As we have seen, we are sure to die, and we are powerless to continue living. But things do not stop with death: we have to take birth again, and as long as we are reborn, it cannot be anywhere other than in cyclic existence. As we read in the Vinaya scriptures,

Driven by ignorance, craving, and becoming, all beings —

Humans, celestial beings, and those in the three lower realms —

Circle foolishly in the five realms,

Going round and round like a potter’s wheel.


The three worlds are ablaze with the sufferings of old age and sickness;

Here the fire of death rages, and there is no protection.

Beings never have the intelligence to escape from cyclic existence,

Round and round they go like bees caught in a jar.

Here, in the six realms, our tainted positive and negative actions cause us to circle, taking one rebirth after another, and this is why we speak of cyclic existence.

Moreover, even though we want to be happy, we never accomplish the positive actions that lead to happiness.

And though we want to avoid suffering, we persistently indulge in its cause, negative actions, and we therefore experience their result, suffering, in all its various forms.

Even then we seem incapable of fear, and voluntarily accept suffering.

We are like thieves who have had their hands cut off for stealing and who again commit a robbery, for which the punishment this time will be beheading. As The Way of the Bodhisattva puts it,

For beings long to free themselves from misery,

But misery itself they follow and pursue.

They long for joy, but in their ignorance

Destroy it, as they would their foe.

How is it that they “destroy joy”? Because of their attachment to the five objects of desire [the objects of the five senses: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations], their afflictive emotions increase in strength and lead them into suffering.

Moths are attracted by the light of a lamp and are thus burned by their desire for beautiful forms. Deer are drawn to their death by the sweet sound of the flute. Bees try to suck the honey from a flower and die when they get stuck or the flower closes on them. Fish are lured to their death by the taste of the bait on the tip of the angler’s hook. And elephants die when their desire for coolness induces them to plunge into a lake.

In songs from the Treasury of Songs of Realization we read:

Every single being is beguiled by the gestures of existence.


“Oh!” says the Archer, speaking of the ignorant:

“Regard them as being like fish, moths, Elephants, bees, and deer.”

From the five objects the afflictive emotions arise, and because of these we wander endlessly in cyclic existence.

There is not a single one of all these sentient beings with whom we have not been related in turn as father or mother, or related through enmity, friendship, or indifference.

If one were to try to number the ancestral maternal line of a single being by rolling pilules the size of juniper pips from the earth and counting them, saying “This one is this being’s mother, that one is her mother,” one could go on counting until all the earth were used up.

But there is no end to counting the ancestral line of each being’s mothers, as the Buddha explained in a sutra, whose meaning is conveyed in the following verse by the Protector Nagarjuna:

To count one’s mother’s lineage with pills

Like juniper pips in size, the earth would not suffice.

Thus, from time without beginning until now, there is no form of suffering that one has not experienced in cyclic existence. This is explained in the Close Mindfulness Sutra:

O Monks, you should be weary of the world of existence. Why? Because in all the time you have been going round and round in beginningless cyclic existence, the bodies you have left behind from your rebirths as an ant, if all added together, would make a pile far higher than the king of mountains, Sumeru. The tears you have wept exceed all the water in the four oceans. The quantity of boiling molten copper, blood, lymph, pus, and nasal mucus that you have drunk an infinite number of times when you were a hell being or a hungry spirit is greater than the four great rivers that flow into the oceans from the four continents. The heads, eyes, limbs, fingers, and toes that you have had severed on account of your desires exceed in number all the molecules of earth, water, fire, and wind in universes numerous as the grains of sand in the River Ganges.

Moreover, in all the time you have spent in this wheel of existence, there is not a single place—no region of land, water, mountain, island, or space—that you have not been to. There is no joy you have not experienced in your countless lives as gods, as serpentine nagas, “malignant” yakshas, smell-feeding gandharvas, monstrous kumbhandas, gangrenous kataputanas, Brahmas, Indras, and universal monarchs. And when the result of your former positive actions was exhausted and you returned to the lower realms, there was no form of suffering that you did not experience. How terrifying! In the Sutra of Perfect Renunciation we read:

When the Guide, the Lord of Lions, died

And transmigrated from the Tushita heaven,

He spoke the following words to the gods:

“Abandon all carelessness.”

All the many joys of the gods

Come from the positive actions that are their cause.

Be grateful, therefore, for those acts.

The merit you have accumulated will be exhausted here

And, after suffering unhappiness,

You’ll fall into the lower realms.

In a dream, one might be the lord of gods and humans with riches, mansions, and an abundance of everything one could enjoy. But when one wakes up, there is nothing left. It is as The Way of the Bodhisattva says:

All that I possess and use

Is like the fleeting vision of a dream.

It fades into the realms of memory,

And fading, will be seen no more.

Accordingly, because it is the nature of things to change when we die, we cannot count on any of the superficial happiness of cyclic existence.

So reflect, thinking, “In this present life, I must do whatever I can to obtain liberation from the great ocean of suffering that is cyclic existence and attain lasting happiness in perfect Buddhahood.”

Source: Rinpoche, Dudjom. A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom (pp. 95-97). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

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