of Buddha's foremost disciples was Maudgalyayana.
He was said to be extremely adept at
spiritual practices and had such mastery
over psychic powers that he could penetrate
into the soul of any individual and
visualize all that was happening there
this ability to enter deeply into the
lives of another it is not surprising
that the insights expressed in his teachings
gained a wide audience and universal
acceptance. Buddha, noticing this, proposed
that a picture should be made representing
Maudgalyayana's teachings, so that his
message could be made available to even
those who did not have direct access
to him. Thus was born the esoteric image
known as 'The Wheel of Life.' This diagram
serves as a powerful inspiration to
spiritual aspirants and is painted to
the left of all Tibetan monasteries,
offering an opportunity to both monks
and pilgrims alike, to look deeply into
their own inner beings.
An amazing collection
of contrasting imagery, each aspect
of this composition is packed with rich
symbolism and direct, hard-hitting metaphors.
Essentially a construction made up of
four concentric circles, it is an attempt
to convey spiritual insights behind
our 'physical existence' in purely visual
The Buddhist view
is that we humans exist in an unenlightened
state. The goal of our earthly sojourn
is to attain enlightenment and gain
deliverance from the constant cycle
of birth and re-birth which characterizes
all sentient beings.
There are various
reasons for the suffering our mortal
forms have to entail. The Wheel of Life
presents these very causes for our suffering
through both gruesome and sublime imagery.
But under no condition is it a pessimistic
presentation, rather it is an optimistic
affirmation that redemption is possible
by recognizing the delusions that plague
our ephemeral existence. The first step
towards their elimination and replacement
by positive virtues is the recognition
of these ills. It is this very identification
that the Buddhist Wheel helps us in
attaining. By making visuals the primary
mode of expression, it makes these realizations
available to all, even the spiritually
On first viewing this metaphysical diagram, the attention of the viewer is immediately captured by the starkness of the center where are shown a pig, a snake, and a cock, running on endlessly (as life itself), and each emerging from another, in a kind of awful dance.
Each of these animals
represents a particular human failing
or weakness, which stands as an obstacle
to spiritual accomplishment. They are
known as the 'Three Poisons' because
from them grow all of life's evils,
and because they corrupt us from within.
It is appropriate that these forces
are depicted by animals, since they
represent primitive urges beneath our
supposedly civilized exterior.
The cock from which
emerges the snake represents greed.
No doubt, the proverbial vanity and
lust of this poor bird make it an appropriate
symbol for this human failing. The word
greed does not really do full justice
to the emotion symbolized by the cock
which includes the whole spectrum of
unwholesome desire from vague hankerings
to intense longings. A more appropriate
term would be 'craving.' Craving of
this sort can be observed for example
when we lose something and experience
not only regret or irritation at no
longer being able to enjoy it but a
deeper sense of loss, even a kind of
panic. It further signifies the most
natural of all human emotions, namely
our craving for admiration and approval
of those around us. In such a scenario
we are constantly looking at ourselves
through the eyes of the world, and lose
track of our inner life force, which,
rather than the approval and opinion
of others, should be the ultimate benchmark.
Thus said the Buddha Shakyamuni "Just
as a rock is not moved by the wind,
so the wise man is not moved by blame
Craving should be
distinguished from healthy desire. A
hungry person may want food, which is
a straightforward desire, and as soon
as one eats this hunger is satisfied.
This is an important distinction between
a natural, healthy desire and an unnatural
craving. The satisfaction of the former
leads to its termination, while in the
case of the latter any attempt at gratification
leads to further temptation, as in the
case of lust for money for its own sake.
Next is the snake
that signifies aggression. It is a symbol
of our instinctive self. Our inherent
instinctive nature is aggressive. When
things do not work out as we would have
wanted them to, our first reaction is
to blame others and we then try to force
the situation, which leads to resistance.
Any time we meet resistance, if we force
the situation, the resistance will only
increase. Thus we have to distrust out
first instinctive reaction to an unfavorable
situation, and proceed only after the
first wave of anger and frustration
has subsided. It is not that we are
not aware that we must restrain our
impromptu, on the spot retroactions,
but we are lulled into complacency and
such reactions slither past our better
judgement (like a serpent).
From the mouth of
the snake issues a pig, a symbol of
ignorance. The ears of a pig are large
enough such that they fall over his
eyes. Thus blinkered by its ears, the
pig is conscious only what its snout
is sticking into, and unaware of all
other that is happening near him. In
a similar manner our perspective on
life is narrowed by our cultural conditioning,
and we lose sight of our own essential,
natural being, which is but an extension
of the all pervading pure consciousness
Our attempts to satisfy
the misplaced desires, symbolized by
the cock, lead to unhealthy aggression,
making us insensitive and ignorant (as
the pig), to the feelings of those in
our immediate environment. This ignorance
makes us selfish and thus is reborn
the cock of desire from the pig, continuing
the cycle which binds us to the constant
wheel of samsara.
Next to the central circle is a concentric band divided along two halves. One is colored softly and radiantly, while the other is black. The darker portion shows individuals who have chosen the path of darkness and thus descend into gloomy depths. The glowing path, however, is the one taken by those following the righteous way, attaining spiritual ascension. Hence it shows mortals rising towards greater spiritual heights.
Our lives are dominated
essentially by two contradictory forces:
the evolutionary urge within us which
drives us to achieve new levels of consciousness
and the dead weight of our ignorance
which pulls us back to more limited
horizons. Our task, in taking up the
spiritual path, is to consciously allow
the forces of evolution to carry us
upward and to prevent ignorance from
binding us down. The evolutionary urge
is nothing but the pull towards Buddhahood,
and is there within each of us, but
it is heavily outweighed by our ignorance
regarding the same. Thus for any progress
to take place we must make a constant
effort to overcome the pull of ignorance
which binds us to the lower stages of
being, exemplified by the dark part
showing erring beings tumbling downwards. band
is a wider area divided into six units,
each depicting a different level of
These states of existence
are termed conditioned because they
are brought about as a result of our
own actions or karma. They can be both
positive or negative:
first such realm is the world of hell.
Pictures of hell in the Buddhist tradition
are typically shown as places of intense
pain and torment, where its victims
are subjected to the most excruciating
tortures, inflicted on them by presiding
demons. Flames engulf the entire realm
which is unbearably hot, though there
are regions of ice also, which yield
the painful experience of cold.
The depiction of
this hell is an objectification of hatred,
rather a visual depiction of what may
await us if we fill out hearts with
hatred instead of compassionate understanding.
The basic features
of hell are constant suffering and relentless
pain inflicted by furious and vengeful
beings. But this hell as all parts of
our existence is a making of our own.
A result of our own karma. It is upon
us whether we wish to make our life
a hell on earth and make every situation
a torment for ourselves. The hell of
the Wheel of Life is but that same mental
state made manifest in all its painful
detail. None can rest in peace who has
in his heart a hatred for any other.
The hell is not everlasting.
Every process is impermanent and a particular
state continues so long as the conditions
which have brought it into being are
still present. One will remain in hell
as long there are undisciplined karmic
energies keeping one there. Tradition
has it that a life in hell may extend
over many aeons - perhaps this corresponds
to the well-known experience of time
dragging when we are suffering.
Next to the realm of hell are groups of ungainly creatures huddled together. Their distended bodies are the color of smoke, and they appear insubstantial as if made of mist. Their arms and legs are spindly and frail and their heads are carried on long, thin necks, while their bellies are bloated, sagging masses which their legs can barely support. Tiny mouths, no thicker than a needle, are topped by wide, staring eyes, filled with pain and longing signified by their red color.
These pathetic creatures
are obsessed with perpetual hunger and
an unquenchable thirst. They stagger
on their feeble limbs in search of sustenance.
Driven by their overwhelming hunger
and thirst, the hungry ghosts live out
their lives for no other purpose than
food and drink. Their weak limbs and
pinhole mouths make it almost impossible
for them to gain any sustenance. No
matter what they acquire it is not sufficient
for them, and leaves them unsatisfied,
panting for more. Even if they get what
they want it gives them little pleasure.
No matter what they possess, they always
feel that there is something missing.
Thus this realm is the personification
of the mind in which craving predominates.
The human hungry ghost is the miser
who lives for his money, the collector
who is never content with what he has
but must have more.
In the realm of the
animals, life is the life of the body.
All endeavor is directed to the satisfaction
of physical desires and the business
of self-preservation. This depiction
is a visual representation of the ignorant
refusal to see beyond the needs of the
Such a horizon is
willfully narrow and refuses to look
beyond the surface of life, at its meaning
The titans know only warfare. Not content with what they possess these giants rush upon the gods of the sensuous realm and try to grab from them their happiness and delight. They try to capture the heavenly tree which fulfills all wishes.
Their longing to possess does not come from desire or greed. They want things because they begrudge the possessions and achievements of others. The success of others leaves them with a feeling of inadequacy and belittled. Indeed it is said that man is not content with he does have but discontent with what others have. This is the underlying message behind this realm.
The human realm is the world of everyday experience.
A human birth is
considered the most favorable at the
outset of one's spiritual life because
it contains a balance of pleasure and
pain. Constant pain is demoralizing
and numbs initiative. Similarly persistent
pleasure and success tends to breed
complacency. Human life, containing
both pleasure and pain, makes us aware
of both these aspects of life, striking
a harmonious balance. Thus since human
life gives us such rare opportunities
for spiritual realization, Buddhism
teaches that it is very precious indeed.
The Pali and Sanskrit words which are usually translated as 'god' come from a root which means 'to shine.' The gods are the shining or radiant ones who live in unalloyed happiness and pleasure. It is traditionally recognized that such beings are both heavenly and also found on the earth. The one who has gained spiritual attainment is the one who has created his heaven on earth. The one who has evolved himself into a higher being in a purely spiritual sense.
It is significant
to note here that the gods are shown
partaking of similar sensuous experiences
as the humans, albeit at a more rarified
level. The import being that the gods
are not so far removed from the human
dimension and mortal humans too can
attain godhood following the path of
These six realms
constitute all possible states of existence
in the universe and all beings cycle
between these states, dependent on their
karma, none of these states being permanent
or everlasting. Thus, virtuous persons
are said to be born in heaven; virtuous
beings dominated by negative emotions
of jealousy are born in the realm of
the titans; persons dominated by attachment
are born in the ghostly realms; those
afflicted with hatred and anger are
born in hell; and those dominated by
dullness are born in the world of animals.
The outermost concentric
ring of the Wheel of Life is divided
into twelve units, each depicting a
phase of the peculiar cycle of cause
and effect which keeps one trapped in
the six realms of cyclic existence mentioned
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