bhavachakra – the wheel of life

In many Tibetan temples we can find a colorful wall painting explaining two important concepts of Buddhist teachings: saṃsara (or cyclic existence) and nirvana. The colors and arrangements of the scenes are varying, but the parts of the whole painting are always very similar. The background represents nirvana and the wheel in the middle represents the nature of samsara, the Sanskrit term for the endless cycle of birth and death. For a detailed explanation of the elements of the Bhavachakra, see below.
Yama, the fierce Lord of Death, controls the Wheel of Life by keeping it tightly in his claws. No one can escape.
Beyond the Wheel of Life the Buddha stands on a cloud with an outstretched finger to point the way towards liberation (symbolized by the moon) to those ‘whose eyes are covered only with little dust’. But only few are prepared to walk the way of final liberation. The majority are entangled in worldly activities, in chasing after possessions and sense-pleasures, power and fame. Liberation from passionate desire, greed and hatred is only possible if we succeed in replacing unwholesome objects by wholesome ones (i.e. by transforming kama-chanda, sensual desire, into dharma-chanda, desire for truth and knowledge).


The Wheel of Life has four major parts:

A. Delusion (moha), ignorance (avidya) – a hog or pig
B. Greed (lobha, raga), desire, attachment – a rooster or similar bird
C. Hatred (dvesa), enmity, aversion – a snake
The three basic motives or root-causes (hetu) of unenlightened existence form the center of the wheel of rebirths and are depicted in the form of three animals, symbolizing greed, hatred and delusion.

The three animals are biting each other’s tails and are in most cases linked to form a circle, because greed, hatred, and delusion condition each other and are inseparably connected. We are ignorant and deluded about the true nature of things. Therefore we regard transient things as permanent, and impermanent things as real and desirable. Thus blind urges and subconscious drives govern us, we become attached to transient things and greed is rising. This in turn leads to confusion, hatred and aversion. In mental darkness we are caught in endless rounds of samsara, the chasing after ephemeral happiness, the flight from suffering, the fear of losing what has been gained, the struggle for the possession of desirable things and the defense or protection of those that have been acquired.

The second circle or Sidpa Bardo shows two paths. The white path leads upwards – Bodhisattvas guide beings to rebirths in the higher realms of devas, asuras and humans. The dark path leads downwards – demons lead beings to the lower realms of hungry ghosts, hell beings and animals. The beings in this image experience the result of their karma, the law of cause and effect. The light half-circle shows the results of positive actions. The dark half-circle shows the results of negative actions.

In some versions of the Bhavachakra this part is missing.

Whether wandering temporarily in the higher realms or in the lower realms, all living beings experience the sufferings of birth, death, and rebirth.

The three upper realms (from left to right) are:
A. Humans (manusyas)
B. Gods (devas)
C. Demigods (asuras)

The three lower realms (from left to right) are:
D. Hungry ghosts (pretas)
E. The hell with hell beings (narakas)
F. Animals (tiryakas)

A. On the left part of the upper half, we see the world of man, the realm of purposeful activity and higher aspirations, in which the freedom of decision plays an essential role, because here the qualities of all realms of existence become conscious, and all their possibilities are equally within reach — and beyond them the chance of ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death through insight into the true nature of the world.

B. The gods in the center of the upper half have a carefree life, dedicated to aesthetic pleasures, dance and music. On account of this one-sided dedication to their own pleasures, they forget the true nature of life, the limitations of their existence, the sufferings of other beings as well as their own transiency. They do not know that they live only in a state of temporary harmony, which comes to an end as soon as the causes (their moral merits), which led them to this happy state, are exhausted. They live, so to say, on the accumulated capital of past good deeds without adding any new values. They are gifted with beauty, longevity and freedom from pain, but just this lack of suffering, of obstacles and exertion, deprives the harmony of their existence of all creative impulses, all spiritual activity and the urge for deeper knowledge. Thus finally they sink again into lower states of existence. Rebirth in heavenly realms, therefore, is not an aim which Buddhists think worth striving for. It is only a temporary suspension, but no solution of the problem of life. It leads to a strengthening of the ego-illusion and to a deeper entanglement in the samsaric world.

C. In the realm of warring Titans, the demigods or asuras understand only the language of force and strife. They are fighting for the fruits of the Wishing Tree (kalpataru), which stands between the realm of the gods and the Titans.

D. The hungry ghosts are pitiable beings. They have huge, empty stomachs, but their necks are too thin to allow food to pass. So, they are constantly hungry. Greed and jealousy lead to rebirth as a hungry ghost. The karma of their lives was not quite bad enough for a rebirth in the hell realm, but not good enough for the asura realm.

