It’s just a Circle, Right?: The Wheel of Life

By Rebecca

There are many different kinds of wheels, but this month we’re going to be talking about the Wheel of Life, big with the Tibetan Buddhists.  A wheel that itself has many different names: Wheel of Existence, Wheel of Rebirth, Wheel of Samsara, Wheel of Suffering, Wheel of Transformation, and I’m sure there are more.  What is this particular wheel?  What makes it different than, I don’t know, the one on a BMX bike per se?  Well this wheel helps you find enlightenment.  Do you know of any other wheels that do that?

The Wheel of Life is a visual representation of the various states of being.  The Wheel is supposed to remind people that the goal is enlightenment.  To look at it’s imagery one might feel bummed, it’s not called the Wheel of Suffering because it’s all sunshine and daisies, but it’s actually a symbol of affirmation.  It’s a reminder to seekers that enlightenment is out there and available to any who wish to take the journey.

Now at a glance there seems to be a lot going on, and well, there is.  So let’s start in the dead center.  There is a pig, a cock, and a snake in a circle, each biting the tail of the other.  Each of these animals depict a human failing, each is assigned a slightly different attribute depending on whom you ask.  Bear in mind that these animals are used to show human failings, thus revealing the animal beneath our civilized behaviors and these are considered the core problems that keep souls trapped within the Six Realms (their coming up kids!).

Next is the circle that surrounds that nasty core.  Traditionally one side of the circle is light, the other dark.  One side is referred to as the White Path or Path of Bliss, which shows how your soul can rise towards greater spiritual heights.  Where as the dark side, known as the Dark Path, show people that have chosen a dark path and have thusly descended to gloomy depths.

After that, you’ve got the Six Realms, told you we’d get to them.  Each of these depicts a different level of existence.  The Six Realms are The World of the Devas (Gods), The World of Asuras (Demigods, Fighting Demons), The World of Humans (you know, people), The World of Pretas (Hungry Ghosts), and The World of Hell.  These Six Realms show all the possible states of existence in the universe and all beings tend to cycle through all of these states depending on their Karma.

Next, there is the outermost ring, which is divided into twelve parts.  These are particularly handy because they demonstrate behaviors that keep people in the Six Realms that we just talked about.  These are kind of a cause and effect representation.  There is the blind man, which is ignorance.  The potter at his wheel is showing volitional activities.  There is a monkey in a tree, which represents sentience.  There are men in a boat, which is name and form.  The house with empty windows represents the sense organs.  A couple is shown embracing, which is sensuous impressions.  The man with an arrow in his eye represents feeling (like maybe ouch?).  There is a woman offering drink to a man, that shows us craving.  The woman on the tree plucking fruit represents grasping.  There is a couple making love, and they represent bringing into existence.  The woman in labor shows us birth.  Lastly is the coffin, which represents death and decay.

This whole thing is being held by one horrific looking creature, who in most versions is the Lord of Death.  He’s there to remind you that we are held by our fear of death, but in Buddhist thought death is just a crack at a new existence!  There is also something in the upper left and upper right hand corners, generally the moon, a Buddha, or a Bodhisattva.  These represent a chance at achieving Nirvana and links between the mundane and the Transcendental.

Whew!  That’s a whole lot in one wheel!  The Wheel of Life is found in every monastery, usually painted directly on the wall, but sometimes on paper or cloth.  It uses powerful symbols to remind it’s viewer of the Four Noble Truths: the existence of suffering, its origins and causes, its ending, and the ways to achieve this.  That’s not too shabby for a glorified circle.

Obviously this is a very basic breakdown of a very complex symbol.  If you want to learn more you definitely want to check out this groovy site: