The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life or Existence is a pictorial representation of the Law of Dependent Origination
(Paticca-Samuppada). It is usually depicted on the wall facing the main shrine of the Lhakang
(a hall housing the principle deity) or Dukhang (a hall of assembly for the monks). It is also an
unique and superb representation of Samsara, the world of Birth and Death.

   At the rim of the Wheel are the twelve illustrations which represent the Twelvefold Chain of
Causation whereby sentient beings are ensnared life after life. It can be explained thus:

1.    A Blind Man as primordial Ignorance.
2.    A Potter as Activity which brings about Karmic Foundations.
3.    An Active Monkey as Consciousness.
4.    Two Men In A Boat as Name and Form.
5.    Houses With Six Windows as Six Entrances.
6.    Love-Making as Contact.
7.    Arrow In The Eye as Feeling.
8.    Drinking as Thirst or Craving.
9.    A Monkey Grasping Fruits as Grasping.
10.  A Pregnant Woman as Becoming or Existence.
11.  Childbirth as Birth.
12.  Man Carrying A Corpse representing Decay which results in Death to be followed by
       rounds of birth and death endlessly within the samsaric existence.

   The Yama (Lord of Death) holds the Six Realms of Existence with his jaws and claws. It
reminds us of impermanence and shows that there is not a single being in samsaric existence
who is outside the control of death.

   The upper part of the Wheel depicted the higher rebirths and the lower part of the Wheel
depicted the lower rebirths. The higher rebirths are the Realm of the Devas, the Realm of the
Asuras and the Realm of the Human. The lower rebirths are the Realm of the Animals, the
Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and the Realm of the Hell Beings.

   The Realm of the Devas or Gods is the happiest state as those who dwell there enjoy
continual pleasure and sensual delight, mitigated only by the fact that they too must eventually
die and pass on to the other states once their karmic forces die out. Birth into this realm is
mainly due to one having lived virtuously and generously towards others.

   The Realm of the Asuras is populated by 'jealousy gods' or demigods who should be
as happy as the Devas, but their minds are clouded with anger and envy over the better
fortunes of the Devas. A close look at the picture will reveal that there is a tree growing
from this realm to that of the Devas. This tree is known as the "Wish-Fulfilling Tree" whose
fruits and flowers can fulfill every desire which they are unable to get hold of. This causes
them great frustrations, anger and jealousy and they therefore constantly wage wars against
the Devas to claim the fruits of their tree. However, they are always defeated because the
Devas are far more powerful than the Asuras due to their karmic disposition. Despite being
living in a heavenly realm, the Asuras live in great suffering because of not getting what they
want. Next, the suffering is further increaseed by their being born with monstrous looks
while their women are exquisitively beautiful. This situation causes their females to yearn
for the love of the handsome gods and rejecting their own advances. Life in this realm is
always filled with quarrels, fighting and great violence.

   The Realm of the Animals is populated by three types of animals, 1. those who dwell in the
outer oceans, 2. those who dwell in the darkness between the continents, and 3. those who
are scattered in the higher realms. Those who dwell in the outer oceans are said to be countless
animals dissimilar in name and type. Common of all of them is the suffering of stupidity and
delusion. For examples, the suffering of many small fish being eaten simultaneously by a large
sea creature, and the like. There is a suffering caused by many small ones penetrating the large
ones and constantly eating away by them. The nagas have suffering caused by a shower of
hot sands, and by the garudas harming them. Common to all is the suffering of suffocation and
bad smell, the suffering of uncertainty of habitat and companions, the suffering of cold in the
winter and heat in the summer and so on. The sufferings which abound for them are beyond
description. Those who dwell in the darkness between the continents are animals which have
sufferings similar to first type. On top of these sufferings, they cannot even see their own
outstretched or bent-in arms and legs. Due to the power of hunger and thirst, they have the
suffering of not finding anything to eat except what appears right in front of them. Those who
are scattered in the higher realms, are animals that are ownerless and that are slaughtered,
either by other animals or humans and non-humans for the sake of pearls, furs, bones, flesh,
skin, and the like. Those who have owners have, on top of the above sufferings, the sufferings
of being enslaved, employed, bound, beaten, and finally slaughtered. Again, their sufferings
are beyond conception.

