Wheel Of LIfe In Buddhism (Bhavacakra)
“Strive to eliminate (the defilements)
Enter into the teachings of the Enlightened One;
Just as an elephant in the midst of huts,
Destroy the host of the lord of death.”
About 2600 years ago these lines were said by the Buddha. During that time a great king named King Rudrayana asked the Buddha for spiritual guidance for his kingdom. Then the Buddha seeing this as a wonderful opportunity to impart a teaching drew the Bhavachakra or “The Wheel of Life”. In our busy lives surrounded by work and all the latest gizmos and constant notifications of social media platforms, we do have rare moments of insight where we wonder about the grand scheme of things, about our lives. Science tremendously helps us to reach a point where we can rationalize our existence to some extent. They have even gone to the extent of creating a 30 mile long laboratory at the border of Switzerland, called CERN. The whole purpose of putting so much effort is to find out where it all began and questions like how it must have been at the time of Big Bang are just waiting to be answered.
But coming back to the story of the Indian King the Buddha gave him a map of how the consciousness goes on and on in this endless cycle of births and deaths, thus providing him an answer as how to end this vicious cycle. There is no mention about the Big Bang or how the whole universe came into being, but there is an explanation of how our own inner universe operates. A lot of this is surely metaphysical but there are various literature which interprets this profound teaching on a psychological level and recently I read a book by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpochay called “Transcending Madness” which gives us a psychological explanation of the 6 realms and their corresponding bardos or intermediate stages.
The Wheel of Life contains a very frightening figure called the Yama or Lord of Death holding a wheel in his hands. He represents the truth of universal impermanence that is operating every moment. In this wheel there are four concentric circles in which the innermost circle has three animals, a cock, a snake, and a pig symbolizing greed, hatred and ignorance respectively. These are the three poisons which bind us in this cyclic existence or Samsara and each animal is biting the tail of the other which shows that craving, aversion and delusion are all interlinked. On a psychological level our mind is said to be always shackled and never totally independent until we are totally Liberated or achieve Buddhahood. Our mind looks at the phenomenal world and sees things as attractive and craves for it and in a sense it is being pulled by the object thus losing control over itself. Or it sees things as repulsive and wants to avoid it, in a sense it is being pushed by the object thus losing control again. Underlying all this push and pull of the mind there is a constant feeling that all this inconvenience(suffering) is caused by the outside world and not realizing that the root of this vicious tree is inside us and this is the underlying ignorance which guides all our actions and forms a wrong world view.
The second circle is divided into a black and white portion. The black portion symbolizes negative actions and white portion symbolizes positive actions. In Buddhism the concept of an act being “good or bad” doesn’t necessarily totally depend on the act per se. A lot of it depends on the intention and motivation of the perpetrator. And accordingly his karma is formed which results in a favorable or unfavorable situation. There is even a story of a great Bodhisattva (highly realized practitioner) who was on a ship with five hundred other merchants. He came to know about the intention of one merchant which was to kill all the other merchants and take the bounty for himself. Upon realizing this and seeing the gravity of the situation he had made the decision to kill the person himself and was ready to bear the consequences of willfully killing a person by his own hands. But if the merchant would have been successful in killing other merchants then he would have to carry the negative karma of killing five hundred people. So seeing his future suffering in the vicious hells and out of compassion for him he made that selfless decision. This selfless act is often given as a towering example of how intention is one of the main factors in karmic formation.
The third circle is divided into six portions. Where the above three represents favorable births and lower three represents unfavorable births. And if a person has more positive karmas then he or she is born in the higher realms and if the person has more negative karmas then he or she is born in the lower realms. The highest and most luxurious form of life is said to be of the Devas or the gods. They lead a very long and prosperous life, where there is no gross or manifest suffering which is the most apparent form of suffering in our human world (three types of suffering: manifest suffering, suffering of change and all pervasive suffering). All their wishes are instantly granted and all their sensual desires are met spontaneously. But even in this realm there is a constant danger of being attacked by the asuras or demi gods. Asuras form the second portion and in between them and the devas there is a symbolic tree which bears fruits of nectar. The root of this tree is in asura realms but the fruits reach the deva realms so there is a constant fight between them. Relatively asuras have less power than the devas so every battle is won by the devas. In terms of these realms not being physical but a psychological state of the human mind itself, the god-realm represents a very refined state of the human mind which is basically in a meditative absorption state. This is not necessarily a spiritually positive state as the ego is still in play here and is constantly engaging with this blissful feeling and as soon as the feeling is over it becomes frustrated. The demi-gods aspect is very energetic and trying to grasp everything as soon as possible. It is a state where you constantly trying to reach the top level of the hierarchy and thus a very jealous state.
The third realm of the higher realms is that of the humans. Human birth is said to be the most precious of the births, even among the higher realms. As it is said to be the most favorable for our spiritual growth. In the deva and asura realms there is lack of manifest suffering and in the lower realms there is so much suffering that one cannot think anything other than that. In our world there is suffering and we can turn our minds towards Dharma or teachings by using this suffering as a stepping stone towards our ultimate goal of Buddhahood. Also in the deva realms the devas and devis are totally intoxicated in their sensual pleasures that there is no opportunity for them to reflect on the teachings. In the asura realm, they are constantly preparing for the battle with the devas and there is overwhelming fixation to reach the highest level of hierarchy, which is the deva realm and thus they never have the opportunity to reflect on the dharma. Human birth being the most precious birth needs a lot of positive karma and it is extremely difficult to find. The human realm in terms of our psychological makeup is a cruder form than devas and asuras. It is where we have a lot of passion and desire and are indulged in complex relationships which gives us physical intimacy.
