The Wheel of Existence (also Wheel of Becoming) illustrates the complexities of samsaric existence. The representation presents a valuable teaching tool often painted on outside temple walls. Origins go back to perhaps the Buddha himself. You can explore the image in detail by hovering on the red dots
THE THREE POISONS of ignorance, attachment and aversion are represented here as three animals. The pig represents ignorance and is biting the tails of the rooster and the snake, representing attachment and aversion. Actions and thoughts based on ignorance are unskilled and lead away from the path. Understanding the Three Poisons and their insidious interactions helps to arrive at skilful decisions.
In the GOD REALM, the gods are engaged in happy contemplation, enjoying a carefree life of pleasure and sensual delights. Life in this realm is exceptionally long. However, even the gods are subject to old age and death. There is the frightening possibility of falling into the lower realms—this realm points at the danger of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.
The magnificent WISH GRANTING grows between the two realms. Roots and trunk are in the Asura Realm, the branches and fruit are in the God Realm, symbolising the connection between the two realms.
REALM of the DEMIGODS inhabited by the powerful beings perpetually waring with the gods in the GOD REALM. Driven by ambition and jealousy, the demigods are never satisfied. They always want more and resent and envy the gods for their apparent happiness. Their greed generates conflict and resentment.
ANIMAL REALM Animals live in fear of being attacked and eaten by other animals. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans, slaughtered for food, and overworked. They survive by instinct and spent their energy on eating and procreating. Set in their ways, they lack perspective and the ability to explore different options.
HELL REALM presents a terrible place of fire and ice where the hell beings suffer never-ending agony by heat or cold and other horrific torments. Driven by tremendous aggression and anger, their condition is self-perpetuating and self-destructive. No external factors are imposing this pain; it is entirely a creation of the hateful mind.
HUNGRY GHOST REALM presents appalling beings with bloated, empty stomachs. Their necks are too thin to allow food to pass. They are constantly suffering from hunger and thirst. When they find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck, causing intense agony. Psychologically, hungry ghosts are associated with addictions, compulsions, obsessions and the scourge of never being satisfied.
HUMAN REALM presents the most suitable realm for finding the Dharma as humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods) and aggression (as the demi-gods) or by fear (as the animals) or by pain and suffering (as the hell beings and hungry ghosts). Humans can reason and, therefore, can understand their samsaric predicament and potentially do something about it. Dharma is available, yet many humans become caught up in striving, consuming and acquiring, and miss the opportunity.
THE KARMIC ACTION CIRCLE divides into a black and a white half. Ignorance, attachment and aversion generate actions with painful results. Actions based on kindness, generosity and empathy generate positive results along. Following the dark path results in lower realm rebirths. Positive actions help towards rebirth in the upper realms. All times individuals have the opportunity to direct and control their actions accordingly. This circle emphasises the importance of mindfulness.
IGNORANCE: A blind person with a stick blundering forward, unable to find the way. Indifferent, blind, uninterested in the true nature of reality. Bound to habitual patterns and limited to dualistic concepts, attachments, beliefs. Blindly staggering from past into future. Not seeing things in terms of the Four Noble Truths: the fact of suffering, the origin of suffering, the possibility of a cure for suffering and the process of cure itself. Ignorance is the condition that sets this wheel into motion. Ignorance refers to a lack of wisdom, a clinging to habitual ways of perceiving the world. Ignorance forms the foundation for the mistaken belief in an authentic self.
ACTION: A potter shaping a clay object. Actions break the status quo; something happens, something changes. Actions shape our daily lives. Actions matter as their nature may be skilful or unskilful. Actions can harm or be positive. Actions are permanent and have karmic consequences.
Skilful actions lead towards the ultimate goal, and unskilful actions lead away from it.
CONSCIOUSNESS: A monkey in a tree restlessly scampering about picking fruit at random. Actions pass into consciousness, and all actions accumulate into a tremendous karmic imprint, sometimes called the ‘consciousness that links on’. An action becomes a conscious, subjective experience—body and mind link to become a memory. The deliberate action creates the continuum of mind consciousness. Consciousness as a continuity of actions has two aspects, the moment of causal action and the resulting experience.
NAME AND FORM: Two people in a boat, third steering. With consciousness comes discrimination, the awareness of difference. The mind sorts and labels these differences. The body experiences their physical form. 'This' and 'that' emerge. However, there is no permanence in name or form. What is named and formed are composites of interrelated parts. Analyse the composites, and there is nothing to name or form.
SIX SENSES: A house with five windows and one door. The windows represent the five senses and the door of the mind. Five senses are the external entry points of experience. The mind is the sixth sense organ, converting sensory information into consciousness. With mind arising concepts arise. The world divides into 'self' and 'other', creations of the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind divides into perception and the perceiver. In truth, there is no separation between the perceiver and what is being perceived.
CONTACT: A man and woman embracing and consciously engaging with direct experience, evaluating, making judgments. There is no going back. Object, sense faculty and consciousness merge into knowledge. Contact can be external, physical or internal, mental—the meeting of the senses and their objects, producing the experience of phenomena.
FEELINGS: A person with an arrow in the eye. Feelings are as swift and penetrating as an arrow. Feelings are either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. They can generate complex emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, enthusiasm, happiness or love. They provoke reactions and can be deceptive or misleading. Feelings can be difficult to manage or control. Feelings quickly form habits.
CRAVING: A person eating and drinking. Craving can be positive or negative. Craving can manipulate judgement and common sense. It turns into longing, yearning, passion or greed. The Buddha called craving a ‘baited hook’ as the gratification it demands is unquenchable. He also saw it as the requisite condition for conflicts, quarrels, disputes and unskilled behaviour. Craving fuels delusion.
GRASPING: A person plucking fruit from a tree. The Buddha says grasping is fourfold: grasping at sensual pleasure, grasping at wrong views, grasping to the obviously external and grasping at self-existence and lasting soul-entity. Grasping is tenacious and rejects reason and logic. It is the root of suffering, and the world is a slave to it. The Self is an illusion, a mirage, and grasping at it will always lead to disappointment, sadness and suffering.
BECOMING: A woman moving towards her lover, sometimes a pregnant woman. Becoming suggests the potentiality of an emerging separate entity. It is an intentional, irreversible act of bringing something into existence. The new entity is again subject to confusion and ignorance as well as the birth and death cycle.
BIRTH: A woman about to or giving birth. Becoming begets birth. Birth inevitably leads to death. Every moment of life is a moment towards death. The life between birth and death brings the opportunity to seek wisdom to break through the birth/death cycle. Birth is a metaphor for all new arisings, mental or physical. As long as there are causes and conditions, there will be birth in one of the six realms.
OLD AGE, DEATH: A man carrying a corpse. With birth comes death; it is inevitable. Once born, death is unavoidable. As long as causes and conditions for life exist, suffering continues—ignorance, craving, and grasping chains beings to the life/death cycle. Humans have the potential to break the samsaric cycle. According to the law of karma, a particular seed produces a specific fruit. Skilful acts bear fortune fruits. With ignorance, the twelve links continue to perpetuate samsara.
DEATH AND TIME: Yama, the Lord of Death, represents the nature of samsaric confusion as well as a wrothful expression of the enlightened principle. According to the Buddha, existence is no external creation, nor is it random. The personal experience of existence takes place within a framework of time. Yet, existence and time are mere delusionary projections of the confused mind. Yama holds up the Wheel of Existence as a mirror, pointing out that nothing is permanent; everything is relating to something else and continually changing.