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.
The following is an excerpt from Khenpo Gyaltsen’s A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation:
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.
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.
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.
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: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students, pp. 245-46.
The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination
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.
- Ignorance (Literally “not seeing”) – a blind person walking with a stick
- Formation or volitional activity – a potter shaping a pot
- Consciousness – a man or a monkey picking a fruit
- Name and form – two people seated in a boat
- Six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – six windows in a house
- Contact – a pair of lovers
- Feeling – an arrow to the eye
- Thirst or craving – a drinker receiving a drink
- Grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit
- Becoming – a couple engaged in sexual intercourse
- Birth – a woman giving birth
- Aging and death – a sick person and a corpse