“And only the enlightened can recall their former lives;
for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are
but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows,
disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be
grasped, like the passage of that silver bird on Dhaulagiri.”
Peter Matthiessen The Snow Leopard
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE:
SAMSARA, CONSCIOUSNESS, RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
Samsara, a beautiful Sanskrit word meaning to “wander,” or “flow through,” describes an ongoing cycle of birth, death and rebirth in the world of matter and form. The idea of samsara is central to religions having their source in India, informing the lives of hundreds of millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. According to those religions samsara is an endless treadmill of births, suffering, aging, deaths, and rebirths. We ride different horses in different lives but it’s the same painful merry-go-round, and the only way to get off is via enlightenment, thus ending rebirth and realizing bliss. The religions born in India understand samsara in differing ways, but all perceive it as an unsatisfactory state in which we are trapped, unaware of our history as we pass through countless lifetimes across eons of time. According to samsara our lives are awash on what the Mundaka Upanishad describes as “the sea of samsara of birth and death,” with rebirth driven by ignorance and karma. A human birth, after perhaps millions of non-human lives, is seen as a precious opportunity to realize the goal of escape from samsara, that being only possible in human form.
This is the account of a journey as a Western outsider to explore the ideas of samsara, and the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism that hold it as central, accompanied by travel to cultures where samsara is accepted as reality by almost everyone. It also extends to religion and spirituality in general; what do, or could, those mean in a twenty first century world? Is there any evidence for spiritual realities outside of religious belief and what is the nature of consciousness and its relationship with ‘reality’? It is in later chapters something of a travelogue, describing destinations rich in beauty, history, architecture and culture, with a particular focus on religion and spirituality. Nepal, Bali, Cambodia and India all display a fascinating variety of human experiences in samsara and their own traditions of Hinduism and or Buddhism.
Recent deep grief from the loss of my partner Rob triggered this journey, making it sharply personal. Could the concept of samsara make any sense of the cruel suffering that he endured? I hoped to discover if ideas such as samsara were worth considering for someone like me: agnostic, sceptical, dissatisfied with both organized religion and lack of a spiritual life. There were so many questions to consider. What does death bring? Is consciousness totally extinguished and if not what happens after death? Could rebirth be a genuine possibility? Beyond the specifics of samsara, what is consciousness? Are we purely material beings or do we possess a non-material dimension such as a soul? Is there meaning and purpose to our lives, or a God? Is it possible for spirituality to exist separate from religion? Do spirituality and or religion of any kind have relevance in this new millenium? Could mysticism, parapsychology, science, or psychedelic substances, shed light on spiritual questions in general and samsara in particular?
The religious traditions born in India, Hinduism and Buddhism, had exerted a strong pull ever since studying Indian history and philosophy, so forty years down the track it was time to go deeper in to those and the cultures that embrace them. Religion is fascinating but its cultural baggage sometimes is not. The challenge was to sift insights about spirituality in general, and samsara in particular, from beliefs and practices that are religion specific. Learning from the cultures that embrace samsara required putting aside preconceptions and letting the path go wherever it led, that being occasionally challenging. As an Australian outsider, my own background and biases inevitably seeped in. Objectivity is not fully possible outside of the laboratory, and even that can be questioned, so no claim is made to it. For me religion both attracted and repelled as a cocktail of superstition, cultural tradition, dogmas and practices woven through with glimpses of deep truths about the mysteries of the universe and our lives.
The stings of samsara, impermanence, suffering, and death, had cut deep, Rob’s long illness and death making it impossible to escape them. As eleventh century Tibetan Buddhist poet, teacher, and mystic, Milarepa put it: “All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping up …and set about realizing the Truth …Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourself to meditation…” Buddhism and Hinduism have understood those truths for thousands of years and they remain truths no matter how much one resists them and whatever one’s beliefs - or lack of them.
The relentless unfolding of Rob’s dementia had been traumatic and arduous for those that loved him. Years of a happy life together in the country, surrounded by dogs and horses, was brutally unravelled by his illness, his diagnosis coming as a shock. Slowly and remorselessly he was dragged along a path that robbed him of balance, motor skills and speech, stripping from him use of his body and his mind and eventually reducing him to a vegetative state where he appeared to not recognize anyone. We fought back hard and doctors tried many drugs out of a desperate need to do something, anything, rather than with any real hope of success. His severe form of dementia was genetic, cast to him at the moment of conception and its progress inescapable, his body missing the essential enzyme that breaks down toxic proteins in the brain.
The loss of Rob knocked me sideways, and little guidance about death was offered by my secular Western culture increasingly silent about the meaning of life or death. I was growing older and suddenly alone, and with no faith to offer solace: just like many millions of others find themselves. Michael Pollan commented in How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics “Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an “experience of the numinous” to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.” That insight is valuable, but for those at my stage of life, from my kind of society, there is a sore lack of experience of the numinous, few ideas how to negotiate the second half of life, and little help to be found in organized religion.
Life brings unforeseen joys and sorrows to everyone, and forces and events beyond our control push their way in, be they an earthquake, illness or school shooting. Meaning is easy to find in the people we love, and what brings us joy in the brief time we inhabit this planet, it’s the painful things that are so hard to make sense of. Getting older, friends had begun to die and others sicken with terminal illnesses, impermanence and death being no longer over an invisible horizon but present and insistent. Rob’s illness and death forced me to confront the brutal truth of suffering and death, inevitable regardless of creed, culture and circumstances. Could the ideas of samsara and the religions that embrace it shed any light? My journey was a search to understand what samsara might mean and what, if anything, of value spirituality and religion could offer in a twenty first century world.
