The Tibetan Wheel of Life* is a graphic representation of basic Buddhist philosophy. Though some say it was drawn first by the Buddha, historians say that it originated in India around the second century A.D. as a means of exposing an illiterate people to the Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and the cause of suffering. Preserved as a tradition in Tibet, it comes to us as a symbolic system describing Samsara, the unenlightened state of man caught in the web of his own illusion. It consists of four concentric circles. In the middle are the three obscuring passions (S. mula-klesa) which prevent us from seeing the world as it really is. The next circle is symbolic of the bardo, described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the home of the soul between incarnations. In the next circle the Six Realms (S. Lokas) of Rebirth are illustrated, and the outer circle depicts the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causality (S. Nidanas) whereby man continues to be reborn into life after life.

The idea of reincarnation was stamped out of Christian doctrine long ago in the priestly process of demystification. At first it is a hard concept for the Western mind to take seriously since it has been conditioned to accept as real only what it is told by the senses, only what can be verified objectively. Descended from Aristotle the Western mind is basically analytical as opposed to intuitive. Giving precedence to the phenomenal many over the transcendent one it separates “reality” into categories, names, defines, and compares them, and then looks for more distinctions and so more categories. The most primal distinction is the “me” and the “not me” — the one that tells you who you (think you) are. An analytical approach to the world encourages man to see his essential separateness as the basis of his existence. Buddhism teaches that this sense of self is an illusion.

The Western mind has a linear, as opposed to cyclical, view of time. Thus, the separate “me” begins at birth and ends at death. There may be something more eternal to go to heaven or hell but heaven and hell are dead end streets. For Western man there is no coming back, the eternal now having been sacrificed to past, present, and future; the myth of the great return is lost. The flow is no longer understood in terms of archetypes and symbols but rather as singular events that happen once and then belong to the morgue of the past.

But now, because of LSD, the decadence of our own spiritual tradition, and our saturation with materialism, we look to the East for a more wholistic and intuitive approach to life. If you cannot approach the Wheel of Life as a literal cosmology it may make sense psychologically as a map of your mind.

The three obscuring passions in the center of the Wheel are a way of seeing the emotional reactions we may have to an object arising before our organs of perception. They are symbolized by a rooster (S. raga), a snake (S. dvesa), and a pig (S. moha). Raga is translated into English as lust, greed, acquisitiveness, or passion — a positive reaction to something. That is, we perceive the object, judge it desirable and then proceed to draw it to us. Dvesa can be translated as hatred, anger, fear, or avoidance — a negative reaction to something. That is, we perceive it, judge it threatening to our sense of self, and want to push it from us. Moha means sluggishness, dullness, or stupidity. It is an indifference to something because it has nothing to do with our sense of self.

These animals are traditionally pictured biting each other’s tails, meaning that we revolve at the mercy of these emotions endlessly. No object of the phenomenal world can be experienced as it really is because before its essence touches us we have obscured it with the veil of our egocentricity. This is the Buddhist concept of attachment. Clinging to our sense of self we madly seek to manipulate the external world in order to secure and solidify the ideas we have about who we are. This leads to an inevitable sense of frustration because we can never fit everything into place in our world-view. Observing this about the human condition caused the Buddha to proclaim what is now known as the First Noble Truth, “Samsara dukha.” Though we often see this translated as “life is pain,” the literal translation of dukha is “unyoked.” Everything is unyoked because we do not flow freely in a world perceived as it really is. Instead we attempt to solidify the ever-changing flux into some form of meaning whereby we can cling onto a sense of separateness, which is ourselves. The degree and type of suffering or frustration experienced is dependent upon which of the Six Realms we are in.

The Wheel is usually shown in the clutches of Yama, Lord of the Dead. He is one of the gods left over from the primitive Bon religion of Tibet who was “converted” and given a new symbolic significance with the advent of Buddhism. He stands for the law of karmic necessity whereby man always finds himself in a situation, or a lifetime, that has been shaped by and is the inevitable culmination of his past actions. Yama is a judge, but he is traditionally pictured in Tibetan art holding a mirror, meaning that if we look into ourselves we will be able to judge ourselves and understand the results of our actions.

