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.
The Wheel of Life describes the cause of all evil and its effects, mirrored in earthly phenomena just as it is experienced by everyone from the cradle to the grave. Picture by picture it reminds us that everyone is always his or her own judge and responsible for their own fate, because, according to Karma, causes and their effects are the fruits of one’s own deeds.
The circular composition of the Wheel of Life guides the viewer from picture to picture along the black path or the white path. It leads him or her through the twelve interwoven causes and their consequences to rebirth in one of the so-called Six Worlds. Projected on one plane, they fill the whole inner sphere the Wheel of Life. But the meaning of this painting is to show the way out of all these worlds of suffering into the sphere beyond.
The Wheel of Life is dedicated to all animated beings who have not yet attained the first step of spiritual liberation [Nirvana]. It, therefore, illustrates in a popular way the essence of the Buddhist teachings, the Four Truths: the existence of earthly suffering, its origin and cause, the cessation or prevention of misery and the practice path to liberation from earthly suffering.
The Wheel of Life describes the cause of all evil and its effects, mirrored in earthly phenomena just as it is experienced by every man from the cradle to the grave. Picture by picture it reminds us that everyone is always his or her own judge and responsible for their own fate, because, according to Karma, causes and their effects are the fruits of one’s own deeds. This so-called fate is demonstrated by the Lord of Dead, who like a monster holds the Wheel of Life in his claws; he is a symbol of the transitory nature of all earthly phenomena.
The picture path to follow begins in the center arrow of the wheel. There, the three spiritual poisons are depicted: a black pig for ignorance, a green snake for envy and hatred and a red cock and for lust and greed.
Whoever delivers himself up to these basic evils walks along the Dark Path leading to hells and bad rebirths. The other way is the Path of Bliss leading to better rebirths and upwards to final liberation. Both paths are illustrated by the ring surrounding the center of the picture scroll: saints and sages lead the virtuous along the Path of Bliss, and demons, armed with nooses, drag the sinners along the Dark Path. In this way, the ignorant and the sinful, by the twelve interdependent causes and their effects are mercilessly driven through the Wheel of Life.
The twelve interdependent causes and their effects
This is described by the twelve pictures of the outer circle: 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 [bottom left].
The second picture shows a potter, his pots being symbolic of his own deeds [acting, 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 Symbolic Six Worlds The first of these transitory worlds is the abode of the so-called Gods. It is a temporal paradise achieved by good deeds, and it is illustrated in the uppermost section of the wheel. Here the Buddha with the lute is seen reminding the gods of their limited pleasures and guarding them against vanity and haughtiness, which encourages them to believe in their own unperishability. But these gods are not yet freed from sorrow; they too, after thousands of human years, are subject to old age and death. Their special suffering is the illusion of the eternity of their paradisal state; their misery lies in their eventual comprehension of the error.
To the right, the World of Titansis illustrated: they are permanently warring against the gods and fighting for the fulfillment of their own desires; their suffering is the endless war, the resulted of envy and insatiable ambition. Here the Buddha appears with a sword.
Still in the upper half of the wheel, to the left, the World of Men is depicted: driven by egoism and ignorance, they suffer from the permanently repeated cycle of birth, sickness, and death. The Buddha with the begging bowl appears to help them.
In the lower half of the wheel, to the left, the World of Animals illustrates their special suffering: oppression by other beings. They devour each other and become beasts of burden. Here Buddha appears with a book.
The fifth world [bottom, right] is the realm of the insatiable, greedy ghosts, suffering from hunger and thirst which they can neither appease nor quench; they present a ghastly picture with tightened throats and bloated bellies. Here Buddha appears with a symbolic treasure box, filled with spiritual jewels.
The last world follows [bottom] with the cold and hot hells. They are places of torment for all those who have committed evil deeds out of hatred and anger. But this infernal life, however long, is not eternal; after atoning for sins, rebirth into a better world is always possible. In the World of Hells an assistant of the Lord of the Dead weights the deeds of the deceased who are entering his kingdom, but this is administrative work because the fate dead has already been decided by themselves. Here the Buddha appears, bearing a flame, to bring light and hope even to these darkest regions.
The appearance of the Buddha in the Six Worlds commemorates also the potential Nirvana, inherent in all beings, because all creatures, the proud gods as well as insatiable monsters, the warring Titans suffering men, as well as the tormented beings in hell and the animals, all have the possibility of attaining salvation in a future good rebirth in the World of Men.