they can provide an opportunity for beings to move out of it.
You could quite rightly ask yourself, why am I following the Buddhist path? Why am I trying to become a Bodhisattva? I want to remove the suffering of all sentient beings, but how is that possible? Sentient beings are very recalcitrant, they don’t seem to respond to the Buddha’s teaching (Dharma) very well. Many Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas have come and gone, and there is still samsara, a universe filled with sentient beings who are struggling and fighting and suffering, who are pleased about this and that, who are born, become sick and die. You might say the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas haven’t really changed anything, they haven’t made any difference to samsara. The point is, there is no external place called samsara; it is actually one’s distorted mind that imposes samsara on the nature of things.
Because there are confused beings who are fighting, struggling, hating, desiring, prideful and so on, then there is samsara. And because there is samsara, then there is suffering, misery, unhappiness and so forth. Samsara is self-perpetuating. Because you have similar karma to other beings, you link into the same world; so here you are in samsara with other beings. Many people seem to be happy living in samsara, they don’t actually want to give it up. They only remember the good experiences, and when they have bad experiences maybe they try to ignore those or pretend that they never happened. The most that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can do for sentient beings is to provide them with an opportunity to escape from samsara. This opportunity is found in the Pure Lands, which are generally speaking partly samsaric and partly awakened (the proportion of the two depends on the vows of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, their connections to particular beings and the level of confusion of those beings). Different worlds are created in response to the different wishes and needs of beings; however very few beings actually reach the Pure Lands.
There is an old fairy poem that describes the possible roads for human beings. There is a very broad, level, easy to travel road, and this is the great road that leads to hell (“but which some call the road to heaven”); this is the road that throngs with beings. In a Buddhist context this path is like samsara. Then there is a narrow, thorny and difficult road, which is the road to heaven (“though after it but few enquire”). So the road that leads to positive states is difficult to travel. The road to negative states is easy to travel; it can even seem rather pleasant, often fitting in with one’s desires and wishes, so most beings find themselves moving merrily along a downward path. In the poem there is a third road, the road to fairyland, which wanders about here and there, through ferny and wild places. It is difficult to follow, not particularly because it is across rough ground, but because it is a path which is hard to discern. And the road to awakening is certainly like that.
Even though the Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas might seem to have every reason to despair, one of their great characteristics is that they never do that. In the tantras the qualities of awareness, wisdom, compassion, love and joy and so forth are all thought of as living things; they are in fact deities, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas themselves. To us they may just seem like abstract principles or states of mind you could link into, but that is because of our own deadness. We have converted this universe into a dark, dead place, and it was never meant to be like that. The fact that there is any good in the world at all is only because of the presence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
So samsara isn’t a place you can improve; there is nothing you can do to shine up samsara to make it into a better place. But there are what you might call ‘seasonal trends’, where for example there is an increased level of unhappiness during the samsaric winter and a higher level of happiness in the samsaric summer. Over thousands of years, there may be a few hundred years of ‘spring moving towards summer’ when you would say, “Things are really improving, samsara is becoming a better place”. At other times conditions seem to be going badly for beings. And within that general pattern, beings may be locally better or worse off. The Shambhala literature describes the present time in the context of a Dharma-ending age, a time when things become worse and worse. However, within that downward trend there may be a period, perhaps a few hundred years, when things seem to get better. But that upturn is still within the context of things generally going downhill. Eventually things will reach a nadir, and then they will begin to rise, only to fall again after a very long time. That is the overall pattern of samsara, and there is nothing you can do about it.
What can be done is to give beings an opportunity to move out of samsara, and as I said earlier, this is the role of the Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas who provide beings with effective bridges from samsara into awakenedness. When I gave a series of talks at Eton some time ago, I was asked the same question at every visit: “What does Buddhism say about making the world a better place?” And the answer I always gave was: “Well, you can’t really make the world into a better place!” Obviously, if people develop love, compassion, joy, wisdom, etc., then when such beings are around the universe is locally a better place to be in; these people have their influence which might be weak or it might be strong. But in the long term, can one hold out great hopes for samsara? The answer to that question is no, simply because this is samsara and samsara is intrinsically unimprovable because it is associated with confusion, non-understanding and the klesas. However, within that unimprovable place, there are beings who can ‘cross over the rainbow bridge’ (to borrow an image from another mythology) to the Pure Lands, to awakening. That is the hope, but it is not a hope of samsara; it is a hope that reaches its fruition in the realm of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who have the power to work within samsara for the benefit of all. It may be true to say that to the Awakened the Pure Lands are not really any different from samsara itself, but they do seem to be different to us, certainly in the beginning. Maybe eventually we will see it is all the same place, but that realisation would be associated with completely transforming our mind, heart and understanding.
One must realise that going along with this view of samsara, there isn’t the idea of culpability, where you could point a finger of accusation at beings; use of the word fault or blame would be totally inappropriate. In one Ati text it says, “Sentient beings are in samsara although they never did anything wrong, Samantabhadra is in the realm of awakened clarity although he never did anything right”. In other words, sentient beings haven’t been bad and Samantabhadra hasn’t been good particularly. But that doesn’t mean you can just say, “It is unfair. We didn’t do anything wrong and Samantabhadra didn’t do anything right, but we’re in a mess and he isn’t”. You can complain as much as you like, but you will still be in samsara. The point is, as sentient beings we have to go through a process to Awaken, a process of training. That is just the way it is.