Birth and death are universal facts of life, but samsara goes far beyond those to include rebirth on the other side of death. That is its challenging aspect, dividing religious traditions from each other and believer from unbeliever. Atheists perceive rebirth as impossible, to agnostics it is unknowable, and to religions that don’t accept it, it is just plain wrong. A thousand questions and a thousand objections immediately sprang to mind in response to the idea that consciousness survives death to be reborn in another physical form. If consciousness is entirely snuffed out at death, then samsara and rebirth, along with heaven, hell, any kind of afterlife, and all religions, are all fantasies. The nature of consciousness is the key to the nature of ‘reality’ and the possible validity of concepts such as samsara and rebirth. It is consciousness expressed through the mind with which we experience ‘reality’ and until we understand what consciousness is we cannot hope to understand what ‘reality’ is, the role of consciousness in creating it, or whether consciousness can exist independent of the brain. If consciousness is not solely confined to matter and the brain then all things become possible, and the doors to spirituality, samsara and rebirth are open.
It is in the religions having their source in India that the idea of samsara developed, but other diverse traditions and thinkers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Gnosticism, the American Transcendentalists, Spiritism and Theosophy, also propose ongoing rebirth. Mystical Jewish teachings such as the Kabbalah and Hasidic Judaism, and strands of Sufism, refer to it too. In the contemporary West increasing numbers of people accept the possibility and ‘past life regressions’ are on offer. However the focus will be Hinduism and Buddhism and their associated cultures where samsara is central to their understanding of life and death.
So what do Hinduism and Buddhism have to say about samsara and rebirth? There are deep differences in understanding of those between Hinduism and Buddhism, but ending rebirth is the objective of them both. For Buddhists, a core teaching is annata or ‘no soul,’ so samsara as reincarnation in the Hindu sense does not exist. What is reborn is not a continuous unified self but a bundle of ‘karmic resonances’ propelled by karma and ignorance into rebirth in one of the ‘six realms of samsara’: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. For Buddhists samsara is a state of impermanence, suffering and death, so enlightenment and release from samsara in to nirvana, a blissful state beyond death and rebirth, is the aim. Buddhism recognizes no transcendent creator God, and no purpose or explanation for samsara, it just is, and the Buddha discouraged speculation as to the existence of a creator in his “Fourteen Silences”. Mahayana Buddhism proposes the existence of Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who choose to defer nirvana and be reborn in samsara for the purpose of ending suffering and helping all sentient beings.
For Hindus, the atman, roughly equivalent to the soul, is continually reborn through evolution in various life forms, including animals, until finally attaining a precious human birth. Like Buddhism, the aim is escaping rebirth in an unpredictable and painful world, and for the atman to reunite in bliss with its divine source in moksha. Hinduism suggests an evolutionary purpose to ongoing rebirth:
“Not a female, male, not neuter is the Self
The Self takes on a body with desires.
Attachments, and delusions, and is
Born again and again in new bodies
To work out the karma of former lives
The embodied self assumes many forms,
Heavy or light, according to its needs
For growth and the deeds of previous lives.
This evolution is divine law”.
Indian spiritual thinker Sri Aurobindo develops this in his teaching of evolutionary rebirth in Rebirth and Karma. He describes samsara as providing opportunity for the atman’s eventual realization of divinity after it has evolved through ever more complex forms of life, giving purpose and meaning to individual human experience. Rather than samsara being a futile cycle of suffering from which escape is the goal, Sri Aurobindo’s perspective is an optimistic and positive view of the purpose of the physical universe, life and rebirth, which is for consciousness to evolve to become ever more self-aware of its oneness with the divine source of the universe. There are some Hindu thinkers, such as Ramana Maharshi, who argue that belief in rebirth results from ignorance, as time, matter and samsara are actually without reality and reincarnation presumes they are real. However he does allow for the concepts in so far as they make samsara comprehensible.
Carl Jung, in the prologue to Memories, Dreams, Reflections, describes life and death as a process that resembles samsara: “Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away - an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures beneath the eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.” Beneath the transience of an individual life something enduring, the rhizome, persists to blossom again, and again, in endless new forms. That echoes the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita that compares each body reborn in samsara to a new suit of clothing for the soul: “Sri Krishna said: As a human being puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”.
There is much confusion and disagreement as to what, if anything, religion or spirituality might mean in the twenty-first century, humanity being at something of a crossroads between the fixed religious beliefs of previous centuries, and no beliefs at all. That is particularly the case in Western type societies such as my own. Rita Valencia puts the dilemma well: “Is faith the enemy of scientific process and rationalism? Is faith a means to freedom? Or it is simply a form of delusion that gives comfort to the ignorant and a means of control to religious orthodoxies? Is faith a “right brain” stepchild only to be kicked out of the house by its burlier rational sibling in the “left brain”? Are we to take the experiences of oneness and transcendence, gifts of some soon to be half-explained processes of neural synapses, as figments of an imagination driven by the desire to escape the mundane, the miserable, the banal? Are we to accept that these are holy visions of a world inhabited by invisible ones of manifold names, shared by men and women who have pioneered the way into these realms and handed down genuine–albeit extraordinary—accounts of their experiences? Or are we to go the ultimate distance and ourselves apply for residence in these realms?“
For many in the West religion is increasingly an irrelevance. Around thirty percent of Australians declared in the 2016 census that they have no religious belief (in 1991 it was close to thirteen percent) and probably many ‘believers’ are actually agnostic. Secularization has left a widespread spiritual vacuum with increasingly thin connections to a sacred dimension. Simultaneously fundamentalism of many varieties offers escape from uncertainty, and living and dying without meaning, and some find antidotes in dreams of Caliphates, or Biblical fundamentalism, or adopting Tibetan Buddhism. The present day focus of Western societies on the material, the rational, the secular, gives them many fine qualities but doesn’t nurture the spirit, or reveal any wider meaning to life or death, or offer a broad sustaining purpose beyond what humans create for themselves.
