The Psychology of Confusion and the Path of Liberation

Samsara and its Meaning

Samsara is the confused experience of sentient beings. However, no matter how immersed in confusion and suffering any sentient being might be, the unmoving core of their being is at all times an innate undeluded cognitive ground. Sentient beings posses the capacity for cultivating and awakening this nature, but it generally requires a number of favourable circumstances for a sentient being to have the opportunity to awaken. The primary conditions for awakening include being reborn as a human, to meet the teaching of a fully awakened Buddha, and to have the personal faculties and resources to pursue such a path. For this reason the opportunity to practice the path should not be taken for granted. There is no certainty how long one will be alive, and there is no certainty where one’s karma will lead one to take rebirth again. While the innate ground of awakening is basic to all life, and the experience of samsara is a temporary fleeting state of confusion, the Buddhist teachings explain that it is extremely rare to have the opportunity to follow the path to awakening, and hence practising Buddhists give only little concern to the affairs of this life.

Nirvana and its Path

Nirvana is the extinguishing of the causes for samsaric existence. It is peace in the sense that the constant flux of samsara’s changing conditions has ceased. There are two kinds of nirvana. A lesser nirvana of individual peace may be attained when the poisons of the mind have been completely pacified and there is the cessation of suffering, but some notion of reality still remains to be purified. Nirvana can also refer to complete enlightenment. This is attained upon the ultimate elimination of confusion, and it manifests as continually benefiting sentient beings. Such enlightenment is beyond the duality of confusion and passive cessation. However, in Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattvas vow to abstain from entering nirvana until all sentient life has been liberated, renouncing dwelling in samsara's confusion - through their wisdom, as well as renouncing dwelling in nirvana's peace - through their compassion. The passing away of the historical Buddha is referred to as his parinirvana, or maha-parinirvana, his ‘passing on to great peace’. The Buddha attained complete nirvana on attainment of enlightenment, but his followers see the gesture of relinquishing his body as his last teaching on impermanence. Later generations of masters, even up until the present day, have displayed great signs of enlightenment when passing on.

Reincarnation is rebirth within samsara and continues as long as there is ignorance and mental formations, the first two of the twelve links of dependent origination. These links are independent of the physical aggregates and do not cease to function at the end of a lifetime. They are, like any aspect of the mind, intangible and not subject to the same conditions as the body. Although the aggregates that ignorance labels as truly existing undergo changes every instant, the deluded continuity of belief in a solid ‘I’ persists, day after day, life after life, and with it, the conditions for reincarnation in samsara. This continues until the twelve links, beginning with ignorance, are unraveled.