About Wheel of Life

About Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life or “Bhavacakra” is well known by Buddhist monks as a powerful meditation tool and also by students to learn and understand the teachings of the Buddha. The Wheel represents the very reasons for the suffering of our mortal form, through both horrific and sublime imagery and it can be seen painted on the walls of many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in all Himalayan regions.

The Depiction of the wheel of life is comprised of 4 concentric circles, excluding the outermost area with the demon or the mara. These depict the causes and conditions by which sentient beings of the 3 realms (Desire realm, form and formless realms) revolve through cyclic existence and in what places and what manner they revolve. Now negative or afflictive emotions are true cause of  all the sufferings and turnings in the samsara.

In Detail
The Wheel of Life or “Bhavacakra” is well known by Buddhist monks as a powerful meditation tool and also by students to learn and understand the teachings of the Buddha. The Wheel represents the very reasons for the suffering of our mortal form, through both horrific and sublime imagery and it can be seen painted on the walls of many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in all Himalayan regions.

The Depiction of the wheel of life is comprised of 4 concentric circles, excluding the outermost area with the demon or the mara. These depict the causes and conditions by which sentient beings of the 3 realms (Desire realm, form and formless realms) revolve through cyclic existence and in what places and what manner they revolve. Now negative or afflictive emotions are true cause of  all the sufferings and turnings in the samsara.

First Circle of the Wheel of Life


In the center of the wheel, there are three animals symbols of the “Three Poisons”: ignorance (the pig), attachment (the bird) and anger (the snake). The snake and bird are shown as coming out of the mouth of the pig, indicating that anger and attachment arise from ignorance. At the same time the snake and the bird grasp the tail of the pig, indicating that they both promote even greater ignorance. Hence, the inner circle shows the roots or the cause of the suffering.

Second Circle of the Wheel of Life


The second circle out from the inner circle is divided in two-half circles, one light coloured while the other is usually dark. These images represent the Wheel of Karma, the law of cause and effect. The darker portion shows individuals experiencing the results of negative actions. The light half circle, instead, indicates people experiencing the results of positive actions and attaining spiritual ascension.

  1. In the black half circle the lord of death drags down those beings who are going to take birth in hell by putting a noose around their neck, which symbolises how one will go to hell if one accumulates negative deeds.

  2. On the white half-circle, monks and laypeople are depicted facing upward with white folded hands and showing the gesture accumulating positive actions, symbolising how if one accumulates positive actions one will achieve higher rebirth as humans and demigods.

Thus, the second circle displays the two different kinds of karma i.e. Meritorious Karma and Non-meritorious karma.


Third Circle of the Wheel of Life

The third circle of the wheel contains a wider area divided into six parts, each depicting a different realm of Samsara. These six realms constitute all possible states of existence in the universe and all beings cycle between these states. They can be divided into higher realms and lower realms.

Higher Realms

The three higher realms are Gods, Titans and Humans, in which happiness is greater than suffering.

God: The Highest Order

The gods (déva), during the course of extremely long lives, enjoy the pleasure of all things. Their suffering comes at the end of their lives, when they are rejected by their community and glimpse into the world in which they will be re-born which, by definition, will be a lesser world, having drained their merits bathing for centuries in more luxuries than we may dream of.

Pride associated with large amounts of positive karma can lead you to be re-born in this part of the Wheel of Life.

2. Titans: Samsara at work

The Titans (assoura) or demi-gods are very powerful beings whose main occupation and suffering is to be constantly engaged in conflicts and arguments.
Legend has it that the Tree of Life grows in this world, but the Fruit of Eternal Life which it bears, falls into the World of the Gods. Which is the nature behind their Jealousy and Constant conflict with the Gods.

Jealousy associated with some good karma leads to rebirth in this realm of the Wheel of Life.

3. Humans: Our Existence

Humans (Mansuya) suffer principally from: birth, ageing, sickness and death, but also from many other sufferings and difficulties. Unlike the other worlds it is possible to get spiritual teaching in this world, which is not the case for the other worlds.

Lower Realms

The three lower realms are Animals, Hungry Spirits and Hell, in which suffering is greater than happiness.