Spiritual poverty drives many to seek experiences through extremely varied means be those consciousness-altering substances, consulting a psychic or astrologer, or perhaps joining a spiritual community. Recently in my home city in Australia, a Benedictine monastery arrived, with around twenty-four young men devoting themselves to prayer and poverty. They spend long hours in silent contemplation and start their day at four am in their search for a spiritual life. Others have taken a path of retreat from the 21st century and joined groups who reject modern dress, technology and living to adopt a way of life from centuries ago.
It is surprising to discover there are families in Australia in remote communities using horses and carts and adopting the beliefs and lifestyle of the traditional Amish. In some cases they are people with no prior religious belief and see themselves as refugees from a world that fails to fulfil their needs. How their children will negotiate their lives, the faith of their parents, and withdrawal from wider society, is yet to be seen. These groups may be certain of their beliefs, and their courage to swim against the tide of their culture is remarkable, but that does not in itself make their beliefs true. History is full of people earnestly believing many things that would now mostly be rejected, be those the earth is flat, that women should not have social or political rights, or that God condemns people who are homosexual to an eternity in hell.
A thirst for spiritual experiences feeds the growth of spiritual tourism as a new global industry. Ashrams or gurus in India, or Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, provide opportunities for foreigners to tread a spiritual path or discover meditation, and healers and shamans are sought as a means to approach the numinous. Some search for experiences in indigenous communities of Latin America, Australia, Africa, and Asia, where connectedness to nature is a living tradition and transcendent dimensions are accessed, perhaps accompanied by a plant substance like ayahuasca, peyote or psilocybin mushrooms.
According to ancient Indian belief, the world is now deeply in the Kali Yuga, an age of spiritual darkness when finding liberation from the relentless cycle of samsara has become obscured by materialism and loss of belief. Some would argue that is positive, and humanity can now finally break the shackles of ignorance and superstition to build a world based on reason and secular ideals free of the fairy tales told by religion, in which case atheism is a move in the right direction. From that perspective the ‘death of God’ is a blessing to be celebrated as humans forge their world and their future with reference to nothing but themselves, creating their own meaning, and with the advent of genetic technologies, creating themselves.
Interestingly some spiritual leaders agree that atheism is of value: Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths comments “Atheism and agnosticism signify the rejection of certain images and concepts of God or of truth, which are historically conditioned and therefore inadequate. Atheism is a challenge to religion to purify its images and concepts and come nearer to the truth of the divine mystery.” Abdu’l-Baha of the Bahai faith states: “If religion becomes the cause of dislike, hatred, and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act… Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion”. Sri Aurobindo comments that “.. we shall observe with respect and wonder the work that Atheism has done for the Divine” because it clears away the accretions of dogma and superstition embedded in religion.
Religion has done much to render itself irrelevant, and bring about its own demise: one of the greatest contributors to atheism being religion itself. Religion sits on an uneasy border between ideology and transcendent truth, often having slipped into the darkest elements of human nature and history. It is not alone in reflecting the worst of human behaviour, but often has done exactly that, fuelling its rejection by increasing numbers. Religion has at times terrorized its way through history, beating followers in to obedience with threats of damnation or punishment, such as Yahweh of the Old Testament, a self-described jealous God ruling through violence and murder. In Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen the punishment for apostasy of Islam is death. In other countries, including Malaysia, the death penalty is not enforced but is prescribed by Sharia law. Simultaneous with the ‘sticks’ of rules and condemnation, religions have held out the ‘carrots’ of Heaven, Paradise, or escape from samsara.
Freud described all religion as a collective neurosis, and Mao Tse Tung famously remarked to the Dalai Lama “religion is poison,” which it so often has been: violence, superstition, conflict, hatred, oppression, sexism, homophobia, racism, prejudice, self-righteousness, jihads, caste divisions, burnings at the stake, inquisitions and wars, bear that out. The claims by religions to exclusive truth are particularly repellent and the smug belief that their particular creed is the only path up the mountain, says much about humanity that is not flattering. If there is a God that God must despair of the strange ways of Homo sapiens that has created so many religions with such contrasting beliefs, believing their religion alone is right providing exclusive occupancy of a heavenly afterlife.
So many wars have been fought between and within religions. Catholic and Protestant Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhists, have a long history of conflict. Each religion or sect quotes its own texts to ‘prove’ its correctness, leading to outcomes such as Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other, the bombing of Jewish synagogues, burning of Christian heretics at the stake, or fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. With such a dark track record perhaps the world would be a better place without religion. Could secular ideals form a surer foundation for human progress than anything religion can offer? And what of spirituality? Is it possible to hold on to that without the baggage of religion coming along for the ride?
Religions have often failed to create a better kinder world but secular dreams of heaven on earth, such as proclaimed by the French Revolution or The Communist Manifesto, have unfortunately been guilty of the same mistakes and failings. Utopian communist fantasies of a fair equal world where it would be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”  became twisted into brutal repressive regimes in Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, or the Cambodia of Pol Pot. Contemporary capitalism has enshrined materialism, consumption, individualism, profit, competition, and greed, as core values, making life for many a lonely and alienating challenge. The torturers of the Inquisition, the gulags of the Soviet Union, revolutionary political and social movements, or preachers announcing that if you do not believe in Jesus as saviour then eternal damnation is certain, are all products of the power of organized belief which humans seem particularly susceptible to. Homo sapiens are great creators of stories and willing to go to any lengths, including war and persecution, to ensure their story is the only one that prevails, and religion unfortunately often reflects that..
Outside of traditional societies with strong religious traditions, today’s world has become a spiritual supermarket, where every imaginable form is on offer, creating much confusion around both religion and spirituality. If the religion of choice doesn’t work out there are always endless other options available. For many people navigating the endless possibilities is so confusing they give up, overwhelmed by the ‘tyranny of choice’ they resign themselves to no spiritual life at all. The old narratives of religious belief are no longer convincing for increasing numbers who have no idea what they believe beyond the immediate concerns of their day to day life, loved ones, job, family, pets, sports, hobbies and friends. The vacuum is filled by materialism, consumerism, pornography, technology, alcohol, the tribalism of designer labels, the drowning in digital escapes such as computer games, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, TV, virtual reality, or surfing the internet. None of those offer refuge from death and suffering or are equipped to provide wider meaning, and their satisfactions are short lived as craving something better or different inevitably arises. In an age where ecstasy comes in tablet form at a ritual of music at dance parties or night-clubs, the thirst for transcendence is as strong as it has always been, but the means to satisfy it complex, obscure, difficult, and fraught with contradictions. For many it is not satisfied at all.
In the process of escape from the meshes of superstition and religion, how do humans not become stranded on the shore of spiritual emptiness, utterly lost in samsara with no clues to its meaning, not recognizing its existence? Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” (1867) expresses well the challenges to religious belief associated with the social and scientific changes of the nineteenth century and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species:
“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world. “
That “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” has loudened as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have unfolded, with many abandoning spirituality altogether as a solution to the failures and flaws of religion, thereby amputating wider meaning from human experience and leaving many with nothing with which to approach life or death. A gigantic hole has opened in the lives of many in prosperous post-industrial Western societies, that consumption and technology cannot fill creating new forms of suffering. As poverty, starvation and disease recede the tides of loneliness, meaninglessness and materialism have swept in. Carl Jung commented in Memories, Dreams, Reflections “when I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life”.
Romantic relationships are seen by many as a solution and become loaded with tremendous weight of expectations for happiness and fulfilment. Online dating services promise a new relationship will bring connection, fill the hole of loneliness and give meaning, but instead they often bring a revolving door of transient and empty encounters generating deeper loneliness, and eroding rather than creating meaning. People advertise themselves, and are shopped for, on websites such as Tinder, where there is always a prettier or more handsome version available with a swipe of the screen. For those seeking no strings, or paid for sex, then shopping online offers plenty of that too, with pornography making up the greatest volume of all internet searches. People being reduced to consumer products to be purchased digs a hole of unhappiness for both the purchaser, and the purchased, the latter in many contexts selling themselves because of lack of other choices, gritty realities of economic survival, or compulsion, having been trafficked in to the sex trade as those from poor countries often are. A flourishing new industry is the provision of advanced AI sex dolls that speak and respond with endearments or compliments. Sex with a robot might bring temporary pleasure but can never bring connection with another person, and is likely to erode the possibility of intimate human relationships, generating yet more dissatisfaction.
The intense individualism and materialism of post-industrial Western societies has left increasing numbers marooned in a culture of consumption and competition with serious consequences for personal happiness. According to Time Magazine in August 2017, thirteen percent of Americans take anti-depressant drugs and that is rising. The commonest cause of death for young men in Australia between 17-24 is suicide. The World Health Organization recently published a report predicting that by the year 2030 depression will be responsible for the greatest burden of illness on the planet, and suicide the most frequent cause of death. Something is clearly wrong that increasing wealth and technological sophistication are accompanied by increasing misery. Technology has reduced for many millions the pain of medically treatable illness and early death, but new forms of suffering, such as alienation, loneliness, depression and lack of meaning, have arisen in a cultures dominated by individualism, competition, consumption and materialism. The faces of suffering in samsara are constantly shifting but suffering persists whatever form it takes.
Meaning and purpose are deep human needs and throughout history religions have provided that. They have been a source of the most profound and enriching experiences simultaneous with the bitterest conflicts: generating love, compassion, art, music, architecture, and transcendent experiences, along with war, hatred, prejudice, superstition and oppression. In the process of liberation from religion and its baggage have we perhaps also discarded something valuable? GK Chesterton reputedly commented: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything” so turn to places like magazine horoscopes. Meaning is sought in social movements such as environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, gay pride, or innumerable social justice organizations, and they have brought positive changes for millions. None of them, however, are equipped to respond to the reality of death, nurture spiritual needs, or provide a broad vision for what being human means. The perennial questions about living and dying remain whatever time or place humans live.
