Wheel of Life

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As long as karma is being generated, beings will continue to experience rebirth. 

The Wheel of Existence or, of Rebirth

The explanatory diagram known as the wheel of rebirth is called in Tibetan, Shri Pa'i Korlho.

"With regard to the history of this painting, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, a[n] king [of outlying] Udayana made a present of a jeweled robe to the king of Magadha, Bimbisara, who did not have anything of equivalent worth to give in return. Bimbisara was worried about this and asked the Buddha what he should give. The Buddha indicated that he should have a wheel of cyclic existence with five sectors drawn accompanied by the following:

Undertaking this and leaving that,
Enter into the teaching of the Buddha.
Like an elephant in a thatch house,
Destroy the forces of the Lord of Death.

Those who with thorough conscientiousness
Practice this disciplinary doctrine
Will forsake the wheel of birth,
Bringing suffering to an end.

The Buddha told Bimbisara to send this to [the] King [of] Udayana. It is said that when the king received the picture and studied it, he attained realization."   ~J. Hopkins translating HH Dalai Lama in The Meaning of Life.  

Elements of the Wheel

One of the earliest historical examples of a visual aid used in teaching is the chart used by Buddha Shakyamuni to explain the workings of karma


< Yama, Lord of Death, clutches the wheel.





In The Meaning of Life, a collection of discourses by HH the 14th Dalai Lama (a Gelugpa,) the wheel is described as having five segments (the realms of devata and ashuras are combined.)  It is driven by its hub of Three Poisons: desire or attachment, aversion or hatred, and delusion or ignorance, and by the energy resulting from our actions that are invariably motivated by those three.  In other words, by karma

The segments between spokes are the different realms into which sentient beings take rebirth.  They are

1a. Devas or gods. 
1b. Ashuras or titans (anti-gods, jealous gods, demigods, aka "demons") 
2. Manushyas or humans. 
3. Tiryakas or animals. 
4. Pretas or hungry ghosts. 
5. Narakas or demons (hell beings) 

H. E. Thrangu Rinpoche (a Kagyupa,) describes the realms as relating to six distinct conditions.  In the two higher realms, they are Pride and Jealousy (1a and 1b above, respectively.)  In the "Realm in which it is easiest to attain Enlightenment" (2 above) humans are afflicted with five disturbing emotions.  The lower realms (3, 4 & 5 in the list above) are respectively associated with Ignorance, Desire and Anger. 

At the top is are the heavens or realm of gods that is usually blended with that of the demi-  or anti-gods, a.k.a. titans or ashuras, with whom they constantly struggle for dominance. 

Before it [at 10 o'clock], is the human realm.  Read in Jamgon Kongtrul the Great's Generation and Completion with commentary by Thrangu Rinpoche [scroll down the linked page] of ". . . the complete correspondence to all the events of one life cycle. Starting with the bardo and the entrance of the bardo consciousness into the womb, going through your whole life and ending with your death, and again your entrance into the bardo" including the stages of the process for a fetus in the womb of its mother.  

After the top realm, going in a clockwise order, next is the realm of those who, after death, are still so attached by desire to this world that they are ghosts.  In the Tibetan version, they are shown with very narrow necks and are known as hungry ghosts because their condition prevents them from enjoying food or drink.

At the bottom is the hell realm that is often shown to comprise both hot and cold forms of torment.  The Sutra of Remembrance of the True Law describes 8 different hells but makes it clear that they are the product of our own mind. 

Next is the animal realm where sentient beings from whales to insects are confined in fear and ignorance. 

Nearing the top once more, is the realm of human beings in our varying conditions, degrees and statuses.  

  •  How Not to Meditate:  When we think we are meditating are we, instead, visiting one of the other realms?  ~ based on Ushiyama Roshi's teaching, presented by Ken McLeod

The in-between states are called in Tibetan, the bardo.  This is also the word for the locale of consciousness while it is not embodied, as in certain kinds of dreaming.

As dismal as the situation may appear at first glance, in each of the realms is depicted a symbol of the dharma providing the opportunity for liberation from the repetitious situation known as samsara

Buddhists believe that it is the human experience of existence that provides the best opportunity for enlightenment, liberation [Skt. moksha], nirvana.   "Just as it is impossible to describe colours to a person blind from birth, or the joys of flight to a fish in the depths of the ocean,  . . .  the experience of nirvana is indescribable."

There are various versions of the Wheel of Rebirth.  In a few, there is a buddha figure in each segment; in others there are various symbols used to represent the dharma.  The pictures illustrating the "12 links" on the rim of the wheel may be somewhat different, too.

The 12 Links of Causality

On the outer edge or rim of the wheel are twelve images.  They symbolically refer to the factors that interact to determine the consequences of activity or karma.  They derive from and can be related to, the Madhyamika view concerning the nature of reality.  Here, too, there may be some variation depending upon the tradition or school to which the tangka artist belongs.

At top is a blind man with his stick representing spiritual blindness; this is the state of ignorance in which we can easily lose our way.  Sometimes we do not even know there is a way.   

