Samsara, the “aimless wandering” of Buddhism is a difficult concept to grasp, but also pretty fundamental to understanding the Dharma.
Buddhism as a religion sees the Universe in terms of huge time and huge space. This is a contrast to Western religions which tend to see the Universe in a smaller, fixed time (i.e. several thousand years, maybe some more). The gist of saṃsāra is that the Universe has existed for a near-infinite amount of time, and that beings have been migrating here and there, from one lifetime to another, in it. Not a dozen past lives, or even a hundred, more like a near-infinite number of past lives.
Further, the breadth of the past lives also varies quite a bit. In the traditional Buddhist cosmology, there were 6 broad categories of states of rebirth:
- Devas or gods (or divine beings in general). They live in varying states of bliss, and can live very long lifespans, endowed with great powers, among other benefits. But even they must die and be reborn someday.
- Asuras or titans (another category of divine beings). The Asuras are at war with the devas, not unlike the wars between the Olympian gods and the Titans, and are prone to war, anger and violence.
- Animals. They live in a constant state of eat or be eaten. Their existence is limited to the basic needs of survival.
- Preta or hungry ghosts. These beings live a miserable existence marked by constant hunger and agony, slinking in the shadows, eating scraps of refuse, etc.
- Hell. Vaguely similar to Dante’s Inferno, Hell is a many-realmed place with many different forms of torment, suited to different transgressions. As with the Devas and other realms, this is a finite torment that lasts until one’s karma is exhausted. However, depending on the severity, one can be there a very, very long time.
The nature of the six realms of rebirth is subject to many forms of interpretation, too many to go into here, but the point is that sentient beings migrating across one lifetime to another across such a long, long period of time eventually have lived all these states at least once.
This leads to a sense of malaise. One has probably been rich and famous in the past, one has probably been ugly and poor in the past, one has lost loved ones, one has fallen in love countless times, etc, etc. It’s all been done before, and there’s no sense of long-term “direction”, hence it is described as aimless wandering. Another way of describing samsara might be the “Great Cosmic Rat-Race”.
In a old, old sutra from the Pali Canon, the Buddha describes it like so:
“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.Translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from the Assu Sutta (SN 15:3)
In light of all this, this is why the Buddha teaches liberation as a means of breaking this ad nauseum cycle of rebirth. Initially, this is liberation of oneself, but as one progresses on the path, this turns outward toward liberation of others as well. Mahayana literature in particular greatly idealizes this notion of liberation of all beings, as epitomized in the Lotus Sutra and its Parable of the Burning House (chapter 3), and the vows of Dharmakara bodhisattva in the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, among other places.
The concept of the “bodhisattva” evolved along with it: a being who vows to rescue all beings before completing their own vows to achieve enlightenment (buddhahood).
Another way to describe samsara, and also the process of liberation was to cross a river from one shore, symbolizing ignorance and strife, to the other, symbolizing wisdom, insight and peace of mind.
Anyhow, all this is to say that the Buddha perceived the rat race of life long ago, but the Dharma sees this rat race as not limited to a single lifetime, and central to the challenges of life, and the need for a long-term direction to one’s life beyond meeting basic needs.