E. In the lowest sector of the Wheel of Life is the realm of infernal pain (niraya). These infernal sufferings, which are drastically depicted in form of various tortures, are not punishments that have been inflicted upon erring beings by an omnipotent god and creator, but the inevitable reactions of their own deeds. The Judge of the Dead does not condemn, but only holds up the mirror of conscience, in which every being pronounces his own judgement. This judgement, which seems to come from the mouth of the Judge of the Dead, is that inner voice, which is expressed in the seed-syllable HRIH, which is visible in the centre of the mirror.

F. The realm of animals, of persecution and surrender to a blind destiny of natural necessities and uncontrollable instincts. Animals lack the faculty of articulate speech and reflective thought, which could liberate them from the darkness of subconscious drives and the sluggishness and dumbness of an undeveloped mind.

While the Six Realms depict the unfoldment of the samsaric world under the influence of the driving forces, which form the centre of the Wheel of Life, its outer rim shows the unfoldment of these principles in individual life.

1. Blind woman: ‘ignorance’ (avidya).
2. Potter: `karmic formations’ (samskara).
3. Monkey: ‘consciousness’ (vijnana).
4- Two men in a boat: `mind-and-body’ (nama-rupa).
5. House with six windows: ‘six senses’ (sadayatana).
6. Pair of lovers: ‘contact’ (sparsa).
7. Arrow piercing eye of man: ‘feeling’ (vedana).
8. Drinker, served by woman: `thirst’ (trsna).
9. Man gathering fruit: ‘clinging’ (upadana).
10. Sexual intercourse: ‘becoming’ (bhava).
11. Woman giving birth: ‘birth’ (jati)
12. Man carrying corpse on his back: ‘death’ (marana).

1. Ignorance is here represented by a blind woman (because avidya [Tib.: ma-rig] is of female gender), feeling her way with a stick. On account of his spiritual blindness man blunders through life, creating an illusory picture of himself and the world, due to which his will is directed upon unreal things, while his character is formed in accordance with this direction.

2. This form-creating activity (samskara; Tib.: hdu-byed) is adequately symbolized by the picture of a potter. Just as a potter creates the shapes of pots, so we form our character and our destiny or, more correctly, our karma, the outcome of our deeds in works, words and thoughts. Samskara is here volitional action, synonymous with chetana (will) and karma (effect-creating deed) in contradistinction to samskara-skandha, the group of mental formations, which, as a result of those volitional acts, become a cause of new activity and constitute the actively directing principle or character of a new consciousness.
For character is nothing but the tendency of our will, formed by repeated actions. Every deed leaves a trace, a path formed by the process of walking, and wherever such a once-trodden path exists, there we find, when a similar situation arises, that we take to this path spontaneously. This is the law of action and reaction, which we call karma, the law of movement in the direction of the least resistance, i.e., of the frequently trodden and therefore easier path. It is what is commonly known as the ‘force of habit’.
Just as a potter forms vessels out of formless clay, so we create through deeds, words and thoughts, out of the still unformed material of our life and our sense-impressions, the vessel of our future consciousness, namely that which gives it form and direction.

3. When departing from one and entering into another life, it is the consciousness thus formed which constitutes the nucleus or germ of the new embodiment. This consciousness (vijnana; Tib.: rnam-ses), which stands at the beginning of a new life, is represented in the third picture, in form of a monkey grasping a branch. Just as a monkey restlessly jumps from branch to branch, so the consciousness jumps from object to object.

4. Consciousness, however, cannot exist by itself. It has not only the property of incessantly grasping sense-objects or objects of imagination, and to let go one object for the sake of another, but it has also the capacity to crystallize and to polarize itself into material forms and mental functions. Therefore it is said that consciousness is the basis of the `mind-and-body-combination’ (nama-rupa; Tib.: mingzugs), the precondition of the psycho-physical organism, in which the close relationship between bodily and mental functions is compared with two people in a boat. This is shown in the fourth picture, in which we see a ferryman propelling a boat with two people in it. (The ferryman, strictly speaking, does not belong to the simile.)

5. The psycho-physical organism is furthermore differentiated through the formation and action of the six senses (sadayatana; Tib.: skye-mched), namely the faculties of thinking, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling (touching). These faculties are like the windows of a house, through which we look upon the world outside. They are therefore generally depicted as a house with six windows. The artist, however, who painted the Wheel of Life which we have reproduced here, took the liberty to depict (in the fifth picture) the front of the temple from whose porch this fresco was traced.

