinging.
Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin emphasizes this point as follows:
- ...beings generally rise and fall, and fall and rise through the various realms, now experiencing unhappiness, now experiencing happiness. This precisely is the nature of saṃsāra: wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose."
Realms of existence
Buddhist cosmology typically identifies six realms of existence: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells.[lower-alpha 1] These realms can be understood both as psychological states and as aspects of Buddhist cosmology.[lower-alpha 3]
These six realms are typically divided into three higher realms and three lower realms: the three higher realms are the realms of the gods, demi-gods, and humans; the three lower realms are the realms of the animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. These realms can be described briefly as follows:[lower-alpha 4]
- God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma. When death comes to them, they are completely unprepared; without realizing it, they have completely exhausted their good karma (which was the cause for being reborn in the god realm) and they suffer through being reborn in the lower realms.
- Demi-god realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they spend their time fighting among themselves or making war on the gods. When they make war on the gods, they always lose, since the gods are much more powerful. The demi-gods suffer from constant fighting and jealousy, and from being killed and wounded in their wars with each other and with the gods.
- Human realm: humans suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don't want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet the human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).
- Animal realm: animals operate on the instinctual level. They are not capable of rational thought or logic; therefore they are unable to reflect on their situation or practice the dharma. Many wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals. Many domestic animals suffer from being used as beasts of burden, from being slaughtered for food, and so on.
- Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony.
- Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment. In the hot hells, beings suffer from unbearable heat and continual torments of various kinds. In the cold hells, beings suffer from unbearable cold and other torments.
Benefits of the human realm
Among the six realms, the human realm is considered to offer the best opportunity to practice the dharma, thereby offering the best chance to attain liberation from samsara. Dzongsar Khyentse explains:
- If we need to judge the value of these six realms, the Buddhists would say the best realm is the human realm. Why is this the best realm? Because you have a choice... The gods don't have a choice. Why? They're too happy. When you are too happy you have no choice. You become arrogant. The hell realm: no choice, too painful. The human realm: not too happy and also not too painful. When you are not so happy and not in so much pain, what does that mean? A step closer to the normality of mind, remember? When you are really, really excited and in ecstasy, there is no normality of mind. And when you are totally in pain, you don't experience normality of mind either. So someone in the human realm has the best chance of acquiring that normality of mind. And this is why in Buddhist prayers you will always read: ideally may we get out of this place, but if we can't do it within this life, may we be reborn in the human realm, not the others.
Equivalence of cosmology and psychology
From the Buddhist point of view, the realms of samsara are descriptions of both psychological states of mind and physical cosmological realms. From the Buddhist perspective, rebirth in the different realms is determined by our karma, which is directly determined by our psychological states. For example, a feeling of anger can be said to lead to "rebirth" into a new "realm": this rebirth can be viewed on an instantaneous level, in which being angry can make someone feel very "heated", or on a longer-term level, in which a habitual tendency to anger can cause someone to be reborn into a "heated" situation. An extreme habituation to anger and violence can lead to rebirth in one of the "hell realms". On the other hand, feelings of compassion and love can lead to rebirth in the realms where these feelings are dominant (such as certain god realms, or particular situations within the human or animal realms).
Rupert Gethin explains this equivalence of cosmology and psychology from the Buddhist perspective. Gethin states:
- The key to understanding the Buddhist cosmological scheme lies in the principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psychology. What I mean by this, is that in the traditional understanding the various realms of existence relate rather closely to certain commonly (and not so commonly) experienced states of mind. In fact Buddhist cosmology is at once a map of different realms of existence and a description of all possible experiences. This can be appreciated by considering more fully the Buddhist understanding of the nature of karma. At root karma or 'action' is considered a mental act or intention; it is an aspect of our mental life. [The Buddha said:][lower-alpha 5]
- 'It is "intention" that I call karma; having formed the intention, one performs acts (karma) by body, speech and mind.' [lower-alpha 6]
- Thus acts of body and speech are driven by an underlying intention or will (cetanā) and they are unwholesome or wholesome because they are motivated by unwholesome or wholesome intentions. Acts of body and speech are, then, the end products of particular kinds of mentality. At the same time karma can exist as a simple 'act of will', a forceful mental intention or volition that does not lead to an act of body or speech.[lower-alpha 7][lower-alpha 8]
- So we have six realms. Loosely, you can say when the perception comes more from aggression, you experience things in a hellish way. When your perception is filtered through attachment, grasping or miserliness, you experience the hungry ghost realm. When your perception is filtered through ignorance, then you experience the animal realm. When you have a lot of pride, you are reborn in the god realm. When you have jealousy, you are reborn in the asura (demi-god) realm. When you have a lot of passion, you are reborn in the human realm.[lower-alpha 9]
Body and mind under the influence of kleshas and karma
Contemporary Buddhist teacher Thubten Chodron emphasizes that samsara is not a place or external environment, but rather samsara refers to one's own body and mind under the influence of kleshas (disturbing emotions) and karma. Thubten Chodron states:[web 3]
- We tend to say, "Oh yes. This is samsara. We're all in samsara." And we tend to think the external environment is samsara. We think, "America is samsara." Don't we? We say, "Samsara is too much!", meaning my job's too much, everything around me is too much, I've got to get out of samsara – where's the airplane? But samsara actually is not the environment we live in.
