Written by: Julia Hardy
Borrowing from Brahmanic religion, which taught that the universe had been created and destroyed over and over again throughout vast periods of time, early Buddhists believed that time flowed in immense cycles. Later Buddhism expanded this vision to include multiple universes, each with its own Buddha, and each universe subject to immense cycles of creation and destruction. Unless enlightened, one would be reborn again and again throughout all of these cycles.
This was samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and the ultimate goal of early Buddhism was to escape from samsara. The escape, called nirvana, was very different from an experience of sacred time such as one might expect in an ecstatic experience or shamanic journey. To attain nirvana was to extinguish any sense of self or individual experience; hence there was no sentient being remaining to experience a sacred time beyond ordinary time. There are two senses of nirvana: a this-worldly state when all attachments have been eliminated, and the non-state that occurs after death, when rebirth ceases.
The Buddha taught that those who occupied heavenly realms still existed in samsara, and even the gods were subject to rebirth. Even those human beings who were reborn in a Pure Land, although they were saved from future rebirths, were not free from samsara.
By the 2nd century C.E., Buddhist scholars had begun to use the Buddha's teachings about impermanence to deconstruct the doctrine of samsara. Mahayana sutras composed at around the same time revealed new teachings, purported to be from the Buddha, about a concept called shunyata, or "emptiness." In the Heart Sutra, for example, the Buddha was quoted as saying that when the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara realized that the five skandhas were all "empty," he "passed beyond suffering and difficulty." In other words, by understanding emptiness, he escaped samsara, just as the Buddha had done when he became enlightened.
This escape from samsara was very different, however, from that imagined by the early Buddhists. "There is no attainment whatsoever, because there is nothing to be attained," the Heart Sutra continued. "There is no ignorance and no ending of ignorance . . . no old age and death, no ending of old age and death." In just a few hundred words, the Heart Sutra deconstructed both the cycle of dependent arising and the path of the arhat seeking liberation from death and rebirth through the extinction of self.