Buddhist Arts

The Buddhist Wheel of Life

Buddhist Wheel of Life Paintings adorn monastery porches throughout the Himalayan region. We may also know the Sanskrit name, the Bhavacakra, or “Wheel of Existence”. In the Tibetan Vinaya or monastic rules, the Buddha instructs monks to paint the wheel on monastery gates. He also taught that a monk or nun should be available there to explain its meaning to visitors. Artists frequently depicted the core concepts of Buddhist teaching. Visual learning is not something new!

This colorful and graphic wheel of life image contains many important teachings. First, we contemplate the impermanence of existence, regardless of our current situation. Then, we remember that all classes of existence are equally fragile. Additionally, we reflect on the stress, pain, and suffering of worldly existence. And we contemplate how causes and conditions combine to trap us within unpleasant states.

We present an excerpt from Khenpo Gyaltsen’s A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students. Here, Khenpo offers the following commentary:

The entirety of the six classes of sentient beings circle and wander within either the lower realms of affliction or the higher realms of comfort. The Wheel of Life is an illustration showing the reasons for this cycling or wandering. It is said that the Wheel of Life was initially made according to Buddha Śākyamuni’s instructions as a reciprocating gift given to the ancient Indian king of Rashasa from the king Bimbisara.

Khenpo Gyaltsen, A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation
Buddhist Wheel of Life
King Bimbisara of Magadha welcomes the Buddha

The Central Image

In the center the images of a chicken, snake, and pig represent the three poisons that are the principle causes for the six realms of beings to wander endlessly in samsara. First, the chicken represents desire and attachment; second, the snake represents anger and aversion; and third, the pig represents delusion and ignorance. Both the chicken and snake are portrayed as emerging from the mouth of the pig. This signifies that the principle cause of desire and anger is ignorance itself.

Khenpo Gyaltsen, A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation
Buddhist Wheel of Life
Close-up of central motif

The drawing of the black and white edges illustrates the virtuous ‘white’ karma and negative ‘black’ karma, distinguishing the pleasant and unpleasant realms of existence. Through the ripening of negative actions, one will certainly fall into the lower realms. Within the intermediate state, one will experience being led with your head slumped downwards, pulled by the ropes of the Lord of Death’s henchmen. However, through the power of merit, one is born in the higher realms. In that case, similar to when moonlight spreads over the night sky, or when the sun’s rays first touch the white snowy mountains, beings experience traversing along an ascending path, or experience a direct transcendence upwards, where there is no suffering or terror of the Lord of Death’s henchmen.

Khenpo Gyaltsen, A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation
Buddhist Wheel of Life
Yama Lord of Death holds the wheel

The Six Realms of Existence

Then, in the middle of the wheel, artists paint six sections showing six possible existence situations.

The realms of gods, humans, and asuras (demigods) are the three higher realms. And the realms of hell, hungry-ghosts (pretas), and animals are the three lower realms. Each one is depicted between one of the six spokes of the wheel in order.

The principle teaching portrayed in the Wheel of Life is the suffering of the six classes of beings. For as long as our mother sentient beings do not attain liberation, they continue to transmigrate from life to life undergoing the sufferings of saṃsāra.

Khenpo Gyaltsen, A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation

Finally, the outer rim of the wheel features twelve sections. These sections correspond to the twelve links of dependent origination. And if we visualize the wheel rolling, we can understand the causal process of entering into existence. Therefore artists depict the twelve causal links with memorable illustrations.

Here we list the most frequently featured scenes, although you may find other variations.

  1. Ignorance (Literally “not seeing”) – a blind person walking with a stick
  2. Formation or volitional activity – a potter shaping a pot
  3. Consciousness – a man or a monkey picking a fruit
  4. Name and form – two people seated in a boat
  5. Six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – six windows in a house 
  6. Contact – a pair of lovers
  7. Feeling  – an arrow to the eye
  8. Thirst or craving – a drinker receiving a drink
  9. Grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit
  10. Becoming – a couple engaged in sexual intercourse
  11. Birth – a woman giving birth
  12. Aging and death – a sick person and a corpse

Reflection Questions

We remember best when we apply these teachings to our own situations. Contemplate the wheel and the twelve links, and then spend some time in the next week reflecting on your personal experience. You may want to start by considering these questions:

  1. Not seeing, or ignorance, is at the heart of the wheel and at the beginning of the twelve links. Can you think of examples from your own life when your habit of “not seeing” caused suffering—for yourself or others?
  2. Can you describe how this situation unfolded and see how the twelve causal links may have been triggered?

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.