- Samsara is our body and mind under the influence of [kleshas] and karma. Our body and mind that make us continually circle within the six realms. Samsara can refer to the present body and mind, or it can refer to our process of circling in the six realms, taking one body and mind after another body and mind – body and mind of a god, body and mind of a hell being, body and mind of a human, body and mind of a hungry ghost. That's samsara. That's cyclic existence.
- When we say we want to generate the determination to be free of samsara, it's not that we have to move out of Seattle. It's we have to free ourselves from the body and mind that are under the influence of [kleshas] and karma. That's a very important point to understand. The environment does influence us, but it's not the environment that's the root problem. Of course we have to choose our environment well so that we can practice well, but we have to remember that the basic problem is being under the control of the [kleshas] and karma which cause us to take a body and mind and have unsatisfactory experiences, over and over again.
Sanskrit terms for the six realms
The Sanskrit terms for the six realms are:
- Deva realm: God realm
- Asura realm: Demi-god realm
- Manuṣya realm: Human realm
- Tiryagyoni realm: Animal realm
- Preta realm: Hungry Ghost realm
- Naraka realm: Hell realm
Samsara is also characterized by impermanence. Contemporary scholar Paul Williams explains:
- All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karman. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara.
No evident beginning
From the Buddhist point of view, all beings have been suffering in samsara for an unimaginable period of time, and they will continue to do so until they attain liberation. For example, the Assu Sutta of the Pali Canon states:[web 4]
- At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable (sic) beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—or the water in the four great oceans?"
Habitual, repetitive pattern
The nature of samsara is a habitual, repetitive pattern. Ajahn Sucitto explains:
- The pattern is that each new arising, or "birth" if you like, is experienced as unfulfilling. In this process of ongoing need, we keep moving from this to that without ever getting to the root of the process. Another aspect of this need is the need to fix things, or to fix ourselves—to make conflict or pain go away. By this I mean an instinctive response rather than a measured approach of understanding what is possible to fix and what dukkha has to be accommodated right now. Then there's the need to know, to have it all figured out. That gets us moving too. This continued movement is an unenlightened being's response to dukkha. That movement is what is meant by samsāra, the wandering on. According to the Buddha, this process doesn't even stop with death—it's like the habit transfers almost genetically to a new consciousness and body. But even within this life, we can see all these "births," or as the Buddha put it, birth—the same habit taking different forms. And each new birth is unsatisfactory too, because sooner or later we meet with another obstacle, another disappointment, another option in the ongoing merry-go-round. High-option cultures just give you a few more spins on the wheel.[lower-alpha 11]
The root cause of samsara is ignorance (avidya)–specifically the belief in a single, independently-existing self.[lower-alpha 12] Ignorance gives rise to the three poisons, which lead to the creation of karma, which leads to rebirth in the six realms of existence.
In the Buddhist view, beings can liberate themselves from samsara by following the Buddhist path. For example, the Dalai Lama explains:
- To attain liberation from samsara one must perfect the three higher trainings: self-discipline, meditative concentration, and the wisdom of emptiness. In a sense, the most important of these is the wisdom of emptiness; for when we understand the empty, non-inherent nature of the self and phenomena, the endless forms of delusion that arise from grasping at true existence are directly eliminated. However, in order for the training in wisdom to mature and become strong, one must first develop meditative concentration; and in order to develop and support concentration one should cultivate the training in self-discipline, which calms the mind and provides an atmosphere conducive to meditation. When one practices all three of these higher trainings and takes them to perfection, liberation from samsara is definite.
The Dalai Lama also emphasizes the importance of understanding the nature of samsara in order to be liberated from it. He states: "one must understand the nature and patterns of the general sufferings that pervade all of samsara, as well as the specific sufferings of the individual realms, particularly the three lower realms.
Relation to other Buddhist concepts
Saṃsāra is the recurring cycle of rebirth throughout the six realms. Some non-Buddhist traditions believe that when one goes through the process of rebirth that there is a permanent self (i.e. a soul or atman) that is reborn. In the Buddhist view, there is not a permanent, instrinsically existing soul or atman. In the Buddhist view, there is a transfer of consciousness from one life to the next, but this consciousness is a continuum (e.g. a continually evolving stream of consciousness) rather than a permanent entity. One example used to explain this transfer of consciousness from one life to the next is that it is "Like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball. While nothing physical transfers, the speed and direction of the second ball relate directly to the first."[web 5] Thus, the previous life has a direct impact on the next life.
- The movement of beings between rebirths is not a haphazard process but is ordered and governed by the law of karma, the principle that beings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions; they are 'heir' to their actions (M.III.123).
In the Buddhist view, therefore, the type of birth we have in this life is determined by our actions or karma from our previous life; and the circumstances of our future rebirth are determined by our actions in this life. This view does not imply any blame or judgement of beings who are born into difficult circumstances or into the lower realms. From the Buddhist point of view, all beings have been circling in samsara from beginningless time, sometimes in the upper realms, sometimes in the lower realms, so there is no justification for judging beings who are less fortunate then ourselves, since we have all experienced every type of misfortune and good fortune in our previous lifetimes.
In the Buddhist view, a proper understanding of samsara will lead one to have compassion for all beings, including ourselves, who are trapped in this cycle of birth and death.
Thubten Chodron explains that a proper understanding of samsara can help us take responsibility for our present situation, but without blaming ourselves. Thubten Chodron states:[web 3]
- This means taking responsibility for our own situation, which is not the same as blaming ourselves. We don't blame ourselves. It's not that we're bad people because we're in samsara. It's not that we're sinners and we deserve to suffer, or any of that kind of stuff, but it's just when I'm not mindful, when I don't take care of myself, when I don't explore what's reality and what isn't, I continually get myself into messes. In some ways this is very empowering because if we get ourselves into the messes, we're also the ones who can get ourselves out of them. All we have to do is stop creating the causes. It's not a question of perpetuating some external being so that they bestow grace or they move the puppet strings differently. It's a thing of generating our own wisdom and compassion, bringing those to the forefront, and then freeing ourselves. Buddhas and bodhisattvas help, of course. They influence us. They guide us, but we're the ones responsible. This is very similar to modern psychological theory, isn't it? Be responsible for your own jams instead of pointing it off on someone else.
- At the same time as we're doing this, we have to have a lot of compassion for ourselves. Compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering. We also have to have that same wish for ourselves. It's not, "Oh, I'm in samsara because look what a creep I am, and I deserve this." It's, "No. I'm a sentient being. I have the clear light nature of the mind. I can be happy. I can become a Buddha. But I need to treat myself better." So practicing Dharma is a way of treating yourself better.
Thubten Chodron emphasizes that the cause for our rebirth in samsara are the kleshas (disturbing emotions) that lead to the creation of karma. If we can overcome our kleshas, then we will no longer generate the karma that leads to rebirth in the six realms.[web 3]
The consciousness that transfers from life to life is identified as vinnana in early Buddhist texts. These texts assert that when vinnana is pacified, then liberation is attained. Contemporary scholar William Waldron explains:[web 6]
- While the processes of vinnana [can] grow and increase, thereby sustaining samsaric life, they can also be calmed, pacified, and brought to an end, marking the end of the cycle of birth and death. Indeed, the destruction of vinnana is virtually equated with liberation in one passage... This cessation of vinnana is brought about by Buddhist practice, which counters the karmic activities perpetuating samsaric existence.
Waldron emphasizes the close connection between consciousness, karmic activities, and the cycle of rebirth. He states: "The cessation of vinnana is here closely identified with the destruction and cessation of "karmic activities" (anabhisankhara, S III, 53), which, we shall see, are necessary for the continued perpetuation of cyclic existence."
