I am continually intrigued by the concept of cycles in Buddhism. There is the ultimate cycle, samsara, which is made up of smaller life cycles in which beings are born, age, die and are then reborn into a new state of being. If someone wanted to break out of samsara, they must obtain enlightenment. Finding enlightenment is made easier through following the Buddha’s teachings, and becoming a monk or a nun allows people to devote their lives to studying them. In chapter four of the book The Foundations of Buddhism, the author Rupert Gethin describes the process through which a person becomes an ordained monk, and he also briefly touches upon the extra steps that women have to take in order to become nuns. The first steps involve giving up household life in order to live a life of religion, and to learn to depend on the goodwill of others to obtain basic needs, such as food and clothing (85).

One of the things that this chapter made me think about was the interconnectedness of all beings’ cycles. Gethin talks about Sangha in this section of the book. While it is considered to be a group of monks and nuns, the people in this community also rely on the laypeople to provide material goods. The laypeople, in turn, rely on these monks and nuns to help them meet their religious needs. In helping one another by providing what the other group does not have, they create their own cycle, and they develop dependencies on one another.

If the ultimate goal is to find a way out of samsara, does this then mean that we have to find a way out of every cycle, including the ones we find in Sangha? It is interesting to consider that in order to achieve a way out of the cycle of rebirth, we must find ways to detach ourselves from the world. However, in order to do so, we must create attachments to other people to perpetuate the cycles that allow us to obtain a way out. In other words, we must depend on others for food, clothing and shelter, while they would depend on us for their religious needs, and so on and so forth. Is it a positive thing to find a way out of samsara, or does that upset the balance of all of the cycles we affect? By finding a way out of samsara, we leave others behind. So, is it ultimately a selfish act?

Works Cited
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1998.

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2 Responses to Cycles

  1. jpf12 says:

    I found your questioning about selfishness particularly interesting and it made me think of two things in particular. First, the mahayana tradition addresses this issue with the shift from an emphasis on an Arhat to a Bodhisattva. From my understanding, a Bodhisattva is one who is motivated with compassion to help all sentient beings and who will not become enlightened and leave this world but will instead continue to come back to the cycle to help others becomes Bodhisattvas. Second, I was just reading an article for another class that was explaining that seeking personal happiness should not be viewed as selfish. This is because there is a large amount of data showing that happy people are “found to be more living and forgiving than unhappy people” (The Art of Happiness Cutler 17).

  2. cmlee says:

    It’s interesting how the mentality of dependence conflicts with America’s rooted sense of individualism, in which case you call attention to the question: is it a selfish act? I think what differentiates the two is the intention of the actor. To give without expecting a return is in many ways, an act of love…

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