Wheel of Life

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The Wheel of Life

Wheel of Life (Skt. bhavacakra; Wyl. srid pa'i 'khor lo) - a traditional representation of the samsaric cycle of existence.

Overview

The Wheel of Life is a traditional representation of the samsaric cycle of existence. In brief:

The Dalai Lama writes:

Symbolically [the inner] three circles, moving from the center outward, show that the three afflictive emotions[1] of desire, hatred, and ignorance give rise to virtuous and non-virtuous actions, which in turn give rise to levels of suffering in cyclic existence. The outer rim symbolizing the twelve links of dependent arising indicates how the sources of suffering--actions and afflictive emotions--produce lives within cyclic existence. The fierce being holding the wheel symbolizes impermanence... The moon [at the top] indicates liberation. The Buddha on the left is pointing to the moon, indicating that liberation that causes one to cross of ocean of suffering of cyclic existence should be actualized.[2]

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche writes:

One of the reasons why the Wheel of Life was painted outside the monasteries and on the walls (and was really encouraged even by the Buddha himself) is to teach this very profound Buddhist philosophy of life and perception to more simple-minded farmers or cowherds. So these images on the Wheel of Life are just to communicate to the general audience.[3]

Center of the Wheel: The Three Poisons

The centre of the Wheel of Life.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche said:

Tibetans have a traditional painting called the Wheel of Life, which depicts the samsaric cycle of existence. In the center of this wheel are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird. They represent the three poisons. The pig stands for ignorance, although a pig is not necessarily more stupid than other animals. The comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals, since it always sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. Similarly, the snake is identified with anger because it will be aroused and leap up at the slightest touch. The bird represents desire and clinging. In Western publications it is frequently referred to as a cock, but this is not exactly accurate. This particular bird does not exist in Western countries, as far as I know. It is used as a symbol because it is very attached to it's partner. These three animals represent the three main mental poisons, which are the core of the Wheel of Life. Stirred by these, the whole cycle of existence evolves. Without them, there is no samsara.[4]

Second Layer: Positive and Negative Actions

The images in this layer vary in different paintings of the wheel. In the image shown here, the two half circles represent positive and negative actions, or karma, that are motivated by the three poisons of ignorance, attachment/desire and aversion/hatred.

  • The half-circle on the right shows positive or virtuous actions. Such actions are the means for attaining lives in the three higher realms of the gods, demi-gods and humans.
  • The half-circle on the left shows negative or non-virtuous actions. Such actions are the means for attaining lives in the three lower realms of the animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings.

Third Layer: Six Realms of Samsara

The third layer of the wheel depicts the six realms of samsara.

Fourth Layer: Twelve Links

The fourth layer of the wheel depicts the twelve links of interdependent origination.

The Monster Holding the Wheel

Jeffrey Hopkins writes:

The wheel in the center of the painting is in the grasp of a frightful monster. This signifies that the entire process of cyclic existence is caught within transience. Everything in our type of life is characterized by impermanence. Whatever is built will fall down, whatever and whoever come together will fall apart.[5]

The Dalai Lama writes:

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.[6]

Internal Links

Further Reading

Notes

  1. An alternate translation of the three poisons
  2. The Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom, 1992, page 42.
  3. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Gentle Voice #22, September 2004 Issue, page 3
  4. Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion, 2005 page 30.
  5. The Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom, 1992, page 3.
  6. The Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom, 1992, page 42.