Moving on to the negative actions we come to the lower three realms where Hell or naraka realm is the most cruel and painful realm. Here all beings suffer tremendous physical and mental pain constantly. These hells have many sub divisions according to the individual’s karma. When that karma exhaust then there is an opportunity for them to move onto the higher planes, until then they die and take rebirth here instantly until their karma exhausts.
Then there is hungry ghost realm or pretas. These beings are deformed with constricted necks, spindly arms, swollen torso which culminates in a bloated sagging belly. Whenever they try to consume water it turns into pus and blood. Whenever they try to consume food it turns into ashes and excrements. Hence there is a constant struggle to consume and an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction much like our present times where our consumerist society always looks for things to buy and consume and the very next moment they tell you that it isn’t enough. This culture of excess is surely depleting the planet of its precious resources but the consumerist society much like the pretas always are concerned with their hungry stomachs which has no bottom.
Then there is the animal realm which is basically our planet’s animal kingdom. In terms of our experience in the animal realm it is a very impulsive and instinctive level of experience where we are unburdened by the complex intellectual and emotional relationships. Even animals have interpersonal relationships and strive together in a group. But the complexity of relationships compared to other species like Homo Sapiens, who can gather in millions and wage humungous wars and at a personal level can form very deep and meaningful relationships, animals don’t too fare well. And the hungry ghost realm is the experience in which there is a heightened state of poverty, poverty not in the sense of not having material possessions but in the sense of not wanting to give anything away and only wanting to take. And ultimately this sense of not wanting to give anything away leads to aggression which is the hell realm experience.
Now the last circle is the one which tells us the mechanism of the wheel, how the wheel is set in motion. It is divided into twelve portions and are called the “the twelve links of dependent origination” or the “twelve nidanas”.
- Ignorance or Avidya-A Blind person walking
- Volitional Action or Samskara –a potter shaping a vessel
- Consciousness or Vijnana – a monkey grasping a fruit
- Name and Form or Namarupa- four men in a boat
- Six Senses or Sadayatna-a house with five windows and a door.
- Contact or Sparsa-lovers kissing each other
- Feeling or Vedana- an arrow to the eye
- Craving or Trsna- a person receiving a drink
- Grasping or Upadana- a man or monkey picking fruit
- Becoming or Bhava- a couple engaged in intercourse
- Birth or Jati- woman giving birth
- Old age and Death or Jaramarana- corpse being carried
This sequence is not always necessarily in this order. To better explain this sequence we can have three time periods, past life, present life and future life.
PAST LIFE - Say in our past life due to our ignorance we have committed some volitional action and like a potter we can decide to act negatively or positively. This ignorance is the ignorance of not knowing the suffering, cause of suffering and not knowing the true nature of reality.
PRESENT LIFE- Due to which we have our present consciousness which has left the body of the past life and now dwelling in our present life’s body. Then forms our Name and Form which is our mind and body basically. Then our six senses develop due to which we make contact with the outside phenomenal world of six sense objects like smell, taste, touch etc. Then feeling or emotions start developing when there is a contact which may be pleasant or unpleasant. Due to which we develop craving for the attractive objects and repulsion for unwanted objects. Then the sense of grasping or attachment forms towards the object of our craving. That is the feeling of not letting go of objects of our cravings or letting go of unwanted objects arise.
FUTURE LIFE – This further propels us to take next birth which is also called “throwing karma” or the karma which propels us to our next existence and the whole cycle is repeated until we reach old age and death.
Then there is a moon which represents liberation from this cycle. An image of Buddha is pointing towards this moon symbolizing the path towards gaining liberation.
Our whole lives are spent in search of comfort and happiness. Most of the time we look for this happiness in the material things like a car, or a big house. While not realizing that there is no real or inherent happiness in these objects and the kind of temporary happiness we feel comes from our emotions and how we deal with these objects. So training our minds can give us a sense of peace and stability but real or long term happiness can only be felt if we truly understand the nature of reality and the nature of our minds. Finally conquering or rooting out the cause of this samsara and understanding the nature of reality can only give us ever lasting happiness. The constant feeling of I will be happy when I get promoted or when I get a pay-raise. Even we get that promotion we are happy for a while and soon enough when our friends or colleagues get a better pay raise we are again left with the feeling of not having enough and wanting more and left with the same feeling of dissatisfaction we had before, thus it is like a cycle. The “Wheel of Life” has been used by practitioners and common people to realize that we ordinary beings can also come out of this vicious cycle by learning, contemplating and meditating on these profound teachings. Even looking at this picture can make us think and reflect on how our lives revolves around in this circle and can make us live a more mindful and meaningful life.
Buddha pointing to the moon said these words so that we can also come out of this vicious cycle like he did 2600 years ago under the Bodhi tree;
“Those with conscientiousness,
engaging in the dharma of practice
Abandon the cycle of birth,
And bring an end to the miseries.”