Snakes Roosters and Pigs – Oh My – Symbols Themes and Teachings of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

Every day we turn the wheel of life and its samsaric mechanisms. Like gears in an illusory clock, we blindly spin around their karmic center as we move from one realm of life to the next. This is the fundamental teaching described within the Buddhist paradigm known as the ‘Wheel of Life’. Within its spokes are recorded the twelve links of dependent origination. Each link a phenomenal state that differs only by its degree of unhappiness or dissatisfaction.

The ‘Wheel’ symbolizes the Buddhist perspective on a life lived in ignorance of ultimate truth. He is held in the clutches of ‘Yama’, a wrathful deity known as the ‘Lord of Death’. He is the manifestation of Samsara; the seemingly endless cycle of reincarnation. Outside the Wheel stands the Buddha as a guide who points the way to liberation.

To understand the teaching it is best to begin the examination at its center where the three roots of delusion reside. The first is hatred, symbolized by a snake, the second ignorance personified by a rooster and the third greed represented by a pig. Around the central axis is a ring that represents the karmic states of existence. The figures on the left ascend to higher realms of existence, due to virtuous actions, while the figures on the right descend to lower realms, due to evil or ignorant actions.

Moving out, the next ring is the largest and is divided by six spokes. Within each segment the six realms of phenomenal experience are illustrated. The upper half, from left to right, represents the three higher realms of existence; humans, demigods and gods. The lower half represents the three lower realms; animals, hungry ghosts and beings from hell. It may be helpful to think of these realms as metaphorical examples of mental conditions.

Within each segment a different realm is depicted in which sentient beings are reborn; divas, gods or demigods (a demigod is described as an anti-god or a jealous god), humans, animals (sentient beings from whales to insects), hungry ghosts (depicted as having a small mouth with a large stomach, never able to fulfill his hunger), beings from hell (there are eight different possible hells and each one a product of the mind). These segmented realms relate to six different mental conditions: Pride and jealousy fall within the realm of gods and demigods. Humans are afflicted by five disturbing emotions; naivety, arrogance, greed, jealousy and anger. The lower kingdoms of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings are associated with ignorance, desire, and anger.

Beyond this is the upper ring which pictorially describes the twelve stages of ‘dependent origination’. The first stage expresses the fundamental ignorance of the true nature of sentient beings. He is depicted as a blind man with a cane. Moving clockwise around the wheel, the workings of karma are as follows. It is embodied by the image of a potter molding a pot (the formation of fate). Next, the aimless wanderings of the mind are expressed by a monkey climbing a tree, swinging from branch to branch without thinking.

Going further, the concept of self-awareness evokes self-awareness (name and form). This is represented by the image of people traveling in a boat on a river. The next stage is reflected in an image of an empty house with its doors and windows open. This symbolizes the developing sense organs; sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thought. These senses, in turn, allow us to establish contact with the world around us, as the image of lovers embracing shows. From contact arises categorizes feelings; pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This is illustrated as an arrow piercing an eye. Feelings give way to desire or attachment, represented by a couple falling in love (sometimes illustrated as a man drinking alcohol). Attachment leads to clinging shown by a monkey (the mind) picking fruit. Phenomenal existence arises from grasping. This is represented by a man and a woman making love. Existence spontaneously culminates in birth, entry into the samsaric realm, expressed by a woman in childbirth. Finally, birth naturally leads to aging and death is symbolized as an old man carrying a burden.

This is the only teaching that the Buddha wrote in his own hand. By drawing the diagram in sand, he reinforced the essential precept that all phenomena are merely temporary. At first glance, the teaching paints a rather bleak picture. However, within its structure there are lessons that inspire awareness. It is this awakening that leads to complete liberation from what seems to be the almost eternal imprisonment of mindless wandering. We are the dreamers lost within our own dreams and not realizing that we are dreaming. Understanding and acknowledging our individual roles and our participation within this system empowers each of us to discover the innate freedom that lies dormant within us; our Bodhi self.

The man stopped and asked the Buddha:

“My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

– “No”, replied the Buddha.

“Well then, are you some kind of wizard or sorcerer?”

Again the Buddha replied, “No.”

“You are a man?” – “No.”

“Well, my friend, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

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