  1. Animals: Everyday Samsara

Animals (tiryanca) suffer from cold, hunger, sickness, cannibalism, enslavement and exploitation by humans. They also suffer from very limited intelligence.

The negative karma that is associated to ignorance leads to rebirth in the animal world of Samsara.

2. Hungry Spirits: The beginning of “hell”

The hungry spirits suffer from a hunger and thirst that can never be quenched or satisfied by the seldom occasions they find food or water.

Greed and the negative karma associated with it will lead to rebirth in this realm of the Wheel of Life.

3. The Damned: Hell in Buddhism

The damned are those who live in Buddhist hell, worlds of intense suffering in which life is extremely long. The beings that find themselves there are subject to torture with fire and ice and numerous other sufferings.

Negative karma associated to hatred, will lead to rebirth in Samsara hell.

Therefore, if you accumulate virtuous karma you will reborn in a higher state of rebirth and if you accumulate non-virtuous actions they will impel you to one of the three miserable states. So, all sentient beings will be reborn as one of six migrating beings.

Fourth Circle of the Wheel of Life

The fourth circle of the wheel or the outermost concentric ring of the Wheel of Life presents the process of cause and effect in detail. The circle is divided into twelve parts, each depicting a phase of the law of Karma which keeps us trapped in the six realms of cyclic existence. Since, the division into twelve links are represented in pictorial form in the Wheel Of Life, the symbolic meaning of each part is explained below.

  1. Ignorance (In Sanskrit: Avidyā)

Just to the right of the top is a blind man with a walking-stick, representing ignorance of the true nature of the world. After death, the spirit finds itself in a state of total unconscious, plunged into fundamental ignorance.

In detail, the blind old man wants to go to different place he wishes to visit, but is unable due to the loss of his vision, ageing and the feeling of danger from falling off the cliff along the way. Likewise, we are confused about the karma and its results. Many of us have no idea that accumulating negative karma results in rebirth of miserable realms and positive karma results in rebirth of higher realms. Even though we have some understanding about the effects of karma but there is a lack of faith. Due to that confusion we have committed many negative karmic active actions and been reborn in the lower realms of the hell beings and animals.

Karmic Impulsions (In Sanskrit: Saṃskāra)

Moving clockwise, a potter moulding a pot symbolises that we shape our own destiny with our actions through the workings of karma. A potter putting his wheel into action. The spirit is driven out of the state of unconscious, by the karmic grains embedded in his "reservoir of consciousness" (subconscious).

Karmic activity motivated by ignorance accumulates a whole variety of virtuous and non virtuous karmic actions of the body, speech and mind which then bring about different varieties of Samsaric states in terms of form, wealth, size etc just as the potter makes various sizes of pot.

Consciousness (In Sanskrit: Vijñāna)

The monkey climbing a tree represents consciousness or the mind which wanders aimlessly and out of control. Consciousness or more specifically the faculties that allow us perceive shapes, sounds, smells, etc., slowly take place.

As the contaminated principle consciousness which holds all the latent karmic propensities or imprints cannot fix to one object of observation and keeps jumping from one samsaric place to another, likewise the fickle minded monkey jumps from one tree to another.

Name and Form (In Sanskrit: Nāmarūpa)

Consciousness gives rise to name and form, which is symbolised by people travelling in a boat on the river of life. The egocentric individual functions using : shapes, sensations, perceptions, volitions and conscious. The first (shapes) is tangible but the rest are mere mental creations, that cannot be touched nor seen, but only named.

This is symbolised by a boat carrying people. Just as a boat serves a medium or basis for carrying passengers from one side of a river to the other likewise, the fourth link of dependent arising, Name and Form, also serves as a basis fir the consciousness that has traveled from the previous birth to this life and will migrate from this life to the next. Furthermore it serves as a container for all the pain and pleasure that we experience in our life. 

 Six Senses (In Sanskrit: Ṣaḍāyatana)

The next link is an empty house, the doors and windows, which symbolise the developing sense organs. Buddha noted six senses including sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thought.

