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SaṂsāra (wandering) is a term referring to the beginningless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and a process characterized by mental and physical duḤkha (suffering). This ongoing series of lives is determined by the moral quality of an individual's thoughts and karma (action) in this life and in previous lives. It is generally postulated that within sāṃsara the effects of good moral actions lead to wholesome rebirths, while the effects of bad moral actions lead inevitably to unwholesome rebirths. Liberation (nirvĀṆa), release from the cycle altogether, is achieved only by those individuals who gain correct insight and realization of the truth of the Buddha's teachings.

SaṂsāra is divided cosmologically into five (sometimes six) distinct realms of existence, within which living beings are reborn in dependence upon their karma. These places of rebirth include the realms of divinities (deva), human beings (manuṣya), animals (tiryak), spirits of the dead or hungry ghosts (preta), and the hells (naraka). When the list of five realms is expanded to six, the place of demigods (asura) is added below the god realm. Life in any one of these realms is never eternal and never free from the prospect of suffering. Whether wandering temporarily in the higher realms of gods and humans or in the lower realms of animals, ghosts, and the denizens of hell, all living beings experience the sufferings of birth, death, and rebirth. SaṂsāra and the realms of rebirth are depicted in paintings of the wheel of life (bhavacakra), which are especially common in Tibet.

Liberation from the cycle of sāṃsara is not always the immediate goal of Buddhism. In some Buddhist traditions, particularly in East Asia, greater emphasis is placed on rebirth in a buddha's pure land (Chinese, jingtu; Japanese, jōdo). The pure lands are purified buddha-fields (Sanskrit, buddhakṣetra) or paradises, which are free from mental and physical suffering and watched over by a particular buddha. Dissenting opinions exist about the exact location of the pure lands. Some place them within the realms of sāṃsara, and others place them outside the cycle altogether. Rebirth in one of the pure lands is determined less by karma and more by sincere faith and aspiration to be reborn there. The compassionate assistance of the buddha who resides in the pure land is also a decisive factor in securing rebirth in such an auspicious realm. Among the most popular pure lands are AmitĀbha's Land of Bliss (Sukhāvatī) and AkṢobhya's Land of Delight (Abhirati).

See also:Cosmology


Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé. Myriad Worlds: Buddhist Cos mology in Abhidharma, Kālacakra, and Dzog-chen. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.

Sadakata, Akira. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, tr. Gaynor Sekimori. Tokyo: Kōsei, 1997.

Bryan J. Cuevas