Bhavachakra - The Wheel of Life

The Bhavachakra - Wheel of Live

The Wheel of Life

(according to Lama Anagarika Govinda)
In practically every Tibetan temple a vivid pictorial representation of the six realms of the samsaric world can be found. And corresponding to the nature of this world, in which the endless cycle of rebirths takes place, the six realms are represented as a wheel, whose six segments depict the six main types of worldly, i.e., unenlightened existence. These forms of existence are conditioned by the illusion of separate selfhood, which craves for all that satisfies or to maintain this 'ego', and which despises and hates whatever opposes this craving.

The Root Causes
A. Delusion or Ignorance(moha);
B. Greed (lobha, raga);
C. Hatred (dvesa)
The three basic motives or root-causes (hetu) of unenlightened existence form the nave of the wheel of rebirths and are depicted in the form of three animals, symbolizing greed, hatred and delusion: a red cock stands for passionate desire and attachment (raga; Tib.: hdod-chags); a green snake is the embodiment of hatred, enmity and aversion (dvesa; Tib.: ze-sdan), the qualities that poison our life; and a black hog symbolizes the darkness of ignorance and ego-delusion (moha; Tib.: gti-mug), the blind urge that drives beings round and round in the unending cycle of births and deaths.

The three animals are biting each other's tails and are linked in such a way that they too form a circle, because greed, hatred, and delusion condition each other and are inseparably connected. They are the ultimate consequences of ignorance (avidya; Tib.: ma-rig) concerning the true nature of things, on account of which we regard transient things as permanent, and unreal things as real and desirable. In mentally and spiritually undeveloped beings, governed by blind urges and subconscious drives, this lack of knowledge leads to confusion, hallucinations and delusion (moha) or, as the Tibetan puts it, to mental darkness and gloom (gti-mug), which involves us more and more in the 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 defence or protection of those that have been acquired. The samara is the world of eternal strife and dissension, of irreconcilable contrasts, of a duality, which has lost its balance, due to which beings fall from one extreme into the other.

The Six Realms of Life
Conditions of heavenly joy are opposed by states of infernal tortures; the realm of titanic struggle and lust for power is opposed by the realm of animal fear and persecution; the human realm of creative activity and pride of accomplishment is opposed by the realm of 'hungry spirits' (preta; Tib.: yi-dvags), in whom unsatisfied passions and unfulfilled desires lead a ghost-like existence.

The Tibetan 'Wheel of Life', as reproduced on the previous page shows in the upper sector the realm of the gods (deva; Tib.: lha) whose carefree life, dedicated to aesthetic pleasures, is indicated by 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, according to Buddhist conception), 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.

Thus we see in the lowest sector of the Wheel of Life the reverse side of those heavenly pleasures : the realm of infernal pain (niraya; Tib.: dmyal-ba). 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. Therefore it is said that Tama, the Judge and 'King of the Law' (dharma-raja; Tib.: rje-chos-rgal), is an emanation of Amitabha in the form of Avalokitesvara who, moved by infinite compassion, descends into the deepest hells and — through the power of the Mirror of Knowledge (which arouses the voice of conscience) — transforms suffering into a cleansing fire, so that beings are purified and can rise to better forms of existence.

In order to make this unmistakably clear to the beholder of the Wheel of Life, Avalokitesvara has been represented once more in his Buddha-form besides his terrifying appearance as Yama, the Judge and Lord of Death. And from Avalokitesvara's hand emerges the purifying flame. In a similar way he appears in all other realms of existence — carrying in his hands the symbol of his special message, according to the nature of the particular realm.

In the realm of the Devas he appears with the lute, in order to rouse the gods with the sounds of the Dharma from their self-complacency and from the illusions of transient pleasures, and to awaken them to the timeless harmonies of a higher reality.

In the realm of warring Titans, the `anti-gods' or Asuras (Tib.: lha-ma-yin), depicted to the right of the Deva-world, Avalokitesvara appears with a flaming sword, because the beings of this realm understand only the language of force and strife. Instead of fighting for the fruits of the Wishing Tree (kalpataru), which stands between the realm of the gods and the Titans, the Bodhisattva teaches the nobler struggle for the fruits of knowledge and desirelessness. The flaming sword is the symbol of the active 'Discriminating Knowledge', which cuts through the darkness of ignorance and the knots of doubt and confusion.

