The Wheel of Life or “Bhavacakra” is well recognized as an important meditation tool by Buddhist monks, and also by students to learn and understand Buddha’s teachings.
Legendary Story of the Wheel of Life Painting
Legend has it that the Buddha himself created the first depiction of the bhavacakra, and the story of how he gave the illustration to King Rudrayana appears in the anthology of Buddhist narratives called the Divyavadana.
The bhavacakra is a symbolic representation of samsara found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Indo-Tibet region.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the drawing was designed by the Buddha himself in order to help ordinary people understand the Buddhist teachings.
wheel of life is also known as the Wheel of becoming, Wheel of cyclic existence, Wheel of existence, Wheel of life, Wheel of rebirth, Wheel of samsara, Wheel of suffering, Wheel of transformation
Central Ring: The 3 Poisons of the Wheel of Life
In the hub of the wheel are three animals a pig, a snake, and a bird. They represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
The pig stands for ignorance this comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals since it sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth.
The snake represents aversion or anger; this is because it will be aroused and strike at the slightest touch. The bird represents attachment.
The particular bird used in this diagram represents an Indian bird that is very attached to its partner. These three animals represent the three poisons, which are the core of the Wheel of Life.
From these three poisons, the whole cycle of existence evolves.
Second Ring: Karma
The second layer of the wheel shows two-half circles:
One half-circle (usually light) shows contented people moving upwards to higher states, possibly to the higher realms The other half-circle (usually dark) shows people in a miserable state being led downwards to lower states, possibly to the lower realms
These images represent karma, the law of cause and effect. The light half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of positive actions. The dark half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of negative actions.
Third Layer: Six Realms of Life or Samsara
It is consists of 6 realms god, demigod, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell realm.
The 3 upper Reals are god, demigod, and human.
The gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma. When death comes to them, they are completely unprepared; without realizing it, they have completely exhausted their good karma (which was the cause for being reborn in the god realm) and they suffer through being reborn in the lower realms
The demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they spend their time fighting among themselves or making war on the gods. When they make war on the gods, they always lose, since the gods are much more powerful. The demi-gods suffer from constant fighting and jealousy, and from being killed and wounded in their wars with each other and with the gods.
humans suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don’t want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Yet the human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).
The 3 lower Reals are animal, hell, and hungry ghosts.
wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals; they generally lead lives of constant fear. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans; for example, they are slaughtered for food, overworked, and so on.
Hungry Ghost Realm
hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony.
hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment. In the hot hells, beings suffer from unbearable heat and continual torments of various kinds. In the cold hells, beings suffer from unbearable cold and other torments.
Generally speaking, each realm is said to be the result of one of the six main negative emotions: pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger.
Dzongsar Khyentse states:
So we have six realms. Loosely, you can say when the perception comes more from aggression, you experience things in a hellish way. When your perception is filtered through attachment, grasping or miserliness, you experience the hungry ghost realm. When your perception is filtered through ignorance, then you experience the animal realm. When you have a lot of pride, you are reborn in the god realm. When you have jealousy, you are reborn in the asura (demi-god) realm. When you have a lot of passion, you are reborn in the human realm. Among the six realms, the human realm is considered to offer the best opportunity to practice the dharma.
If we need to judge the value of these six realms, the Buddhists would say the best realm is the human realm. Why is this the best realm? Because you have a choice. The gods don’t have a choice. Why? They’re too happy. When you are too happy you have no choice. You become arrogant. The hell realm: no choice, too painful. The human realm: not too happy and also not too painful. When you are not so happy and not in so much pain, what does that mean? Is a step closer to the normality of mind, remember? When you are really, really excited and in ecstasy, there is no normality of mind. And when you are totally in pain, you don’t experience normality of mind either. So someone in the human realm has the best chance of acquiring that normality of mind. And this is why in Buddhist prayers you will always read: ideally, may we get out of this place, but if we can’t do it within this life, may we be reborn in the human realm, not the others.
Sometimes, the wheel is represented as only having five realms because the God realm and the Demi-god realm are combined into a single realm.
In some representations of the wheel, there is a buddha or bodhisattva depicted within each realm, trying to help sentient beings find their way to nirvana.
Outer Rim of the Wheel of Life: 12 links
The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.
Ignorance is the first of the 12 causes and conditions, both of our rebirth and of maturing any karma within our dependent existence.
Different causes can overlap in different stages and even mature in the next existences – lives. Yet the turning of the wheel goes onward.
- Avidya lack of knowledge – a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out
- Samskara constructive volitional activity – a potter shaping a vessel or vessels
- Vijnana consciousness – a man or a monkey grasping a fruit
- Namarupa name and form – two men afloat in a boat
- Sadayatana six senses – a dwelling with six windows
- Sparsa contact – lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined
- Vedana pain – an arrow to the eye
- Trisna thirst – a drinker receiving a drink
- Upadana grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit
- Bhava coming to be – a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person
- Jati being born – a woman giving birth.
- Aramarana old age and death – corpse being carried
The wheel is being held by a fearsome figure who represents impermanence. The impermanence is the one holding the wheel of life figure.
The Dalai Lama states:
The fierce being holding the wheel symbolizes impermanence, which is why the being is a wrathful monster, though there is no need for it to be drawn with ornaments and so forth. Once I had such a painting drawn with a skeleton rather than a monster, in order to symbolize impermanence more clearly.
This figure is most commonly depicted as Yama, the lord of death. Regardless of the figure depicted, the inner meaning remains the same-that the entire process of cyclic existence is transient; everything within this wheel is constantly changing.
Yama has the following attributes:
- He wears the crown of five skulls that symbolize the impermanence of the five aggregates.
- He has a third eye that symbolizes the wisdom of understanding impermanence.
- He is sometimes shown adorned with a tiger skin, which symbolizes fearfulness.
- His four limbs symbolize the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
The Liberation: Buddha and Moon
Drawings of the bhavacakra include symbols outside of the wheel that represents the possibility of liberation from six realms.
In most Wheel of life Thangkas, this is represented by the Buddha pointing toward the moon painting from Thikse monastery, at right, in this case:
The Buddha pointing toward the moon represents the Buddha’s teachings or the path to liberation. And the moon represents liberation itself.