Can spiritual nourishment be found whilst not falling back into the baggage of religion created by culture and history? If genuine spiritual truths exist they transcend human religious constructs and are true because they are the way things really are. How to distinguish between them is the tricky part. Mystical experiences across the religious spectrum, including for people with no religious beliefs, point to an underlying all encompassing source of truth and love known by direct experience, thus rendering dogmas and divisions of creed irrelevant. Psychedelic substances also have the capacity to unlock altered states of perception and those have become a quest for self-described psychonauts, who take extraordinary, occasionally terrifying, journeys to the frontiers of the mind where many claim to have discovered spiritual insights outside of the framework of any religion. Those such as Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy and The Doors Of Perception, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Aurobindo, and numerous others, have opened up the possibility of universal truths not attached to organized religion, offering a way forward between religion and no spirituality at all.
For those like me who have never been blessed with a mystical experience, don’t tread the path of the psychonaut, and have no framework of spiritual belief, we live without clear access to spiritual dimensions and have few clues as to what life or death might mean, the loss of Rob exposing that in stark relief in my own life. As Prem Rawat puts it many of us have no idea where we have come from, or where we are going when our time is done. He describes our brief lives as a “holiday from dirt,” in to which we arrive as a collection of atoms born in the dust of stars, those atoms eventually returning to dirt after our death. Are lives really are “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. For most of the time we fix our eyes firmly on the solid realities of every day, its struggles and its gifts, and if we contemplate spirituality we do so hesitantly and privately because it’s mostly is in the too hard basket.
So what if any value and insights can the concept of samsara give at this time in history? Samsara teaches we play out our lives in ever-changing forms, this life being just the tip of the iceberg of what we are. If that is accurate how little we really know about each other and ourselves. Sometimes when catching trains or flights I am struck by the endless to and fro of strangers flowing past each other’s gaze, living their lives mostly without awareness that according to the concept of samsara they are bound on the wheel of rebirth in countless roles and circumstances through vast eons of time. It is only enlightened beings such as the Buddha who were said to have achieved complete realization of their true nature and awareness of their previous lives, the historical Buddha’s past human and animal births being described in the Jataka Tales from early Buddhism. The rest of us are unaware of how our own and others’ history stretches back through repeated lives on the wheel of samsara. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that because our existence in samsara is without beginning, Lam Rim meditations recognizing all sentient beings have been at some time our mother, help to develop compassion and love for all beings.
What we can know about people even in relation to even just one lifetime is extremely limited and often wrong. During years as a teacher working with seventeen year olds students tentatively shared surprising stories with remarkable and moving honesty. A beautiful young woman with the world seemingly at her feet, tortured by self-loathing shows me an arm laced with silvery self-harm scars, a young man is consumed by hatred for an abusive father, another sad-faced young man is caring for an alcoholic poker machine addicted mother, and a grandmother with cancer, but is still trying to complete his schoolwork on time. Infinite possibilities and contrasts of circumstances, both light and dark, are presented by the merry go round of samsara, through which we travel mostly blind to the forces that are believed to drive us.
The innumerable lives and roles the concept of samsara claims everyone has played are sealed behind an utterly locked door, and we enter this world with our memory wiped clean of what precedes birth. Plato refers to drinking of the waters of forgetfulness, from the river of Lethe, before we return in to a new life in a new body. According to Hinduism and Buddhism heavy layers of karma accumulated through endless lifetimes force us back in to rebirth, but we are oblivious to those and are trapped on samsara’s ever turning wheel until we take the steep path to liberation. Because samsara is viewed as inevitably woven through with suffering and death it is not in the least surprising that ending rebirth is the aim of both religions.
Samsara and suffering are deeply entwined because it is the nature of humans to be plagued with dissatisfaction and that is particularly acute in this age of consumption. Matt Haig comments on this in Notes On a Nervous Planet “The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness.” Even what gives us happiness is ultimately a source of suffering as it is always impermanent, no matter how hard we grasp to hold on to it, or seek to find more of it. No-one escapes this. Even for those whose lives have been more than usually easy, it is not possible for anyone to live a life with no suffering, and absolutely no one lives a life not ending in death.
The human predicament is a poignant one. We find ourselves cast into existence, without explanation, onto a small blue sphere of rock spinning around a gaseous star that gives life, light and warmth, unsure if the earth is the only location for intelligent life in a vast unknown universe. In Carl Sagan’s words “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena….a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Are we actors in an incomprehensible cosmic game, where we are unsure if, or why, or what, we are playing, and who designed it for what purpose? And little planet earth is where we live our lives, providing, according to Indian religions, the setting for the “sea of samsara” in which we swim, or float, or perhaps struggle and feel like we will drown, lifetime after lifetime.
Samsara proposes ongoing rebirth as its central feature in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The continuation of existence after death in any form is a startling idea whether that eternity is heaven, hell or rebirth. Death as absolute annihilation is an equally confronting prospect. Humans are sandwiched between these possibilities and often take refuge from the enormity of that in the minutae of daily life, a dimly remembered poem describing us as being “…dragged by separate fates, clutching at the straws of livelihood to fend off the infinite.” Much of the time that is what we do, clutching at spouses, lovers, friends, family, jobs, hobbies, possessions, alcohol, drugs, whatever and whoever distracts us, or offers comfort or meaning. But no matter what our personal situation may be, and how successful or happy our lives are, impermanence and death are the only absolute certainties. There are periods in many lives when it seems possible to ignore this, shielded by immersion in the business of living, loving, building families, careers, homes, and friendships. Humans sometimes drop anchor in the “sea of samsara,” finding temporary haven from its storms and waves of change, but that always passes and according to the concept of samsara there is no choice but to keep travelling lifetime after lifetime.
Is the existence of our universe, and humans as its observers, pregnant with meaning and purpose, as religions have always claimed, or is there no meaning, or explanation, or purpose, to any of it? There is no guidebook to enlighten why Homo sapien is here, and no instruction manual. Are humans just particularly clever animals, a much-improved hominid version of our primate ancestors, who accidentally evolved by natural selection from random mutations in a brutal competition of survival of the fittest, with no creator and no purpose apart from that we create for ourselves? Australian comedian and song-writer Tim Minchin sings in “Confessions”, that “we’re just fucking monkeys with shoes”? Are we “apes on the way up, or angels on the way down?” Or did Jim Carrey get it right when he described us as atoms playing avatars?
The truth is humans have no idea what we are, or why we are here, no matter how hard religions try to convince otherwise. According to the view of scientific rationalism there is no ‘why’, as humanity is nothing but the random result of blind evolution, without inherent meaning in an utterly indifferent universe that accidentally came in to being and gave birth to life, and when we die we will find nothing but annihilation. Ideas such as samsara and rebirth assume something very different: that we are here in samsara, living the life we are because karma drove us here, and rebirth in samsara will continue until such time as karma is purified and enlightenment realized. Viewed through the lens of samsara and rebirth our lives, our deaths, and every choice we make, are deeply meaningful, and death is not the end.
And where do other animals apart from humans fit in? Are they also traveling around the cycle of samsara? Hinduism perceives the soul, or atman, as reincarnating endlessly in either human or non-human form according to karma and spiritual evolution. Buddhism describes six realms of existence: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Whatever the place of non-human life in samsara, it is only humans that are conscious of mortality and struggle against the death sentence inevitable from the moment of birth. Homo sapiens is the only animal capable of self awareness, self-examination and conscience, building complex cultures and personal bonds and creating art, music, literature, and architecture, that outlive the individuals that create them, bringing enormous capacity for suffering, but also offering the precious opportunity for liberation from samsara.
This life, this reality, and our having awareness of those is astonishing. Everyone and everything from a tree to mosquito, is a unique temporary collection of atoms existing for a brief moment in the vastness of infinite time and space, an extraordinary everyday miracle. As Alan Watts puts it life is: “… a brief light that flashes but once in all the eons of time — a rare, complicated, and all-too-delicate organism on the fringe of biological evolution, where the wave of life bursts into individual, sparkling, and multi-coloured drops that gleam for a moment... only to vanish forever.“ A person, a butterfly, a flower, a mountain, the venom of a snake or a cancer cell, are all collections of atoms born at the birth of the universe, recycled in myriad ever-changing forms that inevitably pass. When an organism dies its atoms might become part of an ocean, the soil, the air, a plant, or a worm. In Hamlet Polonius explains how “A man can fish with the worm that ate a king and then eat the fish that fed of that worm” to which Hamlet responds “Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”
What has uniquely preoccupied humans and their religions throughout history is death. Other animals undoubtedly also fear death, but they do not devote their lives to reflecting on it. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes humans as the “haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.” Life is a real-life version of snakes and ladders. Ladders of success, joy, meaning, lift us up, as do snakes of disappointment, failure and loss take us down, but inevitably the big snake of death at the bottom of the board will take everyone out of the game to destination unknown.
Much of human life is spent in denial and avoidance of that inevitable death, the word is vaguely taboo. Homo sapiens preoccupies itself with what Ernest Becker describes as “immortality projects,” amassing great wealth, composing great music, painting great art, building great buildings or great careers, creating whatever will outlast individuals and defy time and death. As Mark Manson points out in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, refusal to face death and suffering means humans are always living in a state of denial and distraction. Fear of death drives all religions and this expresses itself in yearning for an afterlife, where the happiness so difficult to find, and impossible to hold on to in the body, is found after death.
Another form of denial, particularly in the West, is glib ‘positive thinking’, which evades facing our own suffering or that of others. Industries of life coaches, self-help books and gurus of positive thinking, are built around helping people wear happy smiles of positivity, that shine from Facebook pages displaying wonderful lives, successful jobs, and fabulous holidays. Except of course much of it is fake, and not real life, but projections of the happiness we all hope for, and believe we see others as having. Facebook involves “constantly presenting ourselves, and packaging ourselves, like potatoes pretending to be crisps. To be constantly seeing everyone else looking their best, doing fun things that we are not doing.” Karen Armstrong in Buddha points out this “allows us to bury our heads in the sand, deny the ubiquity of pain in ourselves and others, and to immure ourselves in a state of deliberate heartlessness to ensure our emotional survival. The Buddha would have had little time for this. In his view, the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, to realize how fully if permeates our whole experience, and feel the pain of all other beings, even those whom we do not find congenial.”
Because the concept of samsara embraces the reality of suffering and death perhaps it can offer ways to understand them that are the opposite of denial or immersion in empty or false distractions. In the religious traditions that hold samsara as central, recognizing the inevitability of death is perceived as a step towards enlightenment, both Buddhism and Hinduism offering spiritual practices that focus on imagining and facing one’s own death. Tibetan Buddhism specifically addresses what happens after death, and the period prior to rebirth, the bardo, in the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book Of The Dead.
