Detailed Analysis of the Mechanism for Samsara


By nature, everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy. No one wants to suffer. That nature is what drives an infant to suck milk; it drives us to eat, to find shelter, etc. – it is a natural drive. In order to rid ourselves of unhappiness and suffering that none of us want, however, we need to recognize what are true sufferings, what are their true cause, what their true stoppings would be, and what are the true pathway minds that lead to the attainment of those true stoppings. In other words, we need to understand correctly the four noble truths.

True Sufferings

True sufferings can be understood in terms of the three scopes of motivation outlined in the lam-rim graded stages of the path to enlightenment:

Initial Scope

With an initial scope, we aim to attain a better rebirth because of fear of experiencing the worse rebirth states, we focus on avoiding the suffering of unhappiness (the suffering of suffering), especially of the worse rebirth states.

Intermediate Scope 

With an intermediate scope, we aim to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. Motivated by a determination to be free (renunciation of all suffering and its causes), we focus on ridding ourselves completely of not only the suffering of unhappiness, but also the suffering of change (ordinary happiness that doesn’t last, never satisfies, changes into unhappiness, etc.) and the all-pervasive suffering (khyab-par ‘du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal) of uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates (samsara) that are the basis for experiencing the sufferings of unhappiness and change.

Animals aim to eliminate the suffering of unhappiness. Many religions aim to eliminate the suffering of ordinary happiness by attaining the bliss of heaven or paradise. Many non-Buddhist Indian systems aim to eliminate uncontrollably recurring rebirth. But even if they assert ignorance as the cause of such rebirth and that correct understanding will bring liberation, they do not attain a true stopping of rebirth. This is because they do not correctly identify the true cause of this all-pervasive suffering, nor do they correctly identify the true pathway of understanding that will eliminate that cause. Because of that, they do not attain a true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.  

Advanced Scope

With an advanced scope aim, we focus on ridding ourselves of the inability to fully help all limited beings rid themselves of their experience of the three types of suffering. Our love, compassion and bodhichitta aim (to attain enlightenment in order to be best able to help everyone attain liberation and enlightenment) motivate us to rid ourselves of this inability. The suffering of this inability arises because our limited minds make everything appear to have self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa), independently of each other. Because of that, we do not fully know behavioral cause and effect and therefore do not know how best to help all beings.

True Causes of Suffering

The true cause or true origin of suffering is unawareness (ma-rig-pa) or ignorance, namely unawareness of two facts: behavioral cause and effect and how we and others exist.  Either we simply do not know these facts or we know them in an inverted manner, contrary to fact.

The true cause of the suffering of unhappiness is unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. On the basis of this unawareness, we develop disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs, afflictive emotions), such as longing desire, anger, and naivety (gti-mug). These disturbing emotions bring on the type of compulsiveness of karma that drives us to act, speak or think in destructive ways. The karmic aftermath of destructive behavior ripens into our experiences of unhappiness.

The true cause of the suffering of change, in other words the true cause of ordinary happiness, is unawareness of how we and others exist and not being under the influence of disturbing emotions. This unawareness underlies the suffering of unhappiness as well. Unawareness of how we and others exist brings on and is accompanied by grasping for an impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-‘dzin). This grasping leads to and is often accompanied by disturbing attitudes (nyon-mongs lta-ba-can) concerning ourselves. These disturbing attitudes lead to the compulsiveness of karma that drives either destructive behavior (when also accompanied by unawareness of behavioral cause and effect and by disturbing emotions) or constructive behavior (when not accompanied by either of these two.)  

A common example of such compulsive constructive behavior is being a perfectionist, with the attitude of “I must be perfect, I must be ‘good.’” Because of such a syndrome, we neurotically are always cleaning our house, washing our hands, correcting the paper we’re writing for school, being stiff in our good behavior because of being afraid of not being good enough and making a mistake, etc. Although we might experience temporary ordinary happiness at having washed our hands, for instance, that happiness quickly turns to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and we compulsively have to wash them again.

This unawareness of how we and others exist is also the true cause of the all-pervasive suffering of uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates. “Tainted” (zag-bcas) means they derive from unawareness of how we and others exist. Before attaining liberation, such aggregates are also known as tainted, obtaining aggregates (zag-bcas nyer-len-gyi phung-po) – “obtaining” (nyer-len) means that they contain within them the unawareness that will perpetuate and bring on or obtain for us the aggregates of further uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This all-pervasive suffering is what we need to rid ourselves of in order ultimately to be rid of the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of change. That is because it is on the basis of tainted aggregates that we experience these two types of suffering.

True Stopping (True Cessation)

The true stopping of rebirth is such that it never occurs again. Thus, the true stopping of the twelve links on the mental continuum means their removal forever and we understand all the implications of what this means. Firstly, we understand that there is a possibility to eliminate forever uncontrollably recurring rebirth if we remove its true causes. It’s not that there is no stopping of it; it is not that we just suppress the causes (disturbing emotions) by going into deep meditative absorptions or trances; but rather we understand that true stopping means ridding ourselves, completely and forever, of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are the causes of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We also realize that just to attain a state of formless absorption in which no suffering of unhappiness or of ordinary happiness occur is not a true stopping since we still have all-pervasive suffering and rebirth. Further, we understand that because of the basic purity of the mind, the causes of suffering are adventitious, fleeting taints and can be removed forever, such that they never recur.