The uninhabited house symbolise show during this stage the six sensory powers or six senses which are the base of consciousness have already come into existence but the consciousness which is based upon those six sensory powers is not yet manifest. Likewise for a house which has been built but in which there are not yet any residents, there is the base but absence of the very thing which is based upon that.

Contact (In Sanskrit: Sparśa)

The six senses allow us to have contact with the world, which is symbolised by lovers embracing. Here embracing and kissing of the couple is motivated by attachment and sexual desire, and is not like an embrace or kiss which occurs due to some particular custom as a sign of greetings.

When we kiss each other out of sexual desire, the sensorial object, the senses and the consciousness are in contact with each other but the complete feeling of sexual intercourse will not be experienced whilst we kiss. Likewise  at the stage of contact, when someone experience contact with something hot or cold, smooth or rough etc there is a mere feeling of contact but one is notable to completely experience the pain and pleasure.

Feeling (In Sanskrit: Vedanā)

From contact arise feelings, which we categorise as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Feelings are represented on the wheel as an arrow piercing the eye.

When someone has an arrow stuck in their eye, they will not be able to think of or notice due to so much pain, and not able to see due to the arrow in eyes. Likewise, during the link of feeling we experience strong sensations of pain or pleasure and the intensity of our feelings aspiring for happiness and wishing to avoid suffering will increase.

Craving (In Sanskrit: Tṛṣṇa)

Sensation, whether it be good or bad, creates a platform where craving for an object, is created. If the sensation in neutral then the desire is reduced to simply accepting the reality of the object.

There is a saying in Tibetan that "there is no satisfaction for the drinkers to quench the thirst". Due to addiction the drinker cannot quit drinking alcohol and they continue to take as much as they can. Too much drinking can loose control of the mind, which leads to numerous other shortcomings such as idle gossip and provoking fights. Likewise the craving of attachment nourishes the karmic tendencies accumulated in the past and also increase or desires, although they can never be satisfied and how much you rely on them they will cause numerous faults of cyclic existence. So, craving is like a drunkard who creates many present as well as future sufferings. 

Grasping (In Sanskrit: Upādāna)

Craving leads to grasping for an object of desire, symbolised by a monkey picking fruit. In some pictures, there is a monkey holding fruit in one hand whilst grasping at more fruit with the other.

When the degree of attachment arises the yearning for fruit leads you want more and more, without ever finding contentment. Then, whilst eating one fruit we try to grasp after more fruits with the other hand.

Existence (In Sanskrit: Bhava)

From grasping arises existence represented by a man and a woman making love. In some pictures it is shown a pregnant woman who is ready to give birth which also has the same meaning. 

In the past, karmic activity laid down latent propensities on the consciousness, which when nurtured by craving and grasping, became empowered to bring forth existence in a new birth.

Rebirth (In Sanskrit: Jāti)

Existence culminates in birth (entry into the human realm), which is symbolized by a woman giving birth to a child. Just as when a baby comes of the womb, our primary consciousness is separated from the old body and after death transmigrates to the intermediate state. Then the consciousness initially enters one or another of the four types of rebirth. 

One will take rebirth in higher realms if you have accumulated virtuous karmic actions and one may fall in the lower realms if you have committed non-virtuous karmic actions.

Ageing and Death (In Sanskrit: Jarāmaraṇa)

Birth naturally leads to ageing and death which is symbolised by an old man carrying a burden. The spirit then falls back into ignorance and finds itself back at the first link in the chain. When we encounter a dead body it gives rise to spontaneous feelings that we are subject to the nature of death. Even though may be in the youthful stage of life right now, but gradually the stage of ageing will arise and you will become old.

When the dissolution of the 4 elements (earth, water, fire and wind) occurs near death, there is a complete separation of consciousness from the present body, which is what we call death. Therefore, as long as we are under the influence of contaminated physical and mental aggregates and are reborn as one of those six migrating beings, we are subject to impermanence and ageing and there is no other way to overcome this.


So, this is how and in what manners do we engage in and turning again and again in cyclic existence through the forward progression of the twelve links of dependent arising.

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