Death and what it brings is deeply perplexing being “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns”. Religions claim to know what follows death but their theories are unprovable. Nor do the accounts of near-death experiences, or reporting of memories from past lives, constitute proof. It is argued that past life, afterlife, or near death experiences, are neurological phenomenon giving rise to an illusory experience. There are however tantalizing possibilities suggested by those, and many millions believe that something of us survives death. Ian Stevenson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and his painstaking research Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, undertook serious scientific investigation into the possibility of rebirth, his work having been continued by Professor Jim Tucker in Life Before Life. Perhaps continuing scientific exploration might eventually demonstrate that consciousness survives death and can exist independently of the brain, thus shedding light on the nature of reality and providing evidence that rebirth and samsara are possible.
It is a strange idea that humans believe they must wait until the death of their living body before perfect eternal bliss can be found, and suffering and death overcome by enlightenment, nirvana, moksha, heaven, paradise, or rejoining spirit ancestors. The fundamental premise of all the world’s major religions is that the best life will be after death in whatever form of afterlife they propose. Hopefully, if we have behaved ourselves and followed the rules of our religion, that will be heaven, moksha, nirvana or paradise, not some form of hell. It is extraordinary that a religion such as Christianity vigorously asserted that the God of ‘love’ would burn ‘his’ ‘children’ in eternal hell for ‘mortal sin’ disobediences such as having sex with someone they were not married to. If human parents behaved like God has so often threatened ‘his’ human ‘children’ they would be arrested for child abuse. One positive consequence of the collapse of the power of organized religion is bizarre twisting of spirituality, that turns the creator of the universe in to a petty vindictive tyrant, is seldom heard these days. Priests and ministers thundering from their pulpits about God’s ‘righteous judgement’ and the torments of hell has mostly gone out of fashion, at least from Christianity. Thank God for that.
So where does all this leave religion? Are there kernels of truth buried deep at its heart, spiritual pearls lying at the bottom of a deep, often impenetrable, ocean? Or are all spiritual impulses and religions just fantasies humans invent, rooted in fear and the need to explain or deny death and suffering, a “whistling in the dark of an empty universe, hoping to keep up our spirits”?  In the early twenty first century humans are increasingly facing their lives and inevitable death without comfort from any form of religion, living as best they can in a world barren of spiritual or transcendent dimensions, without meaning other than what they can create for themselves. Rob’s death brought those realities and questions in to acute focus: suffering and death will not go away and our existence on this small fragile planet remains as mysterious as it has always been. Those are matters with which spirituality deals, so perhaps spirituality might still have meaning in the world of today, even if it is hard to separate the proverbial sheep of what is worth keeping from the goats of that which is best discarded. At the very least the ideas of samsara and rebirth seem worth investigating.
Rob’s memorial gathering celebrated the life of a much loved man. He was atheist, or at least strongly agnostic, so it was also secular. A kind Christian chaplain co-ordinated the gathering but she didn’t say much. Love is the great blessing life offers in the midst of the sorrows of impermanence and death, and the great healer of the awful grief those bring, so we tried to focus on that. Religions frequently describe God as love, but it is not easy to reconcile a God of love with the suffering life deals out to good people, as it did to Rob. Buddhism dispenses with God altogether, being non-theistic, but death and suffering remain equally puzzling and painful.
Without any framework of faith it was hard to know how to farewell Rob, but to make no reference of any kind to a spiritual dimension felt like something vital was missing, so reading from the Upanishads, ancient Indian sacred texts composed between approximately 800 to 500 BCE, was an attempt to remedy that. We had read them together and been much moved despite our lack of religious belief. They are surprisingly clear of doctrinal or ritual clutter and make it clear that clinging to the outward forms of religion does not provide a solution to being awash in the “sea of samsara”. In the words of the Mundaka Upanishad:
“… rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing
The sea of samsara of birth and death.
Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross
The sea of samsara on these poor rafts.”
My grown up children looked at me earnestly while I read out from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad at Rob’s memorial gathering, their love a beacon of comfort for deep grief not just for his passing but for the way death came to him.
“The world is the wheel of God, turning round
And round with all living creatures upon its rim
The world is the river of God
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
On this ever-revolving wheel of being
The individual self goes round and round
Through life after life, believing itself
To be a separate creature, until
It sees its identity with the Lord of Love.
And attains immortality in the indivisible whole.”
There is much wisdom in those words but frequent reference in religious texts to God as male, the ‘Lord of Love’, or ‘God the father’ in Christianity, excludes half of humanity. Surely God, if there is such a being, as the formless creator of the universe and source of consciousness, is she as much as a he, and actually neither, although the pronoun ‘it’ hardly seems fitting. The soul has no gender and surely neither does God, but language lacks an easy gender neutral way of expressing the sacred, and that combined with patriarchal social traditions often mirrored by religion. I tried not to let the sexist language irk me, the ideas were deep and the words beautiful, but if I must use a pronoun for God it will be he or she and hope that language comes up with something respectful that does not imprison the source of the whole universe in to the terms of a sexed flesh and blood body.
Much of the travels that were to come over the following year retraced those taken with Rob, or from an earlier part of his life. As his daughter discussed his cremation at the funeral home she quietly asked if some of his ashes could be scattered in Nepal, where I intended to travel first. It was a fitting idea. He loved the country taking many beautiful photographs there when young, beautiful and free, no shadows then of what was to come in a new century in Australia, a long way from his English youth. As 11th century Buddhist mystic, Milarepa, wrote “Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning? Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death, until it arrives like thunder?” Milarepa overcame an early life of loss and bitter family divisions, practicing black magic and committing dark deeds in his youth. After years of remorse, purification and following of the Buddhist dharma, he eventually achieved enlightenment, becoming a great Tibetan spiritual teacher. The office worker at the funeral home passed over Rob’s ashes neatly labelled in plastic boxes in an attractively decorated paper bag. I mumbled “dust to dust ashes to ashes” while carrying the bag out the door. She replied “yes, that’s right”, and how much it scared her. We stood outside the building in which the trade of death took place hidden deep inside, completely obscured by attractive office spaces and public gathering places designed to make death neat, organized, and as unthreatening as possible. The walls were adorned with paintings of idyllic rural scenes. Soft lighting, computers humming and artificial flowers created an air of efficient politeness, rendering what happens there strangely surreal. The kind office worker enquired why a small separate container of ashes was required. When I explained they were going to Nepal she produced an official letter overcoming prohibitions on carrying human remains, a shocking reminder of the reality that the ashes in a neat little box somehow drew a veil over. We talked for a while and she asked if sky burials, where scavenger birds consume the flesh and ground up bones of a corpse, are practiced in Nepal. I confirmed yes, that continues in Himalayan areas bordering Tibet.
Despite her job working in a funeral home she was as puzzled by mortality as anyone else. Australia’s highly secular culture has little to say about death which is hidden and sanitized, impermanence and aging denied, the cult of youth, consumption, and a materialist explanations for the world, all reigning supreme. Australia is ordered and prosperous, in many respects ‘the lucky country’ as sometimes described. Dogs are confined in their back yards away from streets patrolled by council funded officers, no sacred cows wander the streets, almost no garbage is strewn in the gutters, the sight of a begging child, or a mange ridden, starving, street dog, covered in weeping sores, unthinkable. Perhaps it is partly the relative order and prosperity of secular Western societies that obscures frames of reference outside of material reality thus rendering those societies increasingly silent in the face of death.
European colonialism, with its values of conquest, materialism, private property, competition, individualism, and Christianity, shattered apart the indigenous cultures it arrived in and gave birth to societies like mine, rich in material blessings but sterile in dimensions of the spirit. Australia rose like a phoenix from the squalor and misery of industrial Britain, where those convicted of crimes mostly driven by poverty, or political offenses, were shipped off to an isolated continent “discovered” by Europeans. British colonization was a tale of dispossession and tragedy for Australia’s indigenous people who for more than 50,000 years were its sole possessors. Aboriginal spirituality is a profound and ancient tradition premised on non-duality, not separating the natural world from the human world, the sacred from the secular, the body from the spirit, and non aboriginal Australians such as me have much to learn from it.
My strong desire to be somewhere else following Rob’s death was not because somewhere else was better but because it was different. Asia, with its cocktail of the confronting, inspiring, and fascinating, along with a rich spirituality, displays the raw realities of life and death, not hidden, not sanitized, not denied. It increasingly defies easy conclusions and is changing fast: the subways or huge office towers of Bangkok, or the super clean, ordered sterility of Singapore, or high tech communities of Bangalore, being different worlds from the other Asia, and not where I sought to be. Nepal, then Bali, Cambodia and India, each in turn revealed that other Asia where the numinous, suffering and death are present and obvious rather than veiled as they tend to be in the comfortable blandness of modern Australia.
I began my journeys over the following year perched on the agnostic fence, unable to choose between an empty accidental universe without purpose or meaning on one side, and competing religions all claiming to be right, all deeply contaminated by cultural baggage and all presuming the existence of dimensions than cannot be explained in rational and material terms, on the other side. It felt like an impossible choice but it was a choice that Rob’s death could no longer allow me to wash my hands of. His suffering and death could not be theorized from a distance, they were lived realities and so must understanding of them become. That became the catalyst to immerse myself in cultures where it is taken for granted that the material world is a stage for our lives in the cycle of samsara, and death deeply meaningful, so hence the choice of Nepal, Bali, Cambodia and India. Those would bring about many more questions than answers, deepening awareness what incredible mysteries this world, life, and our conscious awareness are, and confirm that despite their endless variety all people are united in experiencing impermanence, suffering and death.
Taking the journey alone was a daunting prospect so I was extremely fortunate that a good friend Marck, originally from Brazil, was keen to accompany me. He was already in Asia and agreed we would meet in Kathmandu later in the year. Apart from enjoying an adventure he was extremely knowledgeable about spiritual matters and a seeker, making him a perfect person to undertake the trip to Nepal, and later Bali, Cambodia and India, with. Before setting off I searched if there was evidence for spiritual dimensions, samsara and rebirth, outside of religion from the perspectives of science, particularly quantum physics, parapsychology and the experiences offered by psychedelic substances or mysticism. What they can reveal about consciousness is critical to establishing the true nature of reality and to evaluating whether ideas such as samsara and rebirth accurately describe it. That evidence is the subject of the next chapter.
 Milarepa quoted in WY Evans-Wentz Tibet’s Great Yogi: Milarepa, Oxford University Press, 1951
 Michael Pollan How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Penguin Books, 2019
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 Carl Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Prologue, Fontana Press, 1995
 The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2 verse 22
 “A Leap of Faith” August 16, 2009, by Rita Valencia www.TimesQuotidian.com
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 Sri Aurobindo The Life Divine, Lotus Press 1990, first published 1939, page 14
 “The countries where apostasy is punished by death” Posted Sunday 7 May 2017 13: by Louis Doré news, Indy100.com
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 Prem Rawat talk in Barcelona
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