Karma, Samsara, and Nirvana
March 2nd, 2008 · 6 Comments
There are three important concepts of Buddhism. These are Karma, Samsara, and Nirvana. It is important that we have a basic understanding of what these concepts are.
Karma refers to the natural law in Buddhism that deals with cause and effect in a person’s life. The idea is that what you throw out in the waves comes back to you, what you plant you harvest. We as Buddhists believe you go through a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. All of life is a process that is guided by the natural law of karma.
If a person asks you what kind of person you were in a previous life you can ask yourself what kind of person you are in this life and that would be the closest answer you could come up with. What you do and what you say and how you do things is based on your experiences in previous lives, as well as your experiences earlier in this life.
Karma is not written in stone. Your karma is rewritten every day. Each day you are presented with an opportunity to go do good, as well as an opportunity not to do good.
So in a sense, Karma is a fluid representation of the good and bad that we perform in our life. Buddhist teachings tell us that those who do good become good. Likewise, those who do bad will become bad.
Karma is a reflection of the essence of being human.
Like a part of one’s own shadow, like the image in a mirror.
Karma affects not only this life, but also subsequent lives. For Buddhists, what you become in the next life depends on what you did in this life just as what you are in this life is a distillation of what you were in previous lives. Karma is a thread woven through all of our lives.
Samsara is the name we use for the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
The concept of transmigration, or Samsara, is one of the most difficult concepts to understand in Buddhism. The law of Samsara holds everything in the birth and rebirth cycle.
The only thing that is passed on from the current life to the next life is a set of feelings, a set of impressions, a set of present moments, and the Karma that is created in previous lives and the current life.
In this life you have a human personality. And it exists in this life. What is passed on are impressions of your personality so that in the next life your personality may be very similar. The Buddha did not discuss how similar they may be. He never said. But with the refinement process from life to life, we have the ability to become closer to the goal of breaking the cycle of Samsara. A new individual in the next life will not be the same as previous lives. The circumstances of Karma affects the condition of the rebirth. A person born into life is not the same person of previous lives, much like an acorn is not the oak tree of its parent, but becomes its own oak tree. Some similarity exists, but, depending on where the seed falls and grows, it could be larger or smaller, stronger or weaker, straighter or more contorted, but it is still an oak tree.
As Buddhists, we pray, and transfer our merits to those people who are passed in the hopes that the conditions of their rebirth are better than the conditions of their previous life. You are going to be much like you were in this life, but with another opportunity to do good. Each lifetime presents opportunities to do good, to learn the lessons, and to bring ourselves closer to the goal of nirvana.
Nirvana is an eternal state of being. It is where the laws of Karma and Samsara cease to be. Nirvana is not the same concept as the Christian concept of heaven. Nirvana is not a place, but rather a state of being. You can be in Nirvana while living the present life. It is the end of suffering and desire. It is the end of individual consciousness. Speaking to his disciples, the Buddha described Nirvana thusly:
“There is Disciples, a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing away nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor stand still.”
Often people look at the Buddhist concept of Nirvana as annihilation, but rather it is an assimilation of the energy into the pool of energy that is Nirvana. As Buddhist practitioners we may not understand totally the conditions of Nirvana, but the idea of Nirvana gives us hope.
The idea of rebirth is as natural to us as the rain. It is an idea shunned by Western religious teachings. But how many people privately believe they themselves have lived before? If you are given many opportunities to grow and become good, do you need a salvific figure in your life? As Buddhists, we believe that no one can cleanse you, nor can anyone defile you. No one can rid you of your sins but you. Doing good things and good acts, you become good. Likewise, doing bad things and wrong acts, you become bad. Clearly, the responsibility of Karma, Samsara, and Nirvana is our own. The Buddhist ideation of salvation is then our own responsibility. Buddha taught that he was not a god.
We do however revere him as the Enlightened One. We honor his teaching as the Path. Our duty to ourselves is to engage the natural laws of Buddhism with our own daily living. Buddhism is the acceptance of our selves in the natural law of nature. Buddhism is a description of a path to harmony. It is our goal to bring that harmony to ourselves and the world around us. We do this through the practice of Metta (loving kindness). It is in the accepting of self that we begin the journey to accept others. It is in learning to love ourselves that we begin walking the path that teaches us how to love others. It is through non-violence and compassion that we become enlightened. We can be a people of hope. We can be a people of compassion. It begins inside us, and it begins today.
I Wish You Peace,
Bhante n. Kassapa Bhikkhu
Buu Mon Temple
Port Arthur, Texas, 77640