At 2 o'clock is a potter at work on his own products.  These are the deeds and actions we perform  ~ the formations, preparations or samskaras.  We are responsible for our own pots, not fate.

At the 3 o'clock position is a monkey playing in a tree.  It depicts ordinary attention or consciousness which shifts continuously in the undisciplined mind.  Meditation seeks to calm the monkey in order to gain access to the nature of consciousness.

At 4 is a boat with two people in it, Name and Form.  [Some versions have a person and the heaps or skandhas] These act together as the conditioned way in which we experience the world.  The boat is the mind moving about on 'reality'.  (Some have interpreted this image as the physical and the intellectual or spiritual moving the boat of experience.) 

At 5 is a house with six openings:  five shuttered windows and a closed door.  These are the five senses plus a sixth which is the faculty of apperception  by which we interpret the input of the senses.  That is, the sixth sense is apperception, recognition at the sub-conscious level.

Moving to the 6 o'clock position: A man and a woman embracing demonstrates contact, the consequence of sensual perceptions.

At 7 is a person who has been struck in the eye by an arrow.  He is wounded by emotion, the subsequent feelings that can have a "fatal" effect.  They create suffering.

At 8 is a woman offering a drink to a man.  It illustrates desire that has been stimulated by perceptions and emotions which leads us to drink more from the world of appearances.

At the 9th position is a person picking the fruit of his tree.  He receives the consequence he expects will be sweet.

At 10 is a maiden about to cross the stream. In one version of the Wheel, there is one person beckoning another to go or to come back.

At 11 is a woman giving birth. The new life is determined by the fruits of the old and is attracted to the parents accordingly, in order to be born.

Finally [?], the illustration that ends one round but begins another new life in one of the realms, is that of two people carrying a burden on a litter.  This is the body, a corpse wrapped up on its way to be disposed of.  Other people suffer as they bear the burden of another's death. 

"If any link in the twelve-linked circle of causation (pratitya-samutpada) is broken the entire circle ceases to be operative because the root of it, the zero [Sanskrit shunya] is discovered.  This origination is rooted in zero, proceeds from it, ends in it, and itself is nothing but an extension of zero."  This zero is not infinite [like conceptions of God] but neither is it finite.

Whether we are meditating, dreaming, or going about our other activities ultimately we are responsible for our own experience. According to the Buddhist view, objects and beings make their appearance without an external stimulus, or any First Cause.  It is said that, just as a painter can paint a portrait of a demon and then be terrified by it, so unenlightened beings paint a picture of the six realms of samsara and then are tormented and terrified by that picture.

Through the power of our own minds, we create the six realms of existence and then rotate through them. We are the ones who create the realms and the endless cycle known as samsara.


The Wheel is a depiction of existence with all its conditions and circumstances that is generally called samsara (or sangsara) -- the unsatisfactory cycle of death and rebirth that can continue endlessly unless we work to change that situation.  

Jamgon Lodro Thaye Rinpoche's best known work is The Torch of Certainty.  In the section called "the Four Ordinary Foundations," the fourth topic is the  'Shortcoming of Samsara.'  Here, this great 19th-century "ecumenical" dharma teacher points out: 

Three Types of Misery Common to All Samsaric Beings

"In brief, the miseries experienced by beings in the lower realms and the pain of disease, malicious gossips, etc., experienced by gods and men constitute the misery of misery itself.  When you lead a wealthy, peaceful existence, life seems very pleasant.  But soon, because of impermanence, the misery of change arrives.  The two kinds of misery mentioned above are grounded in the fact that the five skandhas have come together.  This is the misery latent in all conditioned existence.

"Finding their foothold in the five skandhas, the many kinds of misery of the three realms arise.  Thus, no matter how high or low your state of birth, you cannot avoid samsara's very nature: the three types of misery! Even if your life seems happy and you possess a healthy body, a house, money, friends and servants -- these are merely misery in disguise. They are like food offered to a nauseated man or a hangman's feast for a condemned prisoner."

~ trans. Judith Hanson. Boston/London: Shambhala, 1994.

In 1982, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche taught extensively on the 6 realms, the 5 components and the intermediate states between rebirths [bardos [bar is Tibetan for interval; do means 2.]

Reflections on the wheel as symbol


Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche.  The Middle-way Meditation Instructions of Mipham Rinpoche.  Boulder, CO:  Namo Buddha Seminar, 2000.  (Based on 19th-century "encyclopedist," Mipham's Gateway to Knowledge.)

samsara:  A corruption of Skt. samskara, which currently refers to the 10 rites of Hindu males of the upper castes that mark life's turning points:  (1)  the conception of a child (2) the quickening (movement in the womb) (3) birth (4) naming (5) carrying the child out to view the moon (6) giving him solid food (7) ceremony of tonsure [shaving the head, leaving a bit] (8) investiture of the sacred string (9) completion of studies [ie. graduation]  and (10) marriage, after which he is qualified to perform sacrifices.


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