Chapter 6

The Wheel of Life

The 'Wheel of Life' (Bhavacakra (Sk)) is essentially a picturesque representation of Tibetan Buddhist symbols used to illustrate the various states and levels of rebirth. The pictures focus the mind on the very nature of existence. It is said that the historical Buddha scraped a circle in the dust then divided it up into twelve interconnected sections that power the cycle of life via the spheres of existence.  

The hub of the wheel contains three poisons: lust, malevolence and ignorant-greed. Then spokes were added to the circle which further divided the wheel into six sections, the sections portraying the levels of existence, or worlds in which the laws of cause and effect operated. The six worlds are: The World of Heaven, The World of Benevolent Gods, The World of Humans, The World of Animals, The World of Hell and The World of Punishments.  

The wheel is depicted as being turned by the death monster, Yama, which symbolizes the miseries and delusions of existence. The poisons are depicted by lust - a red cock, malevolence - a green snake and ignorant-greed, - a black pig.  

The many representations of the wheel's symbols vary from school to school and so do the interpretations of these symbols.  

If we return to the twelve interconnected sections that power the wheel, we can see how difficult, and how easy it is to explain the terminology in basic or complex psychological language. Starting from the top right of the wheel and progressing clockwise are:

1.         A blind woman - Ignorance.

2.         Pots being made - Cause and effect.

3.         A monkey in a window - Consciousness.

4.         A passenger in a boat - Mind and body.

5.         A house with widows and doors - the Six Senses.

6.         An embracing man and woman - Contact.

7.         A man with his eye pierced by an arrow - Feeling.

8.         A man drinking water - Thirst.

9.         A monkey in a tree picking fruit - Clinging.

10.       A woman removing the clothes - Becoming.

11.       A woman giving birth - Birth and Beginning.

12.       A man carrying a corpse - Death.

The Buddha appears outside the circle at the upper right showing the way to enlightenment. At the moment of death the mind of the dying person enters an intermediate state called Bardo. In this state one experiences hallucinations with a clarity that appears to be real and vivid. The hallucinations enable the dying person to travel through life and death without losing consciousness.

Past actions are the fuel of this process and since there is no physical body to slow down the motion, any violent or destructive emotion is liable to harness the thoughts so thoroughly, that the experience becomes focused and stabilised. When this state occurs, so does rebirth!

If the dying person had had a life dominated by hatred, rebirth will result in a new life of suffering. If greed had been the original life force of the dying person, rebirth would herald a life dominated by unsatisfied desires and desperate cravings. If the dying person had been dominated by lustful desires and actions, they would be reborn as an animal. If the driving force in the dying person's life had been ambition for power, the rebirth would be a life of continual frustration. If, however, the dying person had led an exemplary life dominated by love and acts of unselfishness, the rebirth would be a life of peace and harmony, free from torment and pain.

Throughout this 'experience' the breath plays a vital part. The breath is the soul and survives the death of the physical person to continue to the next rebirth. The wheel is an evolutionary process that crystallises the Buddha's vision of the infinite, with liberation as its goal. The wonder of being alive is that depending on our actions lies a supreme freedom from the instinctual reactions of human nature. (See Frontispiece.)