In Indian religion, Samsara is a term used to refer to the cycle of death and rebirth. It’s the root of karma; we exist in life cycles of various karmic influences contributing to our lives, deaths, and rebirths. This religious significance, first seen in Hinduism and later in Buddhism has been, for countless people throughout history, as holy a notion as the Trinity or the Resurrection. But it has a second significance, one applicable to those of us who are not necessarily practitioners of these religions.
Religious ideas are, of course, not meant to be taken purely literally; the crucifixion of Christ, for example, can be seen in a mythological sense, like Odysseus’ journey or Shakespeare’s tale of Hamlet. In the Christian case, the crucifixion represents the sacrifice of a purely moral being for the sake of humanity. This symbol is Christianity’s most important, since its corresponding religious tenets preach equality, moral fortitude, justice and forgiveness. Christians look to Christ as an example of a man who sacrificed himself for the greater good so they could do the same in their own ways, at least ideally.
In Buddhism, we can see Samsara from this mythological perspective. It isn’t that we literally pass through different lives and reincarnations according to our actions and karmic repercussions. Some do in fact believe this, but it isn’t necessary to see to myth as fact to recognize its spiritual beauty. Samsara is more deeply symbolic for its subtler implications. Zen isn’t a religious school of Buddhism, and yet it remains interested in these religious ideas for their symbolic influence.
We exist in the world. Every moment we have countless choices. Our lives have varied influences; things happen to us. We do things. Then we do other things. And all of our intentions, emotions, actions and words have consequences. Everything we put out returns to us as some sort of response.
What are the spiritual implications of such a notion? Firstly, in contemplating Samsara and thinking about Karma, we recognize the impact we have on the world and other people. We aren’t solitary individual agents with no responsibility or impact on others. Everything we do, from the words we speak to the careers we choose, leave a mark on the world.
In chaos theory, there’s something called the butterfly effect. It comes from an idea developed by a theorist that the wind patterns and shape of a massive tornado can be influenced by something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings days or even weeks beforehand. In other words, this idea explores the potentially massive abstract repercussions of actions that can seem small or completely unrelated.
Karma is very similar. We are all connected to everything else in the world. Our smallest and seemingly insignificant actions can set off large and significant events, or influence the world in ways we can’t imagine.
When we remain trapped in samsaric cycles— craving, lust, hatred, indulgence, ignorance, greed, vanity, laziness— our actions have consequences deeper than we realize. We’re only aware of a very limited number of events, and couldn’t possibly know the extent of our influences upon things unrelated to us. This is why we practice, it’s why we try to cultivate as much simplicity, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion and ‘right mind’ as we can.
Karma is most intriguing in the realm of meditation. Dogen said we generate ‘good karma’ whenever we practice meditation, since it is the one state in which we are exclusively cultivating this pureness of mind, this simple awareness that leads to awakening. And I think this is an important thing to remember— our meditation practice often seems insignificant or basic but it casts a much larger influence on our minds and bodies than we realize. It can help us escape these harmful cycles and enter into a deeper realm.
Sometimes our actions produce suffering, other times peace. We can’t know exactly what will happen, but we can live spiritually in such a way that we minimize harm to ourselves and others. This is a journey we can choose; to be mindful or to be mindless. The former allows us to experiences ourselves as part of this deeper reality. The latter keeps us stuck.