6. The sixth picture symbolizes the contact (sparsa; Tib.: reg-pa) of the senses with their objects, in the form of the first contact between lovers.

7. The feeling (vedana; Tib.: tshor-ba), resulting from the contact of the senses with their objects, is represented in the seventh picture by a man whose eye has been pierced by an arrow.

8. The eighth picture shows a drinker, who is served by a woman. It symbolizes the thirst for life (trsna), or craving caused by agreeable sensations. (It goes without saying that the arrow in the eye is not meant to indicate the ‘pleasure’, but only the intensity of the feeling and perhaps also its future painful consequences, which overtake those who allow themselves to be carried away by agreeable sensations.)

9. From the thirst for life arises the grasping of and clinging to (upadana; Tib.: len-pa) the desired objects. This is symbolized in the ninth picture by a man who plucks fruit from a tree and gathers it in a basket.

10. Clinging leads to a strengthening of the bonds of life, to a new process of becoming (bhava; Tib.: srid-pa). This is symbolized by the sexual union of man and wife, as seen in the tenth picture.

11. Becoming leads to rebirth (jati; Tib.: skye-ba) in a new existence.
The eleventh picture, therefore, shows a woman who is giving birth to a child. The Tibetan attitude towards sexual things is of a disarming naturalness and objectivity. The Tibetans, therefore, don’t hesitate to depict the sexual act and the act of giving birth undisguised and without ambiguity. They lay greater stress upon nearness to life than upon philosophical abstractions. In spite of this they succeed in his symbolism (of words as well as of visible forms) to express the finest shades of spiritual experience with an astonishing precision. Tibetan mysticism is never inimical to life, the philosophy never merely an expression of speculative thought, but the result of practical experience. Due to the same attitude Tibetans endeavor to put religious ideas into such visible forms and similes, that even the simplest mind can grasp them and include them into the realm of concrete life.

12. The twelfth picture shows a man, who carries a corpse (with knees drawn up, swathed in cloths, according to Tibetan custom) on his back to the cremation-ground (or the place where dead bodies are disposed of). It illustrates the last of the twelve links of the formula of Dependent Origination (pratityasamutpada), which says that all that has been born, leads to old-age and death (jati-marana; Tib.: rgas-ši).

(Many comments are taken from Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism)

Further explanations:

The interdependent exertion of influence within the Bhavachakra

(by Lama Anagarika Govinda)

Avidya, the not knowing or non-recognition of reality is not a prima causa, a metaphysical cause of existence or a cosmogonic principle, but a condition under which our present life develops, a condition that is responsible for our present state of consciousness.

The Buddha spoke only of a conditioned or dependent origination, not however of a law of causality, in which the single phases of development follow each other in ever the same way with mechanical necessity. He started with the simple question: ‘What is it that makes old-age and death possible ?’ And the answer was: ‘On account of being born, we suffer old-age and death!’ Similarly, birth is dependent on the process of becoming, and this process would not have been set in motion, if there had not been a will to live and a clinging to the corresponding forms of life. This clinging is due to craving, due to unquenchable thirst after the objects of sense-enjoyment, and this again is conditioned by feeling (by discerning agreeable and disagreeable sensations). Feeling, on the other hand, is only possible by the contact of the senses with their corresponding objects. The senses are based on a psycho-physical organism, and the latter can only arise if there is consciousness! Consciousness, however, in the individually limited form of ours, is conditioned by individual, egocentric activity (during countless previous forms of existence), and such activity is only possible as long as we are caught in the illusion of our separate egohood.

The twelvefold formula of Dependent Origination has rightly been represented as a circle, because it has neither a beginning nor an end. Each link represents the sum total of all other links and is the precondition as well as the outcome of all other links. The Commentaries generally distribute the formula over three consecutive existences, so that the first two links (avidya and samskara) correspond to the past, the last two links (birth and death) to the future, and the remaining links (3-10) to the present existence. This shows that avidya and samskara represent the same process, which in the present existence is differentiated into eight phases, and which for the future existence is hinted at by the words ‘birth, old-age and death’. In other words, the same process is described once from the standpoint of higher knowledge (1 and 2), another time from the point of view of a psychological analysis (3—10), and a third time from the point of view of a physiological phenomenon (11 and 12). In order to understand this, we must keep in mind the original question of the Buddha, which starts from the plane of the concrete physical existence, i.e., from the problem of old-age, death and birth, and slowly goes deeper: first into the realm of psychology and finally into that of spiritual reality, which reveals the illusoriness of the ego-concept, and thus the nature of ignorance and its karmic consequences.

It is actually of no great importance, whether we distribute the formula of Dependent Origination over three consecutive existences or over three consecutive moments or periods within one and the same life, because, according to the teachings of the Abhidharma,`birth and death’ is a process which takes place in every moment of our life. This formula, therefore, is neither concerned with an abstract-logical, nor with a purely temporal causality, but with the interdependence of various conditions, with a living, organic correlation, which can be interpreted as a succession in time, as well as a timeless or simultaneous co-existence and interpenetration of all its factors and phenomena.

All phases of this Dependent Origination are phenomena of the same illusion, the illusion of the ego. By overcoming this illusion, we step beyond the circle in which we imprisoned ourselves, and we realize that no thing and no being can exist in itself or for itself, but that each form of life has the whole universe as its basis and that therefore the meaning of individual form can only be found in its relationship to the whole.

The moment in which the human individual becomes conscious of this universality, he ceases to identify himself with the limits of his temporal embodiment and feels flooded with the fullness of life, in which the distinction between past, present and future does not exist anymore. From the depth of this experience Milarepa could sing:

`Accustomed, as I’ve been, to meditating on this life and the future life as one, I forgot the dread of birth and death.’

This fearlessness is the characteristic quality of a Bodhisattva, who because he himself is free from the illusion of birth and death — is willing to descend into the suffering world of mortals, in order to spread the happy tidings of final liberation from the fetters of karmic bondage.

A concise description of the functioning of the Bhavachakra

(by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, from “As It Is Vol. II”)

In essence, it is empty; by nature, it is cognizant. Its capacity is the unity of the two, being empty and cognizant. Once you recognize this, there is knowing. Without recognizing your own nature, there is unknowing, ignorance. This ignorance is the first of the twelve links of dependent origination, followed by formation, dualistic consciousness and so forth. Your present body was formed based on these twelve links. We take birth, we grow older, and finally the body dies, but mind is not some ‘thing’ that can die. The reason why there can be a succession of lives is because of this mind. If mind could die, there would be no rebirth. Because mind does not die, because it is still ignorant, again it will unfold the twelve links: formation, then dualistic consciousness, and again up to aging and death. Like a wheel incessantly spinning, this is called the wheel of samsara.

The root cause of samsara is unknowing, ignorance. Once you recognize that your mind is empty cognizance, then it is suffused with knowing. Without knowing this nature, which is the basic state of all other beings as well, it is empty cognizance suffused with unknowing. If you meet a master and receive instructions, what can he tell you? He will tell you, “Recognize that your mind is the unity of being empty and cognizant, suffused with knowing. When your attention is extroverted, you fall under the sway of thoughts. Let your attention recognize itself Recognize that it is empty. That which recognizes is the cognizance. You can trust at that moment that these two – being empty and cognizant – are an original unity. Seeing that your nature is indivisible empty cognizance and acknowledging this is called self-knowing wakefulness.
You need to recognize the identity of that which feels happy, that which feels sad. Unless we know how to see our own nature, we reconnect again with the twelve links of dependent origination and the wheel of samsara spins endlessly. If you first recognize the nature of that which is ignorant, of that which is unknowing, then samsara stops at the first step in this wheel. That is called ‘ignorance purified at the very base’. The moment you recognize mind essence, this self-knowing wakefulness interrupts the stream of deluded thinking, which is formation, the second link. Once formation is stopped, dualistic consciousness stops, and gradually all the other links are cleared up. In one instant, the very basis for continuing in samsara has been interrupted, because dualistic consciousness has become original wakefulness. How do you train in this? Let your mind recognize its own nature. When seeing your nature, there is a sense of being empty and yet awake. In actuality, this being empty is called dharmakaya. Along with this, there is a sense of knowing – an awake quality that acknowledges it is empty. That is called sambhogakaya. These two are originally a unity, which is nirmanakaya. This unity is the same as the indivisibility of water and wetness. In short, you are face to face with the three kayas of the awakened state.
But if one does not know how to recognize mind essence, there is unknowing, ignorance. As long as ignorance and formation continue, samsara does not end. That which is ignorant, that which forms new thought constructs, does not die. Therefore, samsara can go on ceaselessly. To recognize mind essence is the opposite of ignorance, of unknowing, and brings ignorance to a halt. The root of samsara collapses, dissolves.