In the circle surrounding the rooster, pig, and snake the servants of Yama are pictured assigning souls to their proper place in one of the Six Realms. Those who have fallen in their previous life are being dragged to one of the unfavorable realms — the animal realm, the realm of the hungry ghosts, or hell. Those who have accumulated positive merit in their previous life are seen rising to one of the favorable realms — the human realm, the realm of the Titans, or heaven.

Before describing the realms it is important to stress that they can be understood on three different levels. The most literal interpretation is that they exist as physical places where the soul dwells in a characteristic manifestation. For example, returning to the animal realm one would have the body of an animal, etc. Another way of looking at the realms of rebirth is that all six exist on earth as different types of human incarnations. For instance, an individual may fall predominantly in the hell realm because of the karma he must work through in this lifetime. The most subtle, and I think most purely Buddhist, way of interpreting them is that they all exist within each of us. In this way we can use them as a system for patterning the seemingly random changes we go through day by day. This is perhaps the most important since perceiving a pattern to the ups and downs of our chaotic minds is the first step toward a less neurotic life.

In Tibetan Buddhist cosmology the gods live in a heaven which is said to exist 168,000 miles above Earth. It is pictured at the top of the Wheel of Life as a palace of sensual pleasure where the inhabitants need only to wish and their desires are satisfied. They eat the fruit of the Parijati Tree and are spared the human frustration of repletion for the last bite is always as good as the first. But even the Gods cannot escape the transience of Samsara for when they have exhausted their accumulated merit they become victims of decay and death. A Buddha appears in the god realm carrying a musical instrument symbolic of the sensitivity needed to jar the god from his complacency into spiritual awakening. At the second level of meaning someone can be said to be of the God realm if his characteristic mental attitude is one of pride in his worldly accomplishments. He is the successful person, the one who has made it to the top — the corporate president, the millionaire, or famous musician. Psychologically speaking, anyone of us is in the realm of the gods whenever we have succeeded in fulfilling a dream which causes us to be smug and feel superior to those around us.

We remain in heaven until we begin to doubt our position of superiority. When we are asking ourselves, “Have I really made it?” we are in the category of Titan. This is the realm of rebirth for those who in their human life have bragged about being superior. Cosmologically, the Titans are said to dwell at the foot of Mount Meru (the Buddhist Olympus) located half way between heaven and earth. They are pictured on the Wheel waging a war against the gods in which they are inevitably defeated. They chop at the trunk of the Parijati tree, jealous that the fruit of the tree is in the realm of the gods. The Buddha of this realm carries a sword symbolizing the sword of transcendental wisdom which must replace their weapons if they are to be liberated. The basic human trait that the Titans embody is jealousy. These are the people who blame their dissatisfaction on the fact that there are people above them on the ladder of success; they are the ones who haven’t quite made it but are fighting hard to get to the top. At the third level of interpretation each of us is a Titan when we become preoccupied with competition and judging where we are in relation to everyone else. Here we remain until we cannot cope with the anxiety and begin to question why we’re in the race anyway and to ask what the game’s all about. This places us in the human realm.

Literally, this is the Earth as we know it. Shown on the Wheel are scenes depicting the problems of the world — drudgery, old age, sickness, death, unfulfilled dreams. The Buddha holds a begging bowl symbolic of liberation through the cessation of desire. A human incarnation is precious because it is the only realm from which one may escape the Wheel altogether into nirvana, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment from which there are no more incarnations into the world of suffering. The main trait of those of this realm is discriminating intelligence or awareness. These are people who must work for a living and who suffer misfortune but who are trying to understand themselves. We are in the human realm whenever we stop for a moment and try to figure out what it is we’re trying to accomplish. We fall into the animal realm when thinking about ourselves becomes too confusing and we don’t find any answers so we shut off the critical faculty (and turn on the television perhaps).

The animals also dwell on Earth. They are shown to be suffering by being preyed upon by larger animals and forced into labor and eaten by humans. They are characterized by stupidity so that the Buddha brings a book as their means of escape from the animal realm. At the human level these are people who plod along day by day with their noses to the proverbial grindstone, working to sustain their lives but never asking why. We are in the animal realm at those times when we are tired of thinking and so fall back on habit and a mechanical response to the world — when things are getting too intense and we restrict ourselves to what we already feel comfortable with for security’s sake. Gradually we begin to feel bored and stifled by the lack of stimulation in our lives. Remembering more fulfilling times causes us to grasp blindly for some immediate satisfaction and we plunge into the realm of the hungry ghosts.

