March 2, 2006

Samsara and Sisyphus

Posted in mythology, religion at 6:53 am by Jerry

I've struggled for sometime, and will continue to struggle on the understanding of Buddhism's ideal and not-so-ideal worlds. Apparently, out of all the many different reincarnated lives we can live (collectively called "Samsara"), some of those lives are, or will be, in "Hells" and "Heavens." (Note: entering Buddhist Heavens are unique reincarnations because it happens only when you've attained a god-like mastery over your desires and sufferings). But these heavenly lives will not last.

So, to help my journey of learning religions I came up with a working-analogy to study the Buddhist spiritual realms:

If you're familiar with the Greek myth of Sisyphus, you know that Zeus (the highest ranking Greek god) condemned Sisyphus to a 'life' in the underworld (Tartarus, to be exact) of continually pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again. I haven't read any material that explains why it will not stay on top of the hill, nevertheless Zeus cursed Sisyphus in this manner because Sisyphus tried to cheat Death (among others) twice. It seems, Sisyphus' desire for a longer life was used to torture him.

I was thinking.. the Buddhists' "Samsara" (continous cycle of rebirth) is much like Sisyphus' curse, only, for Buddhists, the boulder is never the same after a trip up the hill (one lifetime). I say the boulder is never the same because of the work of "Karma" (actions creating consequences).

In my analogy, the boulder becoming a smooth sphere represents good karma working, and the boulder becoming flat-sided would represent bad karma working. However, no matter how perfectly round the boulder could become after many trips up the hill (many lifetimes), the boulder rolls back down (reincarnation), and the next trip up the hill will result in exhausting all your good karma.

For Buddhists, all is impermanent. The Buddhist journey in Heaven is not eternal. The boulder – will – eventually – lose its perfection. Therefore, the Buddhist wants to get out of this boulder-pushing cycle – and hence, NIRVANA!

After creating this analogy, the question that comes to my mind is – what does the boulder represent?



  1. Brenda(from work) said,

    hi Jerry, very interesting. I had to read it a couple of times. Would the boulder not represent the actual soul? As in if the reason being for all of our past lives is for the perfection of the soul, and once we have achieved this over many lives of learning, , suffering, growing, etcetera, the boulder would stay at the top of the hill, our place in Heaven intact not haveing to go back down, our souls perfected. Heres one for you….. Is earth the real Hell? See ya take care. coffee break is over.

  2. Todd said,

    The boulder is a big round block of parmsean cheese.


    If the Buddhist wants to get out of pushing the boulder, then I wouldn’t say the boulder is the soul. I would say the boulder is the interactions with people and other life. The ideal for the Buddhist is to not push the boulder up the hill, but instead to have the hill turn into a valley and the stone to roll downwards by itself.

  3. Jerry said,

    Wow, interesting insights. I suppose it would make sense for the boulder to be our relationship with life (thanks Todd), because Sisyphus’ torture was to make him continually chase after his desire for longer life. But then, what is it that’s pushing the boulder? Is it our will/volition?

    Great to hear from you, Brenda! Do you think it’s possible that it’s our “soul” that is pushing the boulder? “Tartarus” is considered a “Hell.” I suppose it would make sense that Sisyphus’ soul is being tortured by pushing the burden of life (the boulder), but always ending where he started.

    As far as the boulder staying on the top, Buddhists would say nothing is permanent… except Nirvana… and I suppose they would say “impermanence” is permanent. It’s strange, because if everything is impermanent then all Buddhist philosophies are, logically, reliable for a limited time.

    Brenda, you asked, “Is earth the real Hell?” Good question. I suppose that would depend on your definition of Hell. If Hell can only be a place for people to literally be covered in an eternal fire, then of course, no. But I don’t think there is such a place (literally). If this realm of ours is the only realm, then yes, I think it is both Heaven and Hell (which would give ‘reincarnation’ a metaphorical meaning – cool!). If there is more than this realm, then I think the better ones are more “Heavenly” and the worse ones are more “Hellish”.

