Looking up the word samsara, or the Wiki page leads to the same definition you see most places:

The endless cycle of birth, existence and death.

However, that is a lot of concept to pack into one word. How did they arrive at the word "samsara" to encapsulate such a complex concept?

Etymonline says:

"endless cycle of death and rebirth, transmigration of souls," 1886, from Sanskrit samsara "a wandering through," from sam-, prefix denoting completeness (from PIE root *sem- (1) "one; as one, together with"), + sr- "to run, glide" (from PIE verbal stem *ser- "to flow;" see serum).

But I don't know how I feel about PIE yet, not sure how they arrive at these derivations. Tangential question: it says 1886 is the latest definition, when does the word first get used?

If I were to go with etymonline's derivation, of sem and serum, it is the "one flow" basically, being one with the flow, being tied to the flow. But I don't know if that is a correct interpretation.

But the main question is, what do the components of the word mean. Is there any Buddhist text that elaborates on this concept and ties it back to the word more deeply? If so, what text is it and/or what do they generally say?

  • Reconstructing PIE is pretty robust. There may be some ambiguity in phonetic realisation, and certainly some ambiguity as to its ancestral meaning, but that there was a root and its path through to words of a certain meaning in dozens of languages today is usually uncontroversial. With so many well-recorded IE languages, regular language change can be deduced in each and sporadic changes in any one ignored and the root constructed with lots of chances for validation and cross checking. Laryngeal theory and Sassure's work being later validated by Hittite were the great internal check of this. Jan 14 at 12:37
  • It is certainly a remarkable achievement which initially seems implausible or speculative. But it's on a firmer footing than much we take for granted and seems trivial in linguistics. Jan 14 at 12:39

4 Answers 4


If you look up the etymology of samsara, it's composed of "sam" (together) + "sara" (course, motion, stretching out, extension). So, it's "moving or flowing together" like a river.

If samsara is a river, then craving (tanha) is like the river current. It's the force that moves the river and it's the cause of suffering (second noble truth).

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "Suppose a man was being carried along by the flow of a river, lovely & alluring. And then another man with good eyesight, standing on the bank, on seeing him would say: 'My good man, even though you are being carried along by the flow of a river, lovely & alluring, further down from here is a pool with waves & whirlpools, with monsters & demons. On reaching that pool you will suffer death or death-like pain.' Then the first man, on hearing the words of the second man, would make an effort with his hands & feet to go against the flow.

"I have given you this simile to illustrate a meaning. The meaning is this: the flow of the river stands for craving. Lovely & alluring stands for the six internal sense-media. The pool further down stands for the five lower fetters. The waves stand for anger & distress. The whirlpools stand for the five strings of sensuality. The monsters & demons stand for the opposite sex. Against the flow stands for renunciation. Making an effort with hands & feet stands for the arousing of persistence. The man with good eyesight standing on the bank stands for the Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened."

Iti 109



Questions on this site tend to be more about doctrine and practice and less about language. I don't know etymology beyond what you can read in a dictionary. Also I assumed the word pre-dated Buddhism, but Wikipedia says maybe not:

Some scholars state that the Samsara doctrine may have originated from the Sramana traditions and was then adopted by the Brahmanical traditions (Hinduism). The evidence for who influenced whom in the ancient times, is slim and speculative, and the odds are the historic development of the Samsara theories likely happened in parallel with mutual influences.


I wonder if an equivalent modern metaphor might be "hedonic treadmill" i.e. chasing after pleasures.

I think of Samsara as depicted in the Wheel of Life and driven by the Three Poisons.

Buddhist text -- what text is it and/or what do they generally say?

In brief I think I've read them say that there's a lot of it (of samasara), and that it's not entirely happy or keeps being sad (because of loss).

This page on Access to Insight includes three sutta references.

There are other references to Pali texts -- suttas but also other texts like the Visuddhimagga and the Dhammapada -- in the definition here. Those references aren't hyperlinked, and they're in a slightly non-standard format or numbering (or by "non-standard" I mean, "there's more than one standard"), which I find makes lookup a bit tedious -- but I think that the first reference for example i.e. DN.i.54 corresponds to DN 2, where (as it happens) it's quoting a non-Buddhist explaining his (non-Buddhist) views:

Pleasure and pain are allotted. Transmigration lasts only for a limited period, so there’s no increase or decrease, no getting better or worse.

The next is DN.ii.206 which is DN 18 and so on.

This topic might help if you want to follow cross-reference like that: Tripitaka Section Numbering

  • I personally tend to concentrate on the Pali sutta -- i.e. there are also many other Buddhist texts beyond what's mentioned in my answer.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 7, 2021 at 23:01

Saṃsāra, Anamatagga, "whose beginning and end are alike unthinkable"

Saŋsarati (Sangsarati): to move about continuously, to come again and again. to go through one life after the other, to transmigrate

Saŋsāra: 1. transmigration, lit. faring 2. to go through one life after the other, to transmigrate.

Saŋ ~ bond, put together, sāra ~ going, moving, following, fluid, flow, reed, an arrow.

usually used with Vattha, Samsara Vattha: Circle of ... endless seeking, asking on.


"Saṁsāra literally means “wandering-on.” Many people think of it as the Buddhist name for the place where we currently live—the place we leave when we go to nibbāna. But in the early Buddhist texts, it’s the answer, not to the question , “Where are we?” but to the question, “What are we doing?” Instead of a place, it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too." ~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "Saṁsāra" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/KarmaOfQuestions/Section0008.html

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.