The hungry ghosts are disembodied spirits believed to dwell in what is now called Bengal. They suffer from insatiable hunger and thirst as the result of a human lifetime of covetousness and gluttony. The ghosts are pictured on the Wheel of Life with tiny mouths and long thin necks through which they can never get enough food to fill their huge bellies. When they drink water it turns to fire, increasing their thirst, and when they eat the food turns to sharp knives, increasing their hunger pangs. The Buddha appears bearing heavenly gifts symbolizing the replacement of desire for sensual gratification with desire for spiritual knowledge. On Earth these are people who are never satisfied because as soon as they actualize a projected fantasy they find that they are still not happy and begin to want something else. We are in this state whenever we can find no satisfaction in our desperate grasping after happiness. When we panic and things become claustrophobic we are in the hell realm.

The Buddhist hell, like Hades, is situated in the center of the Earth. Here dukha is experienced as intense suffering. The Wheel shows scenes of the inhabitants suffering tortures created as punishments for specific crimes, like Dante’s vision in The Inferno. For example, those who in their human lives were disrespectful to the Buddha or their parents are being cut to pieces by burning saws. Others are being roasted alive, etc. The Buddha of this realm holds a flame symbolic of the fire of purification which, for the penitent, replaces the fire of punishment. The main trait of humans who dwell predominantly in the hell realm is aggression. At its most extreme this is manifest as psychotic behavior. Psychologically, we are in this state of mind when our aggressive behavior makes us more and more at odds with our surroundings until we become totally immersed in, and preoccupied with, our suffering and see no relief in sight.

This brings us to the outer circle, to the Twelve Links in the Chain of Causality, a graphic representation of what is known in Buddhism as The Doctrine of Dependent Origination. The links are twelve stages an individual goes through in a single incarnation whereby the samsaric world of birth and death is perpetuated.

At the top of the Wheel is the causal category of Avidya, or spiritual ignorance. It is usually depicted as a blind woman groping her way or as a blind she-camel being led by a driver who symbolizes karma. It stands for the unconscious will to live as it travels through the bardo in search of a new incarnation, according to karmic necessity. When the will finds its place in one of the Six Realms the second stage begins. This is called Sanskara, which is usually translated as “conformations,” and is illustrated by a potter making a pot. The idea is that the undifferentiated flux of reality is molded into recognizable shape whereby we begin to take on an individual personality. This arises out of a state of ignorance in that character is seen as a set of behavior patterns which have become habits as we repeatedly and unthinkingly take the easiest path to a goal.

The third picture going clockwise around the circle is a monkey which symbolizes Vijnana, meaning “consciousness.” Here the will begins to be aware of itself as an experiencing agent, but, as a monkey suggests, there is as yet no human reason, only automatic action. As a result of rudimentary consciousness there is a split between the self and the not-self, or the solidification of the ego. This is the fourth stage, Nama-rupa. It is usually translated as “self-consciousness,” but literally means “name and form.” The idea is that there is now an agent who is aware of its own consciousness. This stage is depicted by a physician feeling a man’s pulse or a man rowing a boat, symbols of duality.

The fifth stage, called Chadayatana, is where self-consciousness leads to an awareness of the senses as our means of experiencing the external world as separate from the self. It is pictured as a house with five (or six) windows or as a mask of the human face. Here the union is complete between the passive unconscious will and the active human responses of the three mulaklesa. From awareness of the senses inevitably arises desire for contact with sense objects, which is the sixth link, called Sparsa. It can be illustrated by a man and a woman embracing or by a man grasping a plough. This contact results in the seventh link, Vedana, which is translated as “feeling” or “perception.” The sensations we receive from the external world are symbolized by a man being pierced through the eye by an arrow.

The eighth stage is called Trishna, the literal translation of which is “thirst.” The idea is that desire arises from feeling as we begin to want more of what feels good and less of what feels bad. It is illustrated by a woman serving tea to a man. