The Root of Samsara

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
(Archive #394)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained how delusion and karma bind us to samsara, at the 11th Kopan Course in November 1978. This teaching is an edited excerpt from Session 38, Section Seven of the course. Click here to read more.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching in Hong Kong, 2010. Photo by Ven. Thubten Kunsang (Henri Lopez).

Wherever we are born in any of the six realms—in the lowest, unimaginable suffering state of the narak realm, or in the highest, what’s called the point of samsara—all these realms are completely under the control of delusion and karma. There is not one single realm that is not formed by delusion and karma. This is the pervasive compounding suffering of our aggregates.

These aggregates that are formed and bound by delusion and karma are called the cycle of samsara. As long as we carry the burden of the aggregates bound by delusion and karma, we will circle in these six realms—in the lower realms or the upper realms. It’s as if we have a bare body and we are carrying a big burden of thorns that is tied to us with a rope—without wearing any clothes or gloves—and we are going on a beautiful path to a dirty place with lots of stones and bushes. We are going up and down the mountain, and there is no real happiness until we cut the rope that ties the thorns to us. We have no peace or happiness wherever we go, and we think, “Oh I have much pain, I want happiness.” Even if we go along a beautiful path, or we are on top of a mountain where there is a lot of snow and we come down and go into a beautiful apartment, we are carrying those heavy thorns.

It is like this in the six realms—the three upper realms of the happy transmigratory beings, and the three lower suffering realms—as long as we carry the burden of samsara, there is no way to experience happiness whose nature is not suffering. Delusion and karma are like the rope that ties us to this heavy load of thorns, causing much pain. If we cut this rope, we will find happiness. In order to attain nirvana—the release from samsara—we must break the rope of delusion and karma. This is the way to escape from samsara to nirvana.

As long as we don’t break the rope of delusion and karma, we continuously have to live with this heavy load of thorns. We always experience a lot of suffering and there is no happiness for us, if we don’t break the rope that ties us to samsara and these aggregates —wherever we travel, wherever we go and whatever country we live in.

As I explained before, delusion and karma tie us to samsara, to this life, with the ignorance of I-grasping. As we follow this I-grasping, it produces karma and again it compounds the consciousness in that realm.

In one week or one month or one day, we have the ignorance of I-grasping producing karma many times, starting with the twelve links to be born in the six realms—from now until the time of our death. We are tied by the chain of the twelve links, this human body’s dependent arising, and we are also making many new chains to tie ourselves continuously. We have the chains of dependent arising of different bodies, which will be taken in our future lives. We have started so many—in one year or one week—until our death. Already we are bound by so many hundreds, hundreds, hundreds—so many turning.

We can see how we are bound to samsara by delusion and karma. What’s the meaning of this cycle? It is the continuity of the aggregates—continuing from our past life to this life. The aggregates are caused by delusion and karma, and they join from life to life. It continues this way—from the previous life to this life, and from this life to the next life, and from that life to the next life. These aggregates are formed by the delusion and karma.

So what makes samsara continue? Delusion and karma. Samsara means to circle. Samsara continues from the realm of the happy transmigratory beings—from the asuras, suras and human beings, to the pretas and naraks and then again to the upper realm—up and down all the time, by the force of delusion and karma. This is samsara or the circle. If we break the rope of the continuity of karma and delusion, then the continuity of these aggregates that join from one rebirth to another rebirth, and join from one life to another life, going round and round like this, ceases. If we break the rope of delusion and karma, then going from one life to another life stops.

Suffering, rebirth and old age come from the suffering of death and rebirth. Feeling, contact, the six sense bases, name and form, and consciousness create the delusions, ignorance, craving and grasping, and karma. These are the action of the compounded aggregates and becoming.

What is the whole root of the problem? All the problems that we experience in this life, from rebirth until death—contact, feeling, sexual pleasure, name and form, and consciousness—all these things happen because of dependent arising. Craving, grasping and the action of becoming, all happen because of ignorance and karma. This is the evolution and the experience of samsaric suffering. Ignorance, the view of changeable phenomena, and even the “I” itself exists in mere appellation and is labelled by our thought. This accumulates virtue and non-virtue.

In reality, there is not even the slightest, truly existing self—there is no “I” existing from its own side, and even the tiniest atom doesn’t exist in reality. In nature, it doesn’t exist at all, but from above the five aggregates we completely believe and grasp at the truly existent “I” that can be found. This is the original mistake that causes us to experience all the evolution and the third type of dependent arising, being dependent on base and label, which ties our waist to the branches of dependent arising and obliges us to experience the sufferings of samsara. This is the root, the mistake, believing like this.

So, with this I-grasping, we accumulate karma and we cling to the absolute nature of “I”. We discriminate the “I” and others as absolutely existent. As we cling to our own absolute happiness, we discriminate against somebody who disturbs our happiness as the absolute enemy or the real enemy, and somebody who helps and supports our happiness as a friend. “I” and others arise with attachment and anger, and we accumulate negative and positive karma. This is how we circle in the realm of the suffering transmigratory beings and experience all these sufferings. We are born in the realm of the happy transmigratory beings and again we experience all these sufferings.

Therefore, to be free —to be liberated from samsara and to completely cease all the suffering of samsara—the very root, this I-grasping, should be destroyed. We should make it non-existent by realizing selflessness, as it’s said in the prayers, by generating the realization of the path of seeing.

In order to generate the realization of the path of seeing that we attain by single-pointedly concentrating on emptiness or shunyata without any deception, we must generate the realization of shamatha or tranquil abiding, to make our mind devoid of the hindrances of sluggishness and excitement.

In order to achieve tranquil abiding or shamatha, our mind needs to be devoid of the hindrance of sluggishness—the Tibetan term is ching wa. Sluggishness is jing wa and fogginess is ngook pa—another term for when we are close to the state of sleep. If we are not mindful and conscious, the realization of tranquil abiding or shamatha cannot be achieved. So, in order to achieve shamatha, we should be mindful and conscious.

As a foundation for shamatha realization, we need the practice of moral conduct. With our mind in the higher practice of moral conduct, we are mindful of the actions of the three doors—body, speech, and mind. Without this it is impossible.