The reverse side of the realm of power-drunken Titans is the realm of fear in the left lower sector (opposite the asura-loka). It is the realm of animals, of persecution and surrender to a blind destiny of natural necessities and uncontrollable instincts. Here Avalokitesvara appears with a book in his hands, because 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.

To the left of the realm of the gods, 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.

It is here, therefore, that Avalokitesvara appears as Buddha Shakyamuni with the alms-bowl and the staff of an ascetic, in order to point out the way towards liberation 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. And thus, opposed to the world of purposeful human activity and proud self-assertion, we find (in the opposite sector) the realm of unfulfilled desire and unreasonable craving.

This is depicted in the right lower sector of the Wheel of Life. Here we see the reverse side of passions in their impotent clinging to the objects of desire without a possibility of satisfaction. The beings of this realm, called Pretas (Tib. : yi-dvags), are restless spirits, filled with unsatisfied passions, leading a ghost-like, peaceless existence in a world of imaginary objects of their desire. They are beings who have lost their inner balance and whose wrongly directed lust for life produces a correspondingly disharmonious form of existence, which has neither the power of proper material embodiment nor of any kind of spiritualization. They are those beings, entities or forces of consciousness, by which believers in spiritualistic seances are deceived and which, according to popular belief, haunt the places of their former existence, to which they are fettered by their unsatisfied desires. (It is for this reason that they are objects of necromantic exorcism.) They are depicted as ghoulish creatures with spindly, dried-up limbs and bloated bellies, tortured by insatiable hunger and thirst, without being able to satisfy them. Because the little that they are able to swallow through the narrow gullet of their thin neck, causes them unspeakable tortures, since food is indigestible for them and merely bloats up their bellies. And whatever they drink turns into fire: a drastic simile of the nature of passionate craving (raga; Tib.: hdod-chags), the sufferings of which cannot be stilled by giving in to passion, since this would only increase its force, like a fire upon which oil is poured. In other words: passions are the origin of suffering, because they are unstillable due to their own nature, and every attempt at satisfying them leads to deeper attachment and entanglement and to greater sufferings.

Liberation from such passionate desire 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 Buddha, in whose form Avalokitesvara appears in the realm of the Pretas, carries therefore in his hands a receptacle with heavenly treasures (or spiritual food and drink, which will not turn into poison and fire), beside which objects of worldly desire appear paltry, and which thus liberate suffering beings from the tortures of unquenchable desire.

The Outer Rim – Driving Forces of 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).

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

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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

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.

The eighth picture shows a drinker, who :s served by a woman. It symbolizes the thirst for life (trsna; Tib. : sred-pa), 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.)

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.

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.

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 Tibetan, therefore, does not hesitate to depict the sexual act and the act of giving birth undisguised and without ambiguity. He lays greater stress upon nearness to life than upon philosophical abstractions. In spite of this he succeeds in his symbolism (of words as well as of visible forms) to express the finest shades of spiritual experience with an astonishing precision. His mysticism is never inimical to life, his philosophy never merely an expression of speculative thought, but the result of practical experience. Due to the same attitude he endeavors 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. In order to avoid misunderstandings, each of the above-mentioned symbolical pictures bears a short inscription, as for instance : 'monkey — consciousness', `blind woman — ignorance', etc.

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; Tib. : rten-hbrel-gye-yan-lag-bcu-gnis), which says that all that has been born, leads to old-age and death.
( jati-marana; Tib.: rgas-ši).

Dependent Origination
Thanks to such pictorial representations this formula, which belongs to the oldest Buddhist tradition, is more popular in Tibet than in any other Buddhist country. It has often been called the twelvefold 'causal nexus', and due to this wrong presupposition many a scholar has cudgeled his brain as to how this causality could be explained according to the laws of logic or of the natural sequence of the constituents of this formula. Avidya, the not knowing or non-recognition of reality, however, 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 egohood. 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 have 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.