The Wheel of Life
The Wheel of Life illustrates in a popular way the essence of the Buddhist teachings, the Four Truths, the existence of earthly suffering, its origin and cause, the ending or prevention of misery and the practice path to liberation from suffering.
Table of Contents
The Three Poisons
The center of the wheel represents the three poisons. They are desire or attachment, anger or aggression, ignorance. Desire is passion, one of the three principal destructive emotions. Anger is a mind which is hostile towards a sentient being, suffering or the cause of suffering. It prevents one from remaining in peace and is the support for negative actions. Ignorance is not knowing karma of cause and effect, the truths, and the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It causes the thorough affliction to arise.
The second layer represents positive and negative actions or karma. Karma means ‘action’ but it also refers to the process of cause and effect whereby positive actions result in happiness and negative, harmful actions lead to suffering. The real message of the teachings on karma is responsibility.
Sogyal Rinpoche says
“Karma, then, is not fatalistic or predetermined. Karma means our ability to create and to change. It is creative because we can determine how and why we act. We can change.”
The Symbolic Six Worlds
The third layer represents the six realms of samsara. They consist of hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, demi-gods, or asuras and gods.
The Hell Realms
Hell Realms is one of the six classes of beings which inhabit any of the hell realms. The bodies of hell beings are four times as big as those of the inhabitants of this world, and the color of boiled blood. Their skin is as delicate as that of a newborn prince, as fragile as gossamer-fine strands of wool. Their bodies are fully fleshed and tender, and exquisitely sensitive to touch, like the eye. Their hair swirls upward, their eyes are triangular, the hairs on their bodies stand on end, and they have big hands and feet and large bellies. The mere sight of these hell beings, like wrathful deities, would be enough to make a person from our world faint.
The Preta Realms
The Sanskrit preta literally means ‘departed’. The preta realm is destitute of food and drink, creating hunger and thirst. It is a grim place of rocks and charred tree stumps, where the words‘ food’, ‘drink’ or ‘comfort’ have never even been heard. Since these pretas do not find anything to eat or drink for months and years on end, their bodies are emaciated like skeletons and they lack even the strength to stand. The principal cause is being miserly or greedy for wealth and possessions.
The Animal Realms
The animal realms are the realm of the animals among the six classes of beings. Animals either inhabit the great oceans i.e animals living in the depths or live mostly on the earth, in water, in trees, in the realms of the gods or humans.
The Human Realms
The human realm is only one of the six classes of beings according to Buddhism. Humans dwell on either of the four continents that surround Mount Meru, such as our world of Jambudvipa, and on their respective two subcontinents. Beings on each of these four continents remain unseen from each other and have slightly different physical characteristics and life-spans.
The Demigods Realms
Demigods realm is one of the six classes of beings. They are powerful and intelligent beings who dwell in cavities inside Mount Meru down to the universal golden basis and whose pleasures and abundance rival those of the gods. The dominant characteristic of the demigods is paranoia and jealousy, so they spend all their time fighting and quarreling among themselves over possessions and territories. Seeing that all the gods’ desires are provided by a wish-fulfilling tree whose roots are in their own realm, they constantly wage war against the gods but invariably lose in the face of the overpowering superiority of the gods.
The God Realms
The God realm is divine samsaric states are the fruit of positive karma generally related to acts of generosity, meditative concentration or practices of asceticism, but which are still tainted by worldly goals. Because the life of the gods is free from suffering, the idea of practicing Dharma never occurs to them. When the effect of the actions which sent them there is exhausted, these gods will suffer a lot, while their body is gradually degenerating. At the end of their lives, they have very frightening visions of their upcoming lower rebirth in samsara, in which these gods inevitably fall back into.
The twelve interdependent causes and their effects
The fourth layer represents the twelve links of interdependent origination. They are ignorance, formation, consciousness, name and form, six ayatanas, contact, sensation, craving grasping becoming rebirth, and death.
The first picture: Beginning with Ignorance, which is spiritual blindness, illustrated by an old and sightless man with a stick, unable to find his way.
The second picture shows a potter, his pots being symbolic of his own deeds, speaking, and thinking with which he molds his own karma, popularly called fate.
The third picture depicts a tree and a monkey springing from branch to branch: this symbolizes the major consciousness which in ignorant people springs uncontrolled from object to object. For this reason, by analysis leading to the understanding of inner and outer phenomena, Buddhist psychology always aims at the full control of consciousness.
The fourth picture shows a boat with two people, symbolizing name and form, spiritual and physical energy, inseparably floating on the stream of life.
The fifth picture is of a house with five windows and a door, symbolizing the five senses and the faculty of thinking, those entrances [i.e. the sense organs] by which the outer world is perceived.
The sixth picture, a man and a woman embracing, demonstrates contact, the consequence of sensual perceptions.
The seventh picture is dedicated to the emotions by which one is struck, as by an arrow in the eye.
The eighth picture, of a woman offering a drink to a man, illustrates desire, stimulated by perceptions and emotions and leading to the so-called thirst for life.
The ninth picture illustrates sensual entanglement: the longing to keep that which is desired, represented by a man plucking the fruits of a tree.
The tenth picture symbolizes the procreation of a new life, here depicted by a beautiful bride.
The eleventh picture shows the consequence: procreation is followed by birth, a woman giving birth to a child, shown here in the natural crouching position.
The twelfth and last picture shows old age and death, the inevitable end of all earthly existence, illustrated here by bearers with a bier, the corpse swathed and in the fetal posture ready for the next rebirth and further misery in one of the symbolic six worlds.
The monster holding the wheel represents impermanence. Impermanence is defined as an important feature of the Buddha’s teachings. Reflection on impermanence is one of the so-called “four thoughts”, the outer or ordinary preliminaries.The moon above the wheel represents liberation from the samsaric cycle of existence.The Buddha pointing to the moon indicates that liberation is possible.