Freedom and its relationship to saṃsāra, nirvāṇa, and duḥkha

In an undergraduate course, maybe an anthropology, sociology, or political science class, I remember reading a journal article on a cross cultural study of what the word freedom meant to different cultures and nationalities. For instance, at the time, during the cold war, Americans responded that freedom meant they could travel anywhere in the U.S. without an internal passport, (such papers were required in the USSR).

Americans, at least selected respondents who were probably white college students, felt that we lived in a meritocracy and one was free to pursue any occupation, or career if one only worked hard enough. One was also free to fail. Free choice. The Soviet citizens responded that they had the most freedom in the world because they were guaranteed a job and the State would provide them with their basic needs, food, shelter, health care, etc. That was over 50 years ago.

Since then, other studies have explored and expanded on the subject. When teaching at the University at Albany in the mid 80’s I taught a number of students who had immigrated from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. A discussion on freedom developed one day in a class. Several Euro-American women in the class were trying to show solidarity with the women from the Middle East by stating how much more free the Muslim women must feel in the U.S., they did not need to wear chador, abaya, scarves, and other restrictive dress. The Muslim women responded that they felt less free in the U.S. They felt the men regarding them as objects in more revealing dress, they felt exposed, and they felt they could not wear traditional dress because of the social disapprobation and discrimination from American born people. They did not feel free to be the person they wanted to be and practice their religion freely.

Today ‘freedom’ is a word tossed around in the culture war. As the examples above demonstrate it has a different definition depending on one’s culture, nationality, religion, political party and socio-political stance. For some people freedom means not wearing a mask or accepting a vaccination. Others feel that freedom is not being exposed to a pandemic disease from people who do not wear masks and will not accept vaccinations. Freedom to some people is being free from police brutality, voting unencumbered, firearm proliferation, and systemic racism. Others, define freedom as expressing white supremist ideologies, carrying firearms unhindered, restricting voting rights, and protecting status quo systemic racism.

In many ways saṃsāra and liberation from duḥkha and saṃsāra, are similarly dependent on social conditioning. Saṃsāra in Buddhism is the “suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end”.[i]  More broadly it refers to our day-to-day, ordinary existence. Duḥkha, in current definitions, is anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, and unsatisfactoriness. The Japanese, Buddhist inspired, psychiatrist, researcher and philosopher, Morita Shoma, wrote that duḥkha is what we refer to as neurosis.[ii]

Most people who refer to themselves as Buddhist have no problem thinking of saṃsāra as our everyday, mundane, existence. Many people reject the reference to the “suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end” Rebirth and the cycle, is their objection. This may be due to a metaphysical preconception of rebirth, or some other factor. In this, they feel a freedom from what they would refer to as superstition. On the other hand, I came to Buddhism after reading Eastern philosophy and then being exposed to scientific physics, in which the first law of thermodynamics is the conservation law, which states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another but can be neither created nor destroyed. Thus there is a cycle of rebirth, not in a metaphysical manner, but in harmony with the laws of Buddhism, Taoism, and modern physics.

From this perspective I define freedom as being free from the notion of beginning and end, free from the existential crises of a given life as finite and indeterminate. Rather, there is the liberation from “No old age and death, no end of old age and death” as recited in the Heart Sutra.

Nirvāṇa is often posited as liberation from saṃsāra. Freedom from duḥkha. From a Tendai perspective, “With no hinderance in the mind, no hinderance, therefore no fear, far beyond deluded thoughts this is Nirvāṇa.” Freedom is found not in escape, but in engagement with what is real, what is.

In the definitions of freedom, we encounter in our socio-political world opposing definitions of freedom are dualistic. From Ichinen Sanzen (Three-thousand realms are contained in one mind [moment]), Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are one and the same. Thus, both Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa totally interpenetrate. Freedom means to be free from the dualities that cause us distress or duḥkha.

Freedom is a word we use in many different ways, too often it is intended as a euphemism for a coded meaning. This is not always intentional it may be the conditioning a person has experienced that produces such an effect.

I find the terms freedom and liberation to be important to our understanding of democracy and the dharma. We should use them often, but be careful about how you intend them to be used when you do. They are loaded with meanings. Meanings you might intend, but some that are unintentional.

As I read over what I have written, I realize this essay wanders all over the place – oh yeah – that’s why I call it ‘Jushoku’s Meanderings’.

Love and Gassho . . . Monshin


[i]   Wilson, J. (2010). Saṃsāra and Rebirth, in Buddhism. Oxford University Press.

[ii]  Fujita, C. (1986). Morita Therapy: A Psychotherapeutic System for Neurosis. Igaku-Shoin.