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Open Heart, Clear Mind
»» 3. Cyclic existence

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The ferris wheel of recurring problems

The situation in which we exist is called cyclic existence or samsara in Sanskrit. It describes a cycle of recurring problems in which we are continuously born, experience various problems during our lives and die. No external force or being keeps us bound in cyclic existence. The source of our problems lies in our own ignorance: we don’t understand who we are or the nature of phenomena around us.

According to Buddhist philosophy, because we’re unaware of our own nature we misunderstand our environment and ourselves. We think things exist in a way they don’t. We have a wrong conception of who we are, thinking we are a permanent, concrete, findable entity. Then, we cherish this illusory “real self” dearly. The one thought in our minds from morning till night is, “I want happiness, and my happiness is the most important.” We think and act as if we were the center of the universe, for the thought “my happiness, my suffering” is foremost and ever-present in our minds. Our concern for others comes after our concern for ourselves.

Because we don’t understand the ultimate nature of people and phenomena, we develop attachment and anger towards others. We cling to what benefits us; we have aversion to people and things that seem to threaten our happiness. Our lives are spent in this cycle of likes and dislikes, wants and don’t wants. Our minds are like yoyos, emotionally rising and falling ceaselessly.

We also go up and down as we proceed from one life to the next!. As we’ve acted both destructively and constructively during our lives, we sometimes are reborn in lives with much pain and at other times in lives with much happiness. Nothing is stable. There is no security, no guarantee that we will have continual happiness, even though that is what all of us want.

Under the influence of our ignorance we act and thus create karma. When we understand cause and effect, we try to act constructively. When we’re ignorant in this regard or when we are careless, our minds easily fall under the influence of disturbing attitudes, such as attachment, anger, jealousy, pride, closed-mindedness, and we act negatively. These actions leave imprints on our mindstreams, and these imprints influence our experience.

At the time of death, our sense consciousnesses lose their ability to function and our mental consciousness becomes more and more subtle. This can be disconcerting because we’re accustomed to living in our present bodies and are very attached to them. As we feel ourselves separating from our bodies at the time of death, we crave to remain in them. When we finally realize that separation is inevitable, we grasp for another body.

These two factors, craving and grasping, are the conditions causing the imprints of some of our previously created actions to mature. This causes our minds to be attracted to a particular life form, and we’re reborn in another body. In this way, we go from one life to the next.

None of these rebirths is everlasting. We take these various bodies according to the causes we created, and we experience the result only as long as the causal energy to do so exists. Once that karma is exhausted, we leave that body to take another. Some of these rebirths may last a long time, but none of them lasts forever.

Some people have a very idealistic view about rebirth. They think that after death we’re somewhere in space. Looking down, we think, “Hmm, I want to be born to that mother and father.” It’s not like that. We don’t consciously choose. By the power of our disturbing attitudes and actions, our mind streams are propelled into another body. We find a body attractive, and we grasp to have it. In that way, we find ourselves in another life, and cyclic existence continues.

Some people think each rebirth is like a test: we are reborn into a particular situation to learn specific things. This view implies there is some hidden plan, that either someone else decides what we need to learn or we’re aware of it ourselves. This isn’t the case. We’re born into a certain body because the causes and conditions for it have come together. There are no pre-planned lessons for us to learn in our lives. Whether or not we learn from our experiences is up to us.

Other life forms

According to Buddhist thought, there are six types of life forms in the cycle of constantly recurring problems. The three fortunate life forms are humans, semi-celestial beings and celestial beings. The three less fortunate ones are animals (including insects), life forms experiencing continual frustration and clinging, and life forms experiencing continual fear and pain. Some people have difficulty believing all six life forms exist because we can only see humans and animals. How can we know the others exist?

At the beginning of my Buddhist studies, I too found it difficult to believe in the existence of other life forms. Then I remembered that our senses aren’t capable of perceiving everything which exists. Eagles can see things we humans can’t; dogs can hear sounds we can’t. We can’t see atoms with our eyes, nor do we have comprehensive knowledge about’ other planets and solar systems. Acknowledging the limitation of our senses and the present scope of scientific knowledge, I began to think that other life forms could exist, but we aren’t aware of them.

Another way that helped me to consider the possibility of the existence of other life forms was to observe the wide variety of moods, perceptions and behavior we have as human beings. For example, sometimes we are content, patient and forgiving. Due to our calm mental state, our environment and the people we encounter seem very pleasant and enjoyable. Even if someone tries to provoke us, we ignore it and by joking and chatting with him, have a good time.

Now, take that mental state, amplify it and project it outwards so it becomes our environment and body. This is the life form of a celestial being.

At other times, we are extremely angry and out of control. Sometimes our anger-energy is so great that although no one is bothering us, we look for someone to be angry at. Our anger is combined with paranoia and we become extremely sensitive and fearful without reason. How we perceive the people and things around us changes, and it appears that others are trying to harm us, even if they aren’t. Imagine that angry, paranoid state of mind is intensified and projected outwards to become our body and environment. This is a life form of fear and pain.

In this way, we can imagine the existence of other life forms: our bodies and environments being manifestations of our mental states. Just as positive actions attract us toward fortunate rebirths, negative attitudes manifest unfortunate lives. Whatever we experience - happiness or misery - comes from our own minds.

Some people wonder why animals are included in the three unfortunate types of rebirth. Some animals are intelligent and kind. Some live in better conditions than some humans. Seldom are animals as destructive as humans potentially can be. Animals only kill when it’s necessary; they don’t manufacture atomic bombs that can destroy civilization.

These points are well taken. Nevertheless, humans have a particular potential and intelligence that if used wisely can bring far greater results than those of an animal. A cat can’t understand our advice to stop killing mice and to have compassion for them, nor can a dolphin comprehend the teachings on the ultimate nature of phenomena. In comparison, our human lives are special in that it’s comparatively easy for us to avoid negative actions and to do positive ones.

Although animals are considered to have a lower rebirth, that doesn’t mean humans should exploit and abuse them. On the contrary, Buddhism says all life forms should be respected, cared for and treated properly.

How can those reborn as animals become humans again? In previous lives, when they were humans, they acted both positively and negatively. The imprints of all these actions remain on their mindstreams. At the end of that human life, a negative imprint matured and caused the person to be born as an animal.

It’s difficult for animals to cultivate positive attitudes and to act according to them. However, animals can receive positive imprints from hearing prayers and recitations of Dharma texts or from walking around Buddhist monuments or temples. Due to contact with a powerful virtuous object, a beneficial imprint is made on their minds. This is similar to the imprint made when “Eat popcorn” is flashed on a movie screen. We aren’t aware of it, yet it has an impact on our minds.

Animals’ mind streams retain the positive imprints created while they were human. When the karmic energy to be animals finishes-rebirth in both the lower and upper realms is temporary, not eternal-then it’s possible for positive imprints to mature, causing them to again be born as human beings.

With compassion, the Buddha described the existence of the various life forms in order to make us aware of the possible long-term effects of our actions. Knowing this, we’ll be mindful of what we think, say and do, and we’ll take the time to develop our good qualities. The Buddha observed:

“Sufferings originate from nowhere else but our own untamed minds. If we wish to achieve a true state of happiness, the best way is to train ourselves to eliminate our negative states of mind.”

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