THE WHEEL OF LIFE
The Wheel of Life symbolizes Samsara, the cycle of worldly states of existence. It depicts the self-perpetuating process of delusion. The Buddha maintained that the universe is not the work of a supreme god, not a creation at all. Rather it is a delusion. Primordial ignorance leads to the supposition that there are separate beings; that each being has a separate ego. Clinging to the notion of individual existence that restlessly strives to satisfy its wants, sentient beings add momentum to the process of causation by which they are enchained. As their minds create fresh objects of desire, the mists of illusion thicken about them. Endlessly through this Samsaric circle of birth and death they traverse the six realms of existence which, though some provide transient joys, are none of them free from profound unsatisfactoriness. There is no way to break, this karmic chain reaction until the being decides to set about striving for liberating wisdom.
The Three Poisons
In the center of the Wheel are three creatures representing the basic motives or root causes which generate the wheel of conditioned existence: a red rooster stands for craving, passionate desire, and attachment; a green snake is the embodiment of wrath, hatred, and aversion; and a black hog symbolizes the darkness of ignorance and delusion of dualistic beliefs. These are the blind urges that drives beings round and round in the unending cycle of births and deaths. Tibetan paintings show these creatures against a blue ground, symbolizing that these powerful mind afflictions are empty of inherent substance.
The Karmic Cycle
Around this center is a narrow circle half filled with happy-looking people going up and half with naked wretches falling. As a result of relative victories or defeats in their contest with the ego, sentient beings rise or fall within Samsara each rise succeeded by a fall if evil karma is acquired; and each fall succeeded by a rise when bad karma is worked off or merit is gained.
The Six Realms
We beings endlessly revolve among the six realms of existence, shown in the large circle in the center of the Wheel of Life. These six realms depict conscious experience. They may represent different psychological states in the life of a human as well as actual forms of embodiment. The three higher realms are the God Realm, the Jealous God Realm (asuras) and the Human Realm (us). The three lower realms are the Animal Realm, the Hungry Ghost Realm (pretas) and the Hell Realm.
The God Realm is shown in the upper left section of the Wheel, often combined with the jealous god realm. The realm of the gods is dedicated to aesthetic pleasures; a carefree life of heavenly joy and euphoric self-absorption. On account of this one-sided dedication to their own pleasures, the gods forget the sufferings of others as well as their own transitory nature. This state of temporary harmony comes to an end as soon as the causes which led them to the happy state are exhausted. Being a
temporary state of ego hood, sooner or later absorption in the blissful existence wears out and the god realm being begins to panic. Feeling threatened, confused and vulnerable, the god realm being dies and takes rebirth in another, less fortunate, realm. Sometimes leaving the god realm is so excruciating it is said that the god being plunges straight into a hell realm.
Jealous God Realm
Through trying to protect its realm of happiness a being may find itself in an aggressive state of existence; a world preoccupied with competition and striving for supremacy. The anxiety and envy of the jealous god realm is overpowering. Jealous gods are constantly warring and fighting. This realm is usually depicted in the lower left section of the god realm.
The human realm is shown to the right of the god realm. It is
Intellectual effort characterizes the human realm. The world
of man is the realm of purposeful activity and higher
aspirations, in which the freedom of decision plays an essential role. Here the qualities of all the realms of existence become conscious and all their possibilities are equally within reach. This is the realm of passion and intellect. Although with intelligence the world can be manipulated to achieve some pleasure, still this pleasure cannot be held on to or at all times obtained. Beings in the human realm are plagued by illness, old age, death— by frustrations and problems of all kinds. These aspects of the human situation are portrayed pictorially: a woman in childbirth (birth), a doctor and patient (sickness), a man with a crutch (old age), an official on a horse (temporal government), a man toiling in his fields (labor), and a corpse being carried to the funeral grounds (death). Religion is represented by a temple placed above all other habitations with a Lama and monks performing worship and studying. The human realm is the only one in which the Dharma (spiritual teachings) can be clearly heard . Through insight into the true nature of mind and the world there is a chance of ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
To the left of the jealous god realm is the realm of animals. In contrast to the hesitant and critical perspective of the human intellect, the animal realm is one of surrender to a blind destiny of natural necessities and uncontrollable instincts. Animals lack the faculty of articulate speech and reflective thought, which could liberate them from the darkness of subconcious drives and the sluggishness of an undeveloped mind.
Hungry Ghost Realm
The hungry ghost or “preta” realm is one of restless spirits filled with unsatisfied passions. Pretas are depicted with spindly dried up limbs, tiny mouths and bloated bellies. They are tortured by unsatiable hunger and thirst. Each time the preta seems about to achieve pleasure, he is rudely awakened from his idyllic dream. He fantasizes numerous ways to satisfy his hunger, reaches out for it and is quickly disappointed.
The hell realm, in the lowest sector of the wheel, is a situation of continual torture. It is the solidification of a psychological state in which every facet of the world reflects aggression. The infernal sufferings are not ’punishments’ that have been inflicted upon erring beings by an omnipotent god, but the inevitable reactions from their own deeds. The hallucinations of hell are generated from an environment of claustrophobia and aggression. When an entity's aggression becomes so intense that the environment around him responds with equal aggression. Buddhist texts vary in their details, but they typically describe numerous hellish regions each with different forms of intense suffering, such as eight extremely claustrophobic hot hell realms, eight extremely cold, being partially eaten alive, beating and other forms of torture in proportion to the evil karma accumulated. These beings are reborn in another realm after their evil karma has run its course, they die, and they get another chance.
While the six realms depict the unfoldment of the samsaric world under the influence of those basic motives which form the center of the Wheel of Life, its outer rim shows the unfoldment of these principles in individual life. The twelve phases of Interdependent Origination, the Nidenas, are links in the causal chain of neurotic mind. They represent the psychological mechanism of the process of karma, which is the chain of cause and effect which governs existence. The twelve nidanas, moving clockwise are as follows:
1. Primordial Ignorance – here represented by a blind
woman with a staff. On account of spiritual blindness
beings create illusory pictures of themselves and the
world. This mental state of delusion obscures reality’s
pristine beauty. Ignorance gives rise to—
2. Fashioning- A potter throwing a pot on a wheel
denotes motivating energies which propel the mind
from one relative position to another. Just as a
potter creates the shape of pots from formless clay,
so do we form our character and destiny, our karma,
through deeds, words, and thoughts. Out of the still
unformed material of our life we create our future consciousness.
3. Consciousness- This consciousness which stands at
the beginning of a new life and at the start of all
new situations (which is every instant) is
represented in the third picture as a monkey. Just
as a monkey jumps from branch to branch so does
conscious awareness leap from object to object.
Consciousness, however, cannot exist by itself. Besides having the
property of constantly moving from object to object, consciousness has
the capacity to crystalize and polarize itself into material Form and mental
functions (form and name).
4. Name and Form- A ferryman propelling a boat with
two passengers symbolizes basic consciousness and
the close relationship between name and form, between mind and
body. The psycho-physical (mind - body) organism has four personality
constituents.(sometimes portrayed as four passengers). These are
form, feeling, perception and impulses; together with
consciousness they are called the five skandhas.
5. Sense Perception- The psycho-physical organism I is further
differentiated through the formation and action of the senses. These
faculties are like windows of a house through which we look upon the
world outside. The six fields of perception (five senses plus the mind)
structure the world into sights, sounds, smells, testes, textures, and
6. Contact- The senses give rise to desire for contact with their objects—
symbolized in the form of the first contact between lovers.
7. Feeling- Contact gives rise to feelings of pleasure and pain. We are
blinded by feelings as a man blinded by an arrow. Feelings are classified
as pleasant (that which we would like to feel again), unpleasant (what we
would like to get rid of when it is present), and indifferent (where neither
of these two desires occur).
8. Craving- The man drinking in the eighth picture symbolizes the thirst for
life, or craving for agreeable sensations.
9. Grasping- From craving arises the grasping and clinging to desired
objects. This is symbolized by a monkey snatching fruit from a tree.
10. Becoming- Craving and grasping lead to new situations in the world.
Strengthening the bonds of life, this constant becoming, the
continuity of existence, is symbolized by a pregnant woman.
11. Birth- A woman in childbirth indicates the arising of a new being, for
each moment is a new beginning.
12. Death- Decay and death are the inevitable culmination of any situation
in the world of phenomena. A man carrying a corpse illustrates the last
of the twelve links of the formula of Interdependent Origination is the law
of causality which says that no thing spontaneously exists on its own.
Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections and undergoes a
continual process of transformation.
The sequence of the twelve nidanas is not a simple linear relation. The twelve occur simultaneously in each instant of thought, like layers around a core of unknowing. The resulting illusion expresses itself in six specific styles, yielding the six realms.
The entire Wheel of Life is in ths grasp of Yama, Lord of Death, who symbolizes the relentlessness of time and process, the inescapability of cause and effect. The basic constituents of ego interact continuously to maintain the delusion. Clinging to the false notion of its permanency, the ego suffers successive samsaric rounds of death and rebirth. Aeon upon aeon it fashions its own rewards and retributions. Every thought, word, and action produce karma, a force which brings results directly in accordance with their causes. Whatever tends to diminish the ego-illusion loosens the grip of karma; whatever strengthens it draws tight the bonds. The remedy to this situation lies in freeing oneself from Samsara by destroying the last shreds of egohood. According to tantric Buddhism, seeing through the ignorance aspect, by eliminating illusion’s game, reveals enlightenment in every moment.
Near the top of the Wheel of Life drawing, away from the endless samsaric circle, stands the Buddha. He points away from the samsaric wheel of life. In some paintings he points towards a Pure Realm; in some he points at another, more simple wheel with eight spokes. The Wheel of the Dharma comprises the universal and spiritual law and its ethical application in the life of the individual.