The Wheel of Life - Aesthetics of Suffering and Salvation

Article of the Month - Nov 2002

This article by Nitin Kumar Editor

(Viewed 130528 times since Nov 2002)

One 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 and why.

With 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 terms.

Superfine Medicine Buddha On The Six-Ornament Throne of Enlightenment in His Universe - Tibetan Buddhist Brocadeless Thangka

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 uninitiated.

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 or praise."

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.

Tibetan Buddhist Superfine Thangka - Shakyamuni Buddha Seated on the Six-Ornament Throne of Enlightenment

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 conditioned existence.

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:


1). The Realm of Hell

The 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.

Shadakshari Lokeshvara Upon A Throne Of Purple Velvet

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.

2). The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts

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.

Superfine Museum Quality Thangka of Guru Padmasambhava's Lineage - Tibetan Buddhist

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.

3). The World of the Animals

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 body.

Such a horizon is willfully narrow and refuses to look beyond the surface of life, at its meaning and purpose.

Shakra Devanam Indra

4). The Realm of the Titans

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.

5). The Human World

The human realm is the world of everyday experience.

Fine Quality Life of Buddha ( Tibetan Buddhist)

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.

6). The Heavens of the Gods

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 virtuouskarma.

Between Heaven and Hell (Travels Through South Asia)

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 above.

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  • VEry helpful!! Love this website veryyyyyy exotic i bought it for my son NI Ni
    emma bakhar July 11, 2023
  • Excellent article very nicely expressed. Your review article are always good. Do you have any review on Pitanjali Yoga and Upnishadas?
    Ravi K. Puri July 12, 2012
  • this article and the pictures are wonderful, beautiful and very informative. thank you very much for the easy to understand explanations and thank you very much for your time in the effort of doing so! boo
    boo the bear December 12, 2010
  • Excellent description and very informative. Loved the individual “pictures” that make up the whole wheel with their summaries. Helped me understand it quite fully. Going to now try and draw my own. Thanks,
    Ben April 30, 2009
  • This is a great article. I found it very interesting to read. I actually saw the wheel of life appear to me when i was still in my sleep. I saw a giant golden wheel of life but i didn't see any pictures, just the circles and spokes. Anybody have any idea why I saw this wheel.... Thanks... Please get back to me if you know it.. Stephanie
    stephanie April 28, 2009
  • Quite a few years ago I had a series of dreams that have affected me for years. I have been searching the symbolism of them for years. As one of them involved wheels and the other a snake it lead me to your posted text. It explained it all to me. Now maybe I can help others who are searching to find an explanation. I am Christian but I always felt that Jesus had studied religions other than Hebrew to reach the level that enabled Him to free people of the dogma of religion. I think the problem with Christianity today is that some of us have fallen right back into that religious dogma that keeps us bound to that same wheel of religion with a new set of rules. Thank you for your interpretation you have helped me so much. Linda Gray
    Linda Gray January 22, 2009
  • Thank you!
    Shangguan Qingxian April 10, 2008
  • this is great!!! i love the wheel of life! :]]]]
    Sarah December 04, 2007
  • A picture paints a thousand words. These pictorial illustration of the Wheel of Life makes the comprehension of Buddhism easy for the layman to digest, have faith and make the effort to change whether for a better present life or the next.
    Yew Hock Soon August 26, 2007
  • thank you very much for your hard work and for the excellent article.
    itai, israel June 22, 2007