Later schools of Buddhist thought refined the concept of vinnana, and identified the specific aspect of consciousness that transfers from life to life as one of eight types of conscious called the ālaya-vijñāna.
Within the Buddhist traditions
It is taught in Mahayana Buddhism that the main impetus to pursuing nirvana and enlightenment is compassion for all beings. The goal is to reach a level of development that enables one to ultimately benefit all sentient beings.
Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, reflecting on the defects of samsara is a key aspect of spiritual practice. In particular, this reflection is one of the "four mind-changers"–a series of reflections on four topics: the preciousness of human birth; impermanence; the defects of samsara; and karma.
The reflection on samsara emphasizes that we have been wandering in samsara since beginningless time. For example, Patrul Rinpoche states:
- We have been wandering since beginningless time in these samsaric worlds in which every being, without exception, has had relations of affection, enmity and indifference with every other being. Everyone has been everyone else's father and mother. In the sutras it is said that if you wished to count back the generations of mothers in your family, "She was my mother's mother; her mother was so and so..." and so on, using little pellets of earth as big as a juniper berry to count them, the whole earth would be used up before you had counted them all.
Within this reflection, spiritual practitioners cultivate compassion by reflecting on the fact that all beings have been their own mother in a previous life. For example, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche states:
- Of all the beings in samsara, there is not a single one who has not been your own kind mother. Therefore, with the motivation of love and compassion toward all our parent sentient beings, [make the following aspiration:] "I will give my happiness and goodness to others, And take their suffering and its causes upon myself."
Contemporary Tibetan teachers have acknowledged that many Western students have difficult relationships with their mothers, and they emphasize that the main point of the above contemplation is to reflect that all beings have been extremely kind to you at some point in your previous lives, and to generate the wish to repay that kindness.
In the Tibetan tradition, it is believed that there are Bodhisattvas who could achieve enlightenment, but because of their great compassion (Bodhicitta or Karuṇā), instead of entering into nirvana, they have vowed to be reborn in samsara until they have freed all the countless sentient beings of all of the six realms of samsara.[web 7] For example, many Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation Avalokiteśvara (Tibetan: Chenrezik), the Bodhisattva of compassion.[web 8]
The following table provides brief descriptions of the term samsara given by various contemporary Buddhist teachers and scholars:
|Cycle of rebirths||The beginningless and endless cycle of rebirths throughout the six realms; the confused state of suffering from which Buddhists seek liberation.||Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen (2010). A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path. p. 458 (from the glossary)|
|Cyclic existence||Cyclic existence; the continual repetitive cycle of birth, death, and bardo that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. All states of consciousness in the six realms [...], including the god realms, characterized by pleasure and power, are bound by this process. Samsara arises out of ignorance and is characterized by suffering.||Chögyam Trungpa. The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. Edited by Judy L. Lief. Shambala. p. 137 (from the glossary)|
|Cyclic existence||The state of being constantly reborn due to delusions and karma.||Tsering, Geshe Tashi (2006), Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Perseus, Kindle Locations 2286-2287 (from the glossary)|
|Cycle of clinging||The cycle of clinging and taking birth in one desire after another.||Phillip Moffitt. Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering. Rodale, Kindle Location 2881 (from the glossary)|
|Continuous vicious cycle||[...] the continuous vicious cycle of confirmation of existence. One confirmation needs another confirmation needs another . . .||Chögyam Trungpa. The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 403-405).|
|Conditioned existence||[...] the worldly realm of suffering; conditioned existence.||Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Kindle Locations 3588 and 4711.|
|Going round and round||[...] going nowhere but round and round. That's called 'samsāra' – happy or unhappy, it's the business of going round and round.||Ajahn Sucitto (2011). Meditation, A Way of Awakening. Amaravati Publications. p. 182. (from the glossary)|
|A mental trap||[When a person mistakes a striped tie for a snake], the pain and anxiety that he experiences is what Buddhists call "samsara," which is a kind of mental trap.||Khyentse, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (2011). What Makes You Not a Buddhist, (p. 72). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.|
|Wheel of suffering||Wheel; in Buddhist terms, the wheel of suffering.||Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (2008). The Joy of Living. p. 115|
