Samsara is a Sanskrit term for the continuous cycle of birth, life and death we humans are said to trudge through for all eternity. Which is why it is often represented by a wheel, which spins round and round and comes back to the beginning. Literally meaning "a wandering through," this belief is common to several major world religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Even the Bible hints at the notion of reincarnation, a concept which the Fathers of the Church almost included among the tenets of Christianity. Too bad, otherwise we’d all be united. Fox's world-religion, in which all are guided by an Inner Light, may not be a pipe dream. After all the Christian's Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is shared by the Hindus who have their Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver) and Shiva (Destroyer). So we’re getting there.
But what is this wheel of perpetual becoming, this endless cycle of birth and death which the individual wanders through as though blind? Must we give credence to the notion of past and future lives, to be atoned for on the one hand and suffered through on the other? Or could it be in a symbolic light that reincarnation, the wheel of becoming, is to be viewed? For it has been said that each day is like a lifetime. We stir from the sea of unconsciousness on waking and come to life as though born; then go about our daily business, living our lives; and finally, night and again, we sink back into sleep, the individual consciousness merging with pure Awareness, not unlike what is said to occur at bodily death. And then we do it again and again, thousands upon thousands of times in the course of one earthly life. Is it possible to transcend the wheel while in body, to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death while still alive, right now? To do so we must make a conscious decision to stop perpetuating this cycle.
Let's take a closer look at just how this wheel works. It begins with a thought, usually in the form of “I,” as an individual apart from others. And the “I” gives rise to thoughts of “me” and “mine.” From this identity with the body, desire springs. The desire to become this, or to have that. As the desire grows, the ego is enthralled and the will marshaled, and the individual is launched into worldly activity. A vast amount of energy is summoned and directed in order to fulfill this desire. The actions themselves engender more thoughts, manifested as additional activity, and the fulfillment of desires begets new desires, which lead to further mental and physical unrest. Thus, in the plainest terms, we have our wheel: this is the cycle of birth (of desire), life (work), death (fulfillment of desire, bringing additional desires). This is Samsara, which most people would call an average day’s work! I call it exhausting, chasing phantasms, catering to the false self, a sheer waste of time.
Adi Shankara, the mystic, poet and theorist behind the doctrines that supplanted Buddhism in India so he's a force to be reckoned with, writes in his Crest-Jewel of Wisdom: "From the growth of mind-images (thoughts, desires) comes action; from action the mind-image grows; hence the (individual's) pilgrimage ceases not. It is therefore from thoughts and works undertaken to fulfill them that the soul's pilgrimage arises.”
Is there a way out? Shankara provides one: "The thorough dispersal of mind-images is freedom," he says; "this is called freedom even in life." In other words, be desireless. How to go about this? “By looking on all as the Eternal, everywhere, in every way."
In other words, see all as one. When you go beyond the illusion of separateness, become rooted in the Self, perfectly content, eternally free, what is there for which to strive? You are as one “free even in life.” Rather than revolve endlessly at the periphery of the wheel of karma, spinning dizzily from one craving and urge to the next like some rusty, squeaky, flimsy spoke, you, having become the adept, dwell in silence, "like the center of a wheel, having neither doubts nor desires."
Watch your desires as they spring up. Note their origins, their catalysts. Is it the radio ad, the TV, the Internet pop-up? A casual conversation in which an acquaintance brings up a certain must-have trinket? Ask yourself, do I really need this (fill in the blank thing, pleasure or past-time). Is it necessary for my life and well-being? Does it conduce to my enjoyment or upliftment? What are the consequences of attaining said desire? Experience tells us that desires lead us into actions that are ramified and multiplied and aren’t clearly identified at the outset. We’ve all heard of the money pit, the lemon, the can of worms. These are not old-wives’ tales but hard and fast facts of life.
Even the so-called noble desires, born in the heart from the urge to serve others, are thinly veiled plots to pamper the ego and get ahead, the rocky road to their fulfillment fraught with difficulties and snagged with brambles, their final destination unknown, possibly dead ended. The simple desire to pursue an advanced degree and cure disease leads to a dreary life that breaks your body down and leaves you fractured and forlorn. But hey, no one can take away that stretch on the tropical isle, where you work on your tan while memorizing the muscles of the body, although the two years you spend in the sun pale by comparison to the community hospital in the sticks they stick you in afterwards, where in the armpit of America you slog on like an ox at the plow prescribing meds your patients don't take because they can't afford them, and the side effects are intolerable anyway; speaking a language they can't understand, “hating your life and wishing you were dead,” as you write in a text to friends, all the while feeding the machine that is modern medicine. And then to working at a teaching hospital where traumatized by the ungodly sites you witness in the ER and terrorized by superiors you walk around with your tail between your legs, wearing plaid shirts and cotton Dockers; clean shaven and hair parted you are little more than a glorified grade school teacher, although with half the pay, twice the hours and three times the paperwork, adding another anti-hypertensive to the 3 your patient doesn’t take, doing less for the common good than you would if you had stuck to teaching kids how to write complete sentences, far from home and all alone, and how fast those five years fly by! But I am not bitter.
So, live simply my friend. Dwell in the Self. Remember, "The road to a Yea lies through a Nay." To paraphrase the mystic Evelyn Underhill, the preliminary step in the freedom from bondage to the senses and liberation from the cycle of rebirth in this life consists in the first deliberate NO to the relentless “claim which the world of appearance makes to a total possession of your consciousness.” Tonight you die for the very last time.
As you go from the unreal (transient world of the senses) to the real (fixed in the Awareness of Self) you wake up to the World of Reality. That, more than dirty bandages and drug overdoses, more than decompensated diabetes and uncompensated heart failure and suicide attempts, is what is meant by truly living. For in order to truly live your suicide must succeed. Kill the lower self. Liberation is thereby achieved.
As for reincarnation, leave it to the collectors of concepts. Concepts help some along the path to a better life. But when you've got wings, you don't need roads.