Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra) click here to see the painting

There are certain concepts that are inherent in the list of possible outcomes to your life that need to be further explained because the Buddhist cosmology and understanding of life and death are a little different from what is held to be true in the west.  The Buddha knew how difficult it was to explain his realization and understanding of the truth of the universe to those that he met in His time as well—especially to the kings and sophisticated scholars who also had a different notion as to the nature of reality, but also to the illiterate and lower castes as well.  To explain the cycle of birth and death to a local ruler, the Buddha had a diagram painted that has come to us as the “Wheel of Life.”  The Buddha told his friend, King Bimbisara of Magadha, to have it drawn to give another king in return for a jeweled robe.  It is said that the second king became enlightened upon studying it.  The Buddha also instructed his monks to have a copy of this painted everywhere the Dharma was taught.  It was taken to Tibet and used there as well.  You can find many thangka paintings of this teaching.  One did not have to be literate or understand the language of the teacher to understand this visual aide. 

It is still a popular way to explain the essence of the Buddha’s basic teachings of the Four Noble Truths of the existence of earthly suffering, the origin and cause of suffering, the ending or prevention of suffering, and the path to freedom from suffering.  It can be said that all of the multitude of Buddhists teachings and all of the 84,00 Dharmas have their root in this teaching.  It is just that the methods and time required for escaping this wheel and obtaining liberation can vary considerably.

The Wheel of Life, held by Yama Bodhisattva, the ruler of the Ghost and Hell Realms, describes the theory of dependent origination and the workings of karma as experienced by all of us from birth to death.  Its twelve vignettes of life on earth remind us that we are responsible for our own fate and are our own judge and jury and that no one else can be blamed or feared for what happens to us because everything is the results of our own actions, thoughts and words.  The inner circle has either five or six sections to show us what life is like in all of the realms, whether as a god or deva; an asura or titan in the realm of the demi-gods; the human realm; the animal realm; the realm of pretas or hungry ghosts or spirits; and hell realms of narakas or demons.  Sometimes the realms of the gods and demi-gods are combined.  In many drawings you will find a Buddha or bodhisattva in each of the realms.  This is to show that liberation is possible for all beings, no matter which realm they may find themselves.  The Buddha is also shown in the upper right pointing to the way.

In the most center hub of this wheel are the symbols for the three poisons that keep us chained to this cycle:  The dove or rooster who symbolizes greed, desire or attachment; the snake who symbolizes hatred or aversion; and the pig who symbolizes delusion or ignorance and who holds the root cause of the other two.  Sometimes this painting has the snake and rooster coming out of the mouth of the pig; sometimes they are all just linked in a circle.  Around this hub the drawing will usually have the dark path on the right that only descends from ignorance into the lowest hells and on the left is the white path that ascends to more wholesome and better lives and eventually to liberation from this endless cycle of birth and death.  However, unless you become enlightened and leave this cycle, you will continue to migrate around the wheel.  Heavenly rebirths may be pleasant and a reward for good deeds, but they are only temporary.

Wheel of Life

The following twelve links of dependent origination is the Buddha’s explanation of the process by which beings live, die, and are reborn again.

Ignorance:  This is the sower of the seed—being ignorant of the Law of Cause and Effect and being ignorant of the mode of existence of things.  It is illustrated with an old blind man with a stick who cannot find his way who symbolizes our unenlightened state of existence.

Compositional Factors:  These are the karmic actions, motivated by ignorance that are like the seed that create unmeritorious karma and results in rebirth in either the higher or lower realms.  This is illustrated by a potter who molds his own fate by his karmic actions, as a potter molds his clay.

Consciousness:  This can be seen in two parts.  The first is the consciousness at the time of the cause that occurs immediately after the instinct or latency of the compositional factor (karma) has been imprinted.  This is like the earth into which the seed is planted.  The second is the consciousness at the time of the result that occurs immediately after conception in the next incarnation.  This is the link that carries over from birth to birth.  This is shown as a monkey swinging from branch to branch, totally unaware, like ordinary people who, ignorant of the Law of Cause and Effect and the nature of reality, lack control of consciousness and swing from one object to another.

Name and Form:  The form link is the blood (egg) and sperm in their first stage of development into which the consciousness has been placed, while the name link is the remaining four aggregates of feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.  In the Formless Sphere there are only the name link—there are no links of form.  These two conditions are symbolized on the wheel by two people in a boat.

Six Senses:  Once the six sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) have formed, the link of the six senses only applies as long as one still cannot discriminate between objects.  Since the physical and mental faculties are said to exist from the period of initial fetal development or conception, this link happens simultaneously with the “Name and Form” link.  For miraculous or transformational births (the most common since hell beings and hungry ghosts as well as the heavenly beings are all born in this manner) the fourth and fifth links also occur simultaneously.  In the Formless Sphere there is only consciousness, none of the five physical sense faculties.  This link is shown by a house with five windows and a door, symbolizing the five senses and the door of mind consciousness.  Sometimes there are only six windows.  This is how ordinary (unenlightened) beings perceive the outer world.

Contact:  Without any contact of the sense organs with their objects there could be no feelings.  As soon as the previous links are formed, then the potential object, the appropriate sense faculty and the related sense consciousness are present and can interact, then one can discriminate between pleasant, unpleasant and neutral objects.   The contact link provides the conditions for the development of one of the three types of feeling:  happiness, suffering, or equanimity—we like what we feel, we don’t like it, or we are neutral.  Here we see a man and woman embracing, demonstrating the most intimate of all contacts that most people can understand.

Feeling:  This is the condition that generates our cravings—the feelings born of contact with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and intellect.  Without feeling there would be no craving.  Our feelings serve as a subsidiary cause for the development of craving if we still have ignorance.  Craving occurs when we don’t want to be separated from what we like and want to avoid what we don’t like.  We can even crave that our equanimity does not decline.  This is aptly illustrated by a man who has just been struck in the eye with an arrow.  However, if we do not have ignorance, we may still have feelings, yet craving will not develop. 

Craving:  It is craving—that hankering after the world of the senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, mind consciousness) that create attachments, the condition of clinging.  Without the initial craving there would be no clinging or attachments.  The illustration for this link is a woman offering water to a man or a man drinking, symbolizing many of the cravings.

Clinging or Grasping:  Without clinging to views, our sensual pleasures and dislikes, old habits or modes of behavior, and concepts of self, there would be no becoming.  Here we have either a monkey or man picking fruit from a tree, symbolizing our grasping for that which we desire.

Becoming:  In the past, the compositional factors implanted the instinct of some karmic action into the consciousness.   Craving and grasping activate this instinct, which then becomes potent enough to throw one into a body in a future rebirth.  This is becoming.  Without becoming there would be no birth.  A beautiful young bride, or a couple in bed, or a pregnant woman symbolize the creation of a new life in this illustration.

Rebirth:  This link extends from just after this activation until we are conceived in one of the four types of rebirth.  It is this activated or potent karma that is responsible for our reincarnation.  An obvious condition for old age and eventual death for without birth how could there be old age or death?  A woman crouched in the primitive position of giving birth to a child is shown here.

Old Age and Death:  This link represents the maturing of the aggregates, the gradual changing of their condition that happens immediately after conception.  In some Asian countries one’s age is calculated from conception, not birth.  To a Buddhist, this life begins at conception, not birth.  This link is illustrated by someone carrying a corpse to be buried, cremated, or left for “sky” burial, as was the custom in Tibet.

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