   Realm of the Pretas or Hungry Ghosts are beings which oftenly have great terrible sufferings
created by hunger, thirst, cold, heat, weariness, and fear will have to be endured. In general, it
is said that there are about thirty-six types of hungry ghosts but if it is categorized, there are
three: those with 1. external obscurations, 2. internal obscurations, and 3. the obscuration of
obscurations. They are born with a mouth just the size of a needle's eye, a throat as narrow as
a horse-tail's hair, limbs as thin as grass-stalks, a belly  as vast as a mountain, frazzled hair,
dried-out skin and flesh molded onto the bones. One's body emits groaning sounds and creaks
like the pulling of an old cart. Moving about, the joints cause a great pain as intense as the blaze
of a fire. With many such pains of weariness and faitgue, however much one searches, one does
not find food and drink. And even if once in a great while one finds a little, it is guarded by a
large numbers of others who are more powerful than oneself. Carrying weapons, they beat,
pelt, and mistreat one in various ways. Not being allowed to eat, one experiences suffering of
both body and mind. Still, when one begins to eat, the food will not go into the mouth. Even if
it enters, it does not go past the throat. Even if it passes through, it is of no benefit on reaching
the stomach, for the distress of hunger and thirst becomes greater than before. Others have
the sufferings when one is eating the food, the food immediately blazes up into great flames,
so that tongues of flame flutter out of one's nose and mouth and one utters a terrible, great noise.
One has many sufferings of eating hot sand while other fights the others for food and eats the
pus of ripened goiters on one's throat. For all categories of hungry ghosts, even the light of the
summer moon causes heat and that of the winter sun causes cold. Though one approaches a
fruit-bearing tree or a great river, these dry up when merely looked upon with wishful thoughts
of enjoying them. In this way, one has inexpressible sufferings.

   Realms of the Hell Beings are beings who have the suffering of the cold hells, the hot hells,
and the neighboring and minor hells. The eight cold hells are: 1. The Blister Hell, 2. The
Bursting Blister Hell, 3. The Brrr Hell, 4. The Alasss Hell, 5. The Chattering Teeth Hell, 6.
The Utpala Flower Hell, 7. The Cracked Like a Lotus Hell and 8. the Greatly Cracked Like
a Lotus Hell. The eight hot hells are: 1. The Reviving Hell, 2. The Black Line Hell, 3. The
Crushing Hell, 4. The Wailing Hell, 5. The Great Wailing Hell, 6. The Hot Hell, 7. The Greatly
Hot Hell and 8. The Unceasing Hell. The neighbouring hells and minor hells are found on each
sides of the hot hells. They are known as The Fire Trench Hell, The Mud of Putrid Corpses
Hell, The Path of Blazes Hell, The Forest of Swords, The Shamali Trees and the Riber Hell.
Thus there are sixteen neighbouring hells. Moreover, there are indescribable hells such as ones
which are like pillars, like rows of seats, and like brooms, and hells wherein there is pleasure
by day but suffering at night, and others where in nights hold pleasure, but days have suffering.
It is said that even the very greatest sufferings of the Human Realm cannot become an example
of even the slightest of the agonies of the hells.

   The Human Realm is where we are. It is filled with the ups and downs of life and we should
be grateful for these conditions to be around. They bring about the awareness of the bliss of
happiness and the misery of suffering and therefore become the very causes that lead to spiritual
practice. It is therefore the most fortunate realm to take rebirth into, the world where one is able
to listen to the Dharma and practice it to attain Buddhahood. In the heavenly realm the Devas
are far too happily engrossed with their worldly pleasure to think about further cultivation of
virtues while the Asuras are too much affected by anger, jealousy and frustrations of their
existence. Those who are born into the lower or suffering realms are too concerned with their
pains and survivial to think about spiritual practice or enlightenment. Hell beings only await the
exhaustion of their karma to end their indescribable sufferings while the Pretas or Hungry Ghosts
are totally distorted by the deep frustrations to satisfy their unsatisfied passions. Animals, while
suffering less, are born stupid due to the result of their willfull ignorance and are therefore unable
to derive any benefit from Dharma. They live only by instinct and must face a daily routine of
searching for food or mate and hunting or being hunted.

   In the centre of the Wheel, we can see the Three Animals which represent the Three Poisons.
The Rooster or Pigeon represents passionate desire and attachment, the Green Snake represents
hatred, emity and aversion, and the Boar represents the darkness of ignorance and ego-delusion.
Usually, they are depicted as biting each other's tails, linking in such a way that they too form a
circle because Ignorance, Hatred and Desire condition each other and are inseparably connected.
We must learn to recognise these poisons as the forces that control our qualitiy of life and take
proper steps to quell and remove them.

   Death is not the final extinction of the mind, but rather marks the transition between one
life and another. Just as we move up and down within one lifetime, experiencing alternating
pleasure and pain, so too do we move up and down from one life to the next depending
upon the positive and negative actions which we have performed. The 'dream-like' intermediate
state between death and rebirth, or bardo, is illustrated in the half black and white circle
located between the hub of delusions and the Six Realms. The Six Bardo Beings are shown
in the forms they will take after they 'wake up' in their next rebirth realms. On the left are
depicted future human, demigod and god beings going upwards towards the higher realms,
while on the right future animal, hungry ghost and hell beings are shown descending towards
the lower realms.

   The figure of the Buddha in the right hand corner, standing outside the Wheel, shows that
buddhas are outside samsara. By pointing to the moon, which symbolises the attainment of
nirvana, the cool peaceful state of mind free from all delusion and suffering, the Buddha shows
the way to attain liberation from the misery of cyclic existence.

   In order to break the chain of perpetual suffering, death and rebirth, symbolized by the wheel,
we need to eliminate the fundamental delusion of Ignorance. We must always remember that the
Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind. It will never end by itself,
but by deiligently practising the true spiritual path and thereby eliminating our delusions we can
bring our samsara to an end.