|Uncontrollably recurring rebirth||Uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the power of disturbing emotions and attitudes (kleshas) and of karma. Some translators render it as "cyclic existence."||Alexander Berzin, The Berzin Archives, Definition of samsara|
|Cyclic existence||Cyclic existence; the six realms: the lower realms of the hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals, and the upper realms of the humans, demigods and gods; the recurring cycle of death and rebirth within one or other of the six realms. It also refers to the contaminated aggregates of a sentient being.||Lama Zopa Rinpoche (2009), How Things Exist: Teachings on Emptiness, Kindle Locations 1295-1297|
|Cyclic rebirth||Although Buddhist doctrine holds that neither the beginning of the process of cyclic rebirth nor its end can ever be known with certainty, it is clear that the number of times a person may be reborn is almost infinite. This process of repeated rebirth is known as saṃsāra or 'endless wandering', a term suggesting continuous movement like the flow of a river. All living creatures are part of this cyclic movement and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana.||Keown, Damien (2000), Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 702-706, 880|
|Vicious cycle||The Buddha taught that beings, confused as they are by ignorant desires and fears, are caught in a vicious cycle called samsara, freedom from which—nirvana—was the highest human end.||Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, HarperOne, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 2574|
- Conditioned existence (Daniel Goleman)
- Cycle of clinging and taking birth in one desire after another (Phillip Moffitt)
- Cycle of existence
- Cyclic existence (Jeffry Hopkins)
- Uncontrollably recurring rebirth (Alexander Berzin)
- Wheel of suffering (Mingyur Rinpoche)
- Earlier Buddhist texts refer to five realms rather than six realms; when described as five realms, the god realm and demi-god realm constitute a single realm.
- Samsara is the continual repetitive cycle of rebirth within the six realms of existence:
- Chogyam Trungpa states: "Cyclic existence [is] the continual repetitive cycle of birth, death, and bardo that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. All states of consciousness in the six realms [...], including the god realms, characterized by pleasure and power, are bound by this process. Samsara arises out of ignorance and is characterized by suffering." Note that Chogyam Trungpa's description includes a reference to the bardo, or intermediate state, that is emphasized in the Tibetan tradition.
- Damien Keown states: "Although Buddhist doctrine holds that neither the beginning of the process of cyclic rebirth nor its end can ever be known with certainty, it is clear that the number of times a person may be reborn is almost infinite. This process of repeated rebirth is known as saṃsāra or 'endless wandering', a term suggesting continuous movement like the flow of a river. All living creatures are part of this cyclic movement and will continue to be reborn until they attain nirvana."
- The Dalai Lama states: "There is no realm in samsara where we have not taken birth, no samsaric pleasure we have not enjoyed and no form of life we have not known over our countless stream of previous lives."
- Rupert Gethin states: "Yet, rather than attaining nirvāṇa, beings generally rise and fall, and fall and rise through the various realms, now experiencing unhappiness, now experiencing happiness. This precisely is the nature of saṃsāra: wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose."
- Ajahn Sucitto states: "This continued movement is [...] what is meant by samsāra, the wandering on. According to the Buddha, this process doesn't even stop with death—it's like the habit transfers almost genetically to a new consciousness and body."
- Mingyur Rinpoche states: "Specifically, samsara refers to the wheel or circle of unhappiness, a habit of running around in circles, chasing after the same experiences again and again, each time expecting a different result. If you've ever watched a dog or a cat chasing its own tail, you've seen the essence of samsara. And even though it might be funny to watch an animal chase its tail, it's not so funny when your own mind does the same thing."
- The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions states: "In Buddhism, samsāra is the cycle of continuing appearances through the domains of existence (gati), but with no Self (anātman) being reborn: there is only the continuity of consequence, governed by karma."[web 1]
- Huston Smith and Philip Novak state: "The Buddha taught that beings, confused as they are by ignorant desires and fears, are caught in a vicious cycle called samsara, freedom from which—nirvana—was the highest human end."
- Chogyam Trungpa states: "In the Buddhist system of the six realms, the three higher realms are the god realm, the jealous-god realm, and the human realm; the three lower realms are the animal realm, the hungry ghost realmm, and the hell realm. These realms can refer to psychological states or to aspects of Buddhist cosmology."
- These descriptions are based on the following sources: 
- Additional formatting and text in brackets added for clarity.
- Gethin includes the following footnote: Aṅguttara Nikāya iii. 415; cf. Atthasālinī 88–9
- Paul Williams elaborates on this point; he states: "Are these places of rebirth, or are they some sort of 'inner state' of a meditator, perhaps encountered during deep meditation? Gethin (1998: 119 ff.) argues that the key to understanding what is going on here is the 'principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psychology. I mean by this that in the traditional understanding the various realms of existence relate rather closely to certain commonly (and not so commonly) experienced states of mind.' Note however that Gethin is not saying that the Buddhist cosmology is really all about current or potential states of mind, psychology, or meditation here and now, and is therefore not really a cosmology at all in the sense that these are actually realms or planes of rebirth. These different planes are indeed realms of rebirth. Otherwise either rebirth would always be into the human realm or there would be no rebirth at all. And that is not traditional Buddhism. Moreover if 'cosmos' is defined sufficiently widely there is no reason why this should not be spoken of as 'cosmology'. Thus if someone dies here they may, under appropriate circumstances, be properly thought of as having been reborn (in the sense of 'rebirth' explained above) in, say, a formless realm. Their coarse physical body is perhaps cremated here."
- Alexander Berzin emphasizes similar points, that rebirth within samsara is driven by karma. Berzin states: "In short, the external and internal cycles of time delineate samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties. These cycles are driven by impulses of energy, known in the Kalachakra system as "winds of karma." Karma is a force intimately connected with mind and arises due to confusion about reality. Imagining that ourselves, others and everything around us exist in the way our mind makes them appear – as if with concrete, permanent identities established from within each being or thing – we act on the basis of this confusion with attachment, anger or stubborn foolishness. We think, for example, "I am definitely like this, those objects or persons are certainly like that, I must possess these things as mine and get rid of those that bother me," and so on. Any physical, verbal or mental action committed on the basis of such a rigid, confused way of thinking builds up karmic potentials and habits. Under appropriate circumstances, these potentials or "seeds of karma" ripen in the form of compelling impulses to repeat these acts, and to enter into situations in which similar actions happen to us. We can readily see this if we examine carefully the impulsive behavior behind the personal and historical events we experience. How many people blunder from one bad marriage to another, and how many countries from one crisis to the next?"[web 2]
- Rupert Gethin elaborates on this point; he states: "Essentially the psychological states that motivate the ten unwholesome courses of action—strong greed, hatred, and delusion —lead to rebirth in the unhappy destinies or 'descents': in a hell realm, as a hungry ghost, an animal, or a jealous god. In fact rather a precise correlation exists here: dominated by greed one becomes a hungry ghost, a class of beings ever discontent and anguished because of being unable to satisfy their greed; dominated by hatred one enters one of the hell realms where one suffers terrible pain; dominated by ignorance one becomes an animal ruled by the instincts of food and reproduction. [Atthasālinī 128] On the other hand the psychological states that give rise to the ten wholesome courses of action—desirelessness, friendliness, and wisdom—lead to rebirth in the happy realms: as a human being or in one of the six realms of the gods immediately above the human realm where beings enjoy increasingly happy and carefree lives."
- Samsara is characterized by suffering:
- Chogyam Trungpa states: "Samsara arises out of ignorance and is characterized by suffering."
- Rupert Gethin states: "This precisely is the nature of saṃsāra: wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose."
- Mingyur Rinpoche states: "Specifically, samsara refers to the wheel or circle of unhappiness, a habit of running around in circles, chasing after the same experiences again and again, each time expecting a different result."
- Alexander Berzin states: "[Samsara is] uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties.[web 2]
- Samsara is driven by habitual repetitive patterns:
- The Dalai Lama states: "There is no realm in samsara where we have not taken birth, no samsaric pleasure we have not enjoyed and no form of life we have not known over our countless stream of previous lives. Yet even now as humans most of us are like blind animals, unable to discern the patterns of life unfolding within us, leaving spiritual aims behind and chasing only the biological and emotional needs of the senses. Totally unaware of the spiritual methods that produce everlasting joy, we admire the ignoble and have distaste for the noble."
- Mingyur Rinpoche states: "Specifically, samsara refers to the wheel or circle of unhappiness, a habit of running around in circles, chasing after the same experiences again and again, each time expecting a different result. If you've ever watched a dog or a cat chasing its own tail, you've seen the essence of samsara. And even though it might be funny to watch an animal chase its tail, it's not so funny when your own mind does the same thing.
