I've just finished reading Eric Cheetham's book, The Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism. I was impressed by the opening chapter's amphitheatre metaphor for saṃsāra and would like to share it with you.
- Imagine an arena or Roman-style amphitheatre with a perpetual succession of performers coming into the central area and passing out of it after their "act" is complete. Ranks of spectators line the terraces to watch, encourage, or condemn. After their "act," the performers pass down to the underground cellars or take their places among the spectators on the terraces. Sometimes the performers are required to return to the arena without a break to act out a continuous succession of activities. At other times they descend to the cellars and to captivity in darkness for long periods before emerging to the light again for further exertions. If they perform well, they can take their places among the spectators for long periods of comparative ease until their turn comes again to descend to the cellars prior to another bout of work in the central arena.
The arena itself is a closed structure. No one can get out of it or away from it. All the performers are inexorably driven through it and under it, or they enjoy temporary respite on its terraces before resuming the center stage again and again. Ages pass, and at intervals of enormous length natural catastrophes occur, overwhelming and destroying the amphitheatre by fire, flood, or tempest. Even this does not put a final end to the constant uproar of the continuous performances. Before each catastrophe occurs, the whole "cast" is shepherded to a place of safe confinement to await the rebuilding of another exactly similar amphitheatre. When all is renewed, the whole process starts again, and the captives are once more thrust out into the center, onto the terraces, or down to the cellars to continue the interminable circuits until the next catastrophe. And so on, to infinity.
This is a mere symbol of that terrible, awe-inspiring, neverending round of existence that was fully and directly perceived by Śākyamunī Buddha during that night, long ago, when he attained supreme and perfect Enlightenment. His contemporaries and predecessors who had attempted the exploration of this vast construction did not or could not get the whole picture within their focus. Some of them thought it was enough to gain the support of the spectators (the gods) to ensure an easy passage across the arena. Others thought the best thing to do was to gain a helping hand out of the center and onto the terraces (realms of the gods), or even to storm the barriers and unseat the principal spectators (Sakra, Indra, etc.). The more perceptive and discriminating observers found the goings on nauseating and disgusting and found a way to the topmost tier of the auditorium, where the din and the dust were most distant. There they thought themselves to be safe and undisturbed, and for immense periods of time they were. But their vision was limited, and they were mistaken in believing that they had gained the ultimate heights of eternal disinvolvement. Only a Buddha can perceive the whole ghastly panorama that condemns all participants to endless cycles of repetitive performance. All that, expressed in metaphor, is in the meaning of the one word, Saṃsāra.