To attain a true stopping of true suffering (namely, a true stopping of the all-pervasive suffering of more tainted aggregates), we need to attain a true stopping of the links that are their true causes. In other words, we need to stop forever any more activated throwing karma (link ten, further existence). To stop that, we need to stop what activates them (the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are link eight: thirsting and link nine: an obtainer). Also we need to stop link two (affecting impulses, the compulsion that affects what we do) which is brought on by disturbing emotions and attitudes. To get rid of these three links, we need to attain a true stopping of link one (unawareness of how we and others exist). We gain this by non-conceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible way of existing of persons.

True Pathway Minds

True pathway minds refer to non-conceptual cognitions of the four noble truths. These non-conceptual cognitions explicitly apprehend the four aspects of each noble truth as what they are, and implicitly apprehend each not to be the four distorted ways of understanding them. Moreover, these non-conceptual cognitions need to be with a mind that has a joined pair of shamatha (zhi-gnas, a stilled and settled state of mind) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind), focused on the voidness of oneself experiencing the four noble truths:

  • In terms of true suffering (namely the uncontrollably recurring aggregates), the voidness of oneself as either identical with or totally separate from them as their inhabitant, possessor and controller
  • In terms of true origins of suffering, the voidness of oneself experiencing unawareness, disturbing emotions and attitudes, and the compulsiveness of karma
  • In terms of true stoppings, the voidness of oneself experiencing them
  • In terms of true pathway minds, also the voidness of oneself experiencing them.

Such non-conceptual cognitions with joined shamatha and vipahsyana also need to have the force of either unlabored determination to be free (rtsol-med nges-‘byung; unlabored renunciation) or both unlabored determination to be free and an unlabored bodhichitta aim (rtsol-med byang-sems). “Unlabored” (rtsol-med) means that these minds are generated without need to rely on a line of reasoning or on building up to them in stages. 

Further, our non-conceptual cognitions with joined shamatha and vipashyana and unlabored determination to be free, when also with unlabored bodhichitta, further needs the force behind it of one zillion eons of building up positive force (merit) in order to rid us of doctrinally-based unawareness and a second zillion eons of positive force to rid us of automatically-based unawareness and thus attain liberation. This positive force is built up through constructive behavior motivated by bodhichitta and/or renunciation. 

  • Because renunciation is the strong determination to be rid of our own suffering, with the aim of attaining liberation, the positive force built up from acting, speaking and thinking on the basis of renunciation functions to rid us of suffering and its causes. 
  • Because great compassion is the determination to help all beings be rid of their suffering, and bodhichitta based on it, aims to attain enlightenment, the positive force built up from acting, speaking and thinking on the basis of great compassion and bodhichitta rids us of suffering in an even more powerful way.

If, with the force of such a mind, we attain non-conceptual cognition of this voidness of ourselves, then because we have rid ourselves of the unawareness of how we exist (link one)

  • there is no more link two (affecting impulses of karma) and thus no more accumulation of new karmic potentials or tendencies,
  • no more links eight (thirsting) and nine (obtainers) that would activate karmic potentials tendencies that are not yet ripened,
  • and so no more throwing karma (link ten) that could give their result the suffering of unhappiness, the suffering of change (ordinary happiness), or the all-pervasive suffering of further aggregates.

So, we understand that there is a pathway leading to liberation; we don’t think there is no way to be freed. We realize that if we understand there is no such thing as an impossible soul of a person, then we understand that we don’t exist as an impossible soul. Then although we want to be happy and do not want to suffer, nevertheless we realize that the one who wishes that is merely the conventional “me.” It is not this impossible “me” that needs to be made secure through disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes and compulsive karmic behavior, when it is impossible for something that doesn’t exist to be made secure. 

It is when we believe that we exist as an impossible “me” that we thirst for that impossible “me” not to be parted from happiness and to be parted from suffering, etc. We have longing desire for sensory objects that we think will make that impossible “me” happy and secure. We cast the net of that impossible “me” on to ourselves and then imagine that we are either one with the aggregates (we consider our body, for instance, as our true identity), or totally separate from the aggregates, which we use as our habitat, possession and objects to control. We think that this impossible “me” can be liberated by various means, and so on. 

When we understand that there is no such thing as this impossible “me” – it doesn’t refer to or correspond to anything real, then there is nothing backing the disturbing emotions. By means of that realization, the whole chain of twelve links falls apart. It cannot recur, because once we cognize non-conceptually, with a mind that has joined shamatha and vipashyana, unlabored bodhichitta and/or unlabored renunciation, and a zillion eons of positive force, that there is no such thing, then that is a stable realization (rtogs-pa). We are absolutely convinced, and not just on the basis of logic and inference. We attain a true stopping of doctrinally-based unawareness. 

The more frequently we have that non-conceptual cognition and the more we build up the second zillion eons of positive force, the more we weaken the strength of our belief that what automatically arises and appears to be and feels like an impossible “me” corresponds to reality. Moreover, this correct understanding of how we exist is more stable and stronger than the unawareness and confusion. It can be verified by valid means of cognition. 

We attain liberation when we have attained a true stopping of automatically-arising unawareness as well. We attain this when, without any break in continuity, we have alternatingly (1) non-conceptual total absorption on voidness (the total absence of that impossible mode of existence, there is no such thing), during which we explicitly apprehend voidness, and (2) non-conceptual subsequent realization of voidness, during which we implicitly apprehend voidness.