- The root cause of samsara is ignorance:
- Mingyur Rinpoche states: "Ignorance is thus a twofold problem. Once we establish the neuronal habit of identifying ourselves as a single, independently existing "self," we inevitably start to see whatever is not "self" as "other." "Other" can be anything: a table, a banana, another person, or even something this "self" is thinking or feeling. Everything we experience becomes, in a sense, a stranger. And as we become accustomed to distinguishing between "self" and "other," we lock ourselves into a dualistic mode of perception, drawing conceptual boundaries between our "self" and the rest of the world "out there," a world that seems so vast that we almost can't help but begin to think of ourselves as very small, limited, and vulnerable. We begin looking at other people, material objects, and so on as potential sources of happiness and unhappiness, and life becomes a struggle to get what we need in order to be happy before somebody else grabs it. This struggle is known in Sanskrit as samsara, which literally means "wheel" or "circle." Specifically, samsara refers to the wheel or circle of unhappiness, a habit of running around in circles, chasing after the same experiences again and again, each time expecting a different result. If you've ever watched a dog or a cat chasing its own tail, you've seen the essence of samsara. And even though it might be funny to watch an animal chase its tail, it's not so funny when your own mind does the same thing." 
- Ajahn Sucitto states: "It turns out that the driver of this whole traveling show (or samsāra) is the sense of being a permanent self or soul, of being someone who should be, or will be, or was something. But we only sense ourselves as being something through doing something such as thinking, feeling, acting, or suppressing. And doing can never arrive at simply, peacefully being. So who or what is behind all this kamma? After all the years of searching, Siddhattha realized that he couldn't find any lasting self. All he could find were psychophysical processes strung together around a need to be something solid."
- Dzigar Kongtrul states: "Holding to an ordinary notion of self, or ego, is the source of all our pain and confusion. The irony is that when we look for this "self" that we're cherishing and protecting, we can't even find it. The self is shifty and ungraspable. When we say "I'm old," we're referring to our body as self. When we say "my body," the self becomes the owner of the body. When we say "I'm tired," the self is equated with physical or emotional feelings. The self is our perceptions when we say "I see," and our thoughts when we say "I think." When we can't find a self within or outside of these parts, we may then conclude that the self is that which is aware of all of these things—the knower or mind. But when we look for the mind, we can't find any shape, or color, or form. This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can't actually be found—which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home. The house seems to be empty, but all the housework has been done. The bed has been made, our shoes have been polished, the tea has been poured, and the breakfast has been cooked. The funny thing is that we never question this. We just assume that someone or something is there. But all this time, our life has been managed by a ghost, and it's time to put a stop to it. On one hand, ego-mind has served us—but it hasn't served us well. It has lured us into the suffering of samsara and enslaved us. When ego-mind says, "Get angry," we get angry; when it says, "Get attached," we act out our attachments. When we look into the "slavish" arrangement we have with our ego-mind, we can see how it pressures us, plays tricks on us, and causes us to do things that bring undesirable consequences. If you want to stop being the slave of a ghost, you must demand that ego-mind show its face. No true ghost will show up when it hears this! You can practice this simple meditation throughout the day.
- The driving force behind rebirth in the six realms of samsara is karma:
- Traleg Rinpoche states: "Rebirth does not occur in a haphazard way but is governed by the law of karma. At the same time, good and bad rebirths are not seen as rewards and punishments but as resulting from our own actions."
- Peter Harvey states: "The movement of beings between rebirths is not a haphazard process but is ordered and governed by the law of karma, the principle that beings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions; they are 'heir' to their actions (M.III.123)."
- Damien Keown states: "In the cosmology [of the realms of existence], karma functions as the elevator that takes people from one floor of the building to another. Good deeds result in an upward movement and bad deeds in a downward one. Karma is not a system of rewards and punishments meted out by God but a kind of natural law akin to the law of gravity. Individuals are thus the sole authors of their good and bad fortune."
- Alexander Berzin states: "In short, the external and internal cycles of time delineate samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties. These cycles are driven by impulses of energy, known in the Kalachakra system as "winds of karma." Karma is a force intimately connected with mind and arises due to confusion about reality."[web 2]
- Paul Williams states: "All rebirth is due to karman and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karman. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara." 
- Rupert Gethin states: "What determines in which realm a being is born? The short answer is karma (Pali kamma): a being’s intentional ‘actions’ of body, speech, and mind—whatever is done, said, or even just thought with definite intention or volition. In general, though with some qualification, rebirth in the lower realms is considered to be the result of relatively unwholesome (akuśala/akusala), or bad (pāpa) karma, while rebirth in the higher realms the result of relatively wholesome (kuśala/kusala), or good (puṇya/puñña) karma."
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