The diagram known as the Wheel of Life, depicting the various realms of cyclic existence and the beings inha-
biting these realms is primarily a visual aid to help us gain a clear understanding of the workings of our mind. By contemplating it well and studying the teaching it illustrates, we can learn to recognize that the cause of all our unwanted suffering is rooted in the delusions obscuring the essentially pure nature of our mind. W shall then be motivated to eradicate these delusions completely and thereby gain liberation from samsara.
Since the earliest days of Buddhism, such visual aids have played an important part in bringing spiritual teachings to the ordinary person, and they continue to be used for the same purpose today. For example, in modern day Nepal it is not unusual to see a wandering monk travel from village to village carrying, among other things, a rolled up scroll painting depicting the Wheel of Life or some other teaching. Upon arriving in a village he quickly becomes the focus attention for the villagers interested in hearing news home the surrounding countryside and distant towns. Then he unroll his tangka (literally, “written record”) and both entertains and instructs by explaining its meanings, sometimes in ordinary prose and sometimes in easily remembered verse or song. As this example illustrates, Buddhist art and buddhist teachings have always traveled hand in hand and the spread of one has always involved the spread of the other.
The Wheel of Life diagram is said to have originated as follow.17 One of Shakyamuni’s chief patrons, King Bimbisara of Magadh, had received a precious gift from a neighboring king and could not think of anything suitable to give him in return. Upon learning of Bimbisara’s dilemma, Buddha explained how to draw the Wheel of Life and said, “Give this diagram to your friend and he will definitely be satisfied.” Bimbisara’s friend was so ripe for spiritual instruction and the inspiration of the Buddha was so powerful that. As soon as he had read the stanzas inscribed beneath it. He immediately developed renunciation and a deep insight into reality. When this illustration of the Wheel of Life and the teachings embodied in it were made widely known throughout his kingdom, those who contemplated them well were also greatly benefited.
Turning our attention to the center of the wheel we find three animals representing the three root delusions, or mental poisons, responsible for all suffering and dissatisfaction. These are a pig representing ignorance, a pigeon18 representing desirous attachment and a snake representing anger. In this painting the pigeon and snake are shown coming form the mouth of the pig to indicate that the destructive afflictions of desirous attachment and fearful anger both arise form fundamental ignorance of the way in which things actually exist. In other presentations the three animals are shown forming a ring, indicating the interdependence of all three delusions.
The largest portion of the wheel is divided into six sections illustrating the experiences of those who, under the pervasive influence of fundamental ignorance, are born either as gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry spirits or hell beings. These realms are brought into existence, not by a creator god, but through the ripening of potentialities previously generated by our own wholesome or un-wholesome actions (Skt. Karma). Since all such actions of body, speech and mind are initiated by mental intentions; ultimately these six realms are all creations of ours own mind. These six states of existence can also be understood as states of consciousness we may experience even now as inhabitants of the human realm, as when encountering extremes of mental or physical pleasure and pain.
At the very bottom of the wheel is the hell realm (Skt. Narak) of intense suffering. Shown presiding here is Yama. The Lord of Death, who holds in his right hand a stick which he uses as a pointer, and in his left hand a mirror. Before him kneels a recently deceased person to be understood a oneself and the various wholesome and unwholesome deeds of the life just finished are reflected in Yama’s mirror and weighed in the scales of the demon standing before him. If unwholesome activities outweigh the wholesome, the unfortunate being is led away to experience the heat, cold, confinement, piercing pain and other torments characteristic of this agonizing state of existence.
It is important to remember that despite what is so vividly and dramatically depicted here, the painful experiences of this and the other realms are not punishments inflicted from without. Nor should these reams be thought of as preexisting places of imprisonment to which the suffering being has been banished by some outside force. As the great Indian master Shantideva wrote:
Who intentionally created
All the weapons for those in hell?
Who created the burning iron ground?
… The (Buddha) has said that all such things
Are (the workings of) an evil mind;
Hence within the three world spheres
There is nothing to fear other than my mind,19
In the case of hellish suffering, the predominant causes for experiencing such misery are our own uncontrolled mind’s poisonous delusion of fearful anger and the extremely harmful actions, such as murder, that we engage in while motivated by such a powerful delusion. Even in the human realm we may boiling with range or imprisoned in fearful paranoia.
To the left of the hell realms is depicted the realm of the hungry spirits (Skt. Preta). The primary delusion leading one to be born here and experience the miseries shown in miserliness. As a results of negative actions motivated by this delusion, pretas suffer mainly from insatiable hunger and thirst. They are described as having thin necks, which are often tied in knots, and large, cavernous stomachs. They also experience many other hindrances in their quest for food and drink. For example, even when they manage to find something fit to eat, they may prevent from approaching it by fearsome demons, the projections of their own negativities. And even if they do manage to get some food through their scrawny necks and down into their stomachs, it often turns to acid and brings them nothing but pain.
To the right of the hell ream is that of the animals. The main cause for rebirth in this realm is slavishly and stupidly following one’s sensory desires, and although experiences within this realm vary enormously, animals in general suffer from limited intelligence. In addition, they must endure beings chased and eaten by other animals, hunted and used for heavy labor by humans, exposed to heat and cold and plagued by continual hunger and thirst. We may know or read about people whose situation in life is so debased that it seems they are no longer living a human existence but have been reduced to the level of a beast.
In the upper half of the wheel are pictured the three higher realms of cyclic existence, so called because compared with three lower realms they contain less obvious suffering. Yet even in these higher realms there is great disappointment and dissatisfaction to be experienced. On the top and to the right are the interrelated god (Skt. Deva) and demigod (Skt. Asura) realms, sometimes pictured together. Because of their previous performance of sufficient positive actions, beings in the demigod realm enjoy extremely pleasurable surroundings, the company of attractive companions and intense sensory delights. However, the asuras are so consumed by jealousy for the superior devas that, instead of enjoying what they have, they engage in continual warfare with those above them, as depicted.
As for the devas themselves, while some of them are engaged in defending themselves form attacks by the inferior asuras, others live a life of uninterrupted sensory indulgence. Still others, in higher planes, spend their extremely long lifetimes in a sleep like state of meditative absorption, experiencing neither pleasure nor pain but complete blank mindedness. Devas easily mistake their experiences for true liberation from suffering but, since they have uprooted the fundamental delusion of ignorance form their mind, they are not really liberated at all. Eventually , as is true for all the realms, the causes for experiencing life in that realm are exhausted. Because their store of virtuous energy has been depleted, even the most long lived devas must face death and, what is worse, an inevitable descent to one of the lower realms. It is said that mental anguish of a once fortunate deva foreseeing such a descent is even more excruciating than physical torments of the most unfortunate hell being.
Finally, to the left of the devas is the familiar realm of human beings. Life here, as Prince Siddhartha so painfully realized, is filled with the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death as well as uncertainty, dissatisfaction, frustration, boredom and the like. Furthermore, the pleasures available here are ephemeral and can easily turn sour, as when over indulgent eating leads to indigestion. Despite their wishes to experience happiness and avoid suffering, humans are continually misled by their ignorance and must encounter unwanted miseries again and again. In terms of providing a opportunity for spiritual growth, however the human realm is considered the most fortunate realm of al. this is because, in general, humans enjoy an amount of freedom that neither the lower realm beings- who are preoccupied with pain nor the higher gods –who are intoxicated by pleasure-possess. Motivated by the suffering and dissatisfaction they do experience, and endowed with varying degrees of discriminative intelligence, humans are particularly well-placed to do something of consequence with their lives. Specifically, they can learn how to cultivate the moral self-control, concentration and insightful wisdom necessary to uproot the causes of suffering and gain freedom from repeated rebirth in the realms of cyclic existence altogether.
None of the experience in any of these six samsaric realms is permanent or everlasting; our situation is totally dependent upon changing causes and circumstances. Psychologically speaking, we can be elevated from a dissatisfied preta mentality to a blissful deva state and then trust down into an agonizing hell all in a matter of few moments. Furthermore, no matter which realm of cyclic existence we may currently inhabit, sooner or later our stay there must come to end. Impermanence pervades cyclic existence and this is symbolized by the monstrous Lord of Death who is shown holding the entire Wheel of Life within his fangs and claws.