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
The three root afflictive emotions which are attachment, aversion and ignorance. So, in the innermost circle of the Wheel of Life the three roots or three poisonous afflictive emotions are symbolized by three animals.
Attachment is symbolised by a rooster, aversion by a snake and ignorance by a pig. Since, ignorance is the root of the other afflictive emotions, the tails of the rooster and the snake emerge from the pig's mouth. Hence, the inner circle shows the roots or the cause of the suffering.
Second Circle of the Wheel
The second circle out from the inner circle is coloured half white and half black, representing respectively positive action or meritorious karma and negative or non-meritorious karma.
With afflictive emotions as a cause we accumulate these positive or negative karmic actions.
Accumulate of non-meritorious karma impels us to miserable rebirth in the lower realms of the hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals.
Accumulation of meritorious karma impels us into higher rebirth as a human or celestial being.
Thus, 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 symbolizes how one will go to hell if one accumulates negative deeds.
On the white half-circle, monks and laypeople are depicted facing upward with white folded hands and showing the gesture accumulating positive actions, symbolizing 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 :- Meritorious Karma and Non-meritorious karma.
Third Circle of the Wheel
Having identified the cause of cyclic existence, then in which samsaric realms will the six classes of migating beings, the three higher beings and the three miserable beings.
The three lower beings are the hungry ghosts, hell beings and animals are depicted on the lower part of the circle.
The three higher rebirths, those of the human beings, celestial beings and the demigods, are on the upper part of the circumference.
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.
Now in regard to the modes of birth of sentient beings, there are 4 types of birth taught in the Buddhist texts:
- Womb-birth is where the consciousness meets with the semen in the mother's womb and delivers the baby. Such birth consists of not only human beings but all the mammals having same birth from the womb.
- Egg-birth is where the are born from the eggs.
- Spontaneous-birth is the method of birth for Form and Formless beings of the higher realms.
- Birth from heat and moisture and all insects and bugs which we observe are born from heat and moisture.
Thus all migrating beings take birth by one of these 4 methods. As I stated before, with afflictive emotions as a cause we all cycle again and again through the realms of the six migrating beings through four birthplaces as the basis.
This is the brief explanation of the third circle of the wheel of life.
Fourth Circle of the Wheel
The fourth circle reveals how and in what manner sentient beings migrate through cyclic existence. It is through the process of the twelve links of dependent arising that the six migrating beings are reborn in samsara. Since, the division into twelve links are represented in pictorial form in the Wheel Of Life I am going to explain the symbolic meaning of each.
1) Avidyā: Ignorance – The first of the 12 links of dependent arising is ignorance which is symbolized by a blind man carrying a stick.
The blind old man wants to go to different place he wishes to visit, but is unable due to the loss of his vision, aging and to the dangers of falling from 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 miserable realms and positive karma results in rebirth in higher realms. Even though we have some understanding about the effects of karma but lacks faith. Though that confusion we have committed many negative karmic active actions and been reborn in the lower realms of the hell beings and animals.
2) Saṃskāra: Mental Formations – The second of the 12 links of dependent arising compositional activity which is represented by a potter.
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.
3) Vijñāna: Consciousness – The third is Consciousness, symbolized by a fickle-minded monkey in a tree.
As the contaminated principle consciousness which holds all the latent karmic proppensities 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.
4) Nāmarūpa: Name and form – The fourth link is Name and Form.It is described as either Nam or the Form because if you are reborn in a formless realm you have no actual form.
This is symbolized 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.
5) Ṣaḍāyatana: Six senses –The fifth link is six sources, represented in the picture by an empty house with a door and windows.
The uninhabited house symbolize 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.
6) Sparśa: Contact – The sixth one is Contact which is shown in the picture by a couple embracing and kissing. 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.
7) Vedanā: Feeling –The seventh link of dependent arising is feeling depicted by a man with an arrow piercing their eye. Some pictures represent this link with a sick man lying on a bed but both have the same meaning.
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.
8) Tṛṣṇa: Craving – The eight of the 12 links of dependent arising is Craving shown by a drunk man being pulled up by a woman, because he cannot stand without her help.
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.
9)Upādāna: Grasping – The ninth link is Grasping, symbolized by a man plucking fruits from a tree. 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. Likewise due to the yearning for craving which is the eight link of dependent arising led the grasping ripen the karma for the next birth.
10)Bhava: Existence – The tenth link of the dependent arising is Existence which is symbolized by a couple sleeping together. 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.
11) Jāti: Rebirth –The eleventh link of dependent arising is Birth, represented by a mother delivering a baby or 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.
12)Jarāmaraṇa: Aging and Death – The last of the 12 links of dependent arising is Aging and Death, symbolized by a man dead body on his back.
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 aging will arise and you will become old.
When the disscoultion of the 4 elements ( the 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 aging 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 progession of the twelve links of dependent arising.
Four Classes of Cause and Effect
The 12 links of dependent arising of cyclic existence are also categorized into four classes of cause and effect:-
- The Projecting cause
- The Projected effect
- The Actualizing cause
- The Actualized effect
The first three of the 12 links of the Wheel of Life, Ignorance, Karmic activity and Consciousness are the projecting causes.
Name and Form, The six sources, Feelings are the projected effects.
Craving, Grasping, Existence are the actualizing causes.
Rebirth, Aging and Death are the actualized effects.
At the back of the Wheel of Existence there is a terrifying demon or Mara representing the Lord of Death, gripping the wheel of life with both is armas and feet and piercing it with his sharp teeth. When the person is caught in the hands of a demon, there is no chance of escape and death in only a matter of time.
Likewise I explained before that once you are reborn in any of realms of cyclic existence there is no other alternative than to finally face death.
Putting an end to Cyclic Existence.
So far i have briefly introduced the unenlightened state of existence based on the forward progression of dependent arising. Now, I am going to introduce the reverse order of dependent arising leading to the enlightened state which explains how to put an end to cyclic existence.
Ignorance, the first of the twelve links of the dependent arising, is like a blind man. So, when we thoroughly examine the self which is apprehended by this ignorance, and again analyze whether this self exists or not using logic and thorough investigation over a long period of time, we will gain a deep conviction such a self does not exist at all.
Once we realize emptiness directly then this dispels the ignorance which is the root of the cyclic existence. Name and form then cease, the six sources then cease, then contect ceases, then feeling ceases, then craving, grasping and then existence ceases.
If existence ceases then birth ceases, and if birth ceases there will be no aging and death.
Thus one will fully be liberated from the power of afflictive emotions and Karma forever, and such state of mind where one has ceased all negative emotions and karma, we call Nirvana or liberation (Moksha).
So this is the brief introduction to the forward progression and reverse order of the twelve links of dependent arising.
A full moon is drawn on the upper left side of the wheel of life which symbolises the state of cessation or Nirvana.
The dark side of the moon starts been gradually dispelled from the 1st day of the lunar month up until the 15th day when the full moon arises, unsustained by any Darkness. So just like the full white moon having the quality of serenity, coolness and illuminate light all over, the state of liberation or gradually abandon all faults off afflictive emotions and possess all the goodness.
Thus dispel from the heat of emotions and attain complete serenity of peace forever.
On the right side of the Wheel of Life is a serene Buddha, pointing his hand to the moon, which symbolizes the Path that leads to cessation or the complete state of liberation.