    Todd, you said, “The ideal for the Buddhist is to not push the boulder up the hill, but instead to have the hill turn into a valley and the stone to roll downwards by itself.” The first part of this sentence makes a lot of sense to me because I think I read somewhere that the Buddhist’s ultimate goal (Nirvana) can be achieved only through the means of not using any Karma. But you’ll have to explain to me what you meant by the second half of this sentence of yours. Do mean Buddhists think life should continue without our involvement?

    Thanks a lot Brenda, Todd, for your responses. To me, these are great spiritual explorations.

  4. Todd said,

    I’ve only read the briefest of Buddhist teachings so I’m basically uneducated when I’m talking about this.

    Having said that, this has never stopped me before. 😉

    I believe what I’ve read is that ‘go with the flow’ is a basic Buddhist teaching. Life only becomes unhappy when someone tries to oppose the flow of life. So ideally one wouldn’t want to push a boulder up a hill but would instead want to let gravity move the boulder itself. Pushing a boulder up a hill to me looks like it’s going against ‘the flow’.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth of Buddhist philosophy. You get what you pay for.

  5. Jerry said,

    Todd, sounds like you’ve been reading texts on Zen Buddhism. What you said is very Taoist. Zen is a combination of Buddhism and Taoism. I mentioned before, “..if everything is impermanent then all Buddhist philosophies are, logically, reliable for a limited time.” I just read that Zen Buddhism is very much a development of this impermanence philosophy, reminding myself that Zen understands all dogma (Buddhist and others) as impermanent.

  6. dood said,


    Dewd, the boulder is karma. Good karma small pebble, bad karma huge ass -ing boulder. If your karma is right the boulder would not matter. Heck, nothing matters. Religions do not matter. My pantheon of gods consists of a yellow submarine and a hairy fuzzball, ruled by the supreme god, the bucket of slosh. Noone knows what the slosh is…

    What’s the point of samsara if you can’t recall any of them????!!!

    usual friendly salutations,


  7. Jerry said,

    “What’s the point of samsara if you can’t recall any of them????!!!”

    Valid question. But if Samsara is a metaphor for the stages in our lives, we could recall them. And if we can recall them, a question I like to ask myself is — is there anything we could learn from recalling them?

  8. james said,

    I realise,not that it matters that people would think my comment unfounded and stupid,but they have not lived my life, as I have and i’m sure this isn’t my first time and won’t be my last,frustrating as that is. I found myself compelled to learn abit more about Sisyphuss, when I first learnt of his never ending task of pushing the boulder up a hill, as when I was young I used to have bad dreams of myself pushing a ball of stone much bigger than myself up a hill,the harder I pushed the more difficult it would become due to feet losing grip,stone ball picking up mud and hands slipping,which I think represents the struggle we can make life, if we take the wrong path, i’ve always thought myself something different, I believe i’ve lived before and will again,i’ve cheated death 2yrs ago, and will again and again frustrating as this is,i’d even be prepared to be tested as I know if I choice to let this body give into death my mind can Never Be killed and I will live again, hard to explain in writing, if I do manage to prove this i’ll not be here to find out,but there is more than this one plane, i’ve spent time stuck between two live and death and there’s a third. this may not make sence to all but not easy to explain in writing, well not easy full stop unless experienced.

  9. james said,

    never ending punishment rolling the boulder up the hill,can symbolize many things,some you only discover the true extent of the severity when your eyes and mind are fully aware,such as never ending life,would Become intolerable once aware of it, no rest for the wicked

  10. mark said,

    the boulder is the present moment. it is the present reality that must be accepted for what it is. the moment sisyphus does that he ceases to suffer.

  11. man said,

    To me, the boulder curse represents inability to accept death. If Sisyphus tried to escape death twice, maybe the third time he still wasn’t ready to face the “greatest teacher”, so his mind has him stuck in the endless cycle of never reaching the peace that he needs to die. But he dies anyway, so his last moments of experience were those of endlessly making his way up the hill, most likely in despair.

    I might have more to say on this but I’m gonna go back to reading Surya Das. Take care

  12. jrvisualsllc said,

    I got to this page because I came to a similar comparison between Sisyphus and Samsara in my mind.

    Maybe the boulder is our relative expectations, the hill is objective reality. The friction between the two is what causes suffering (duhkha in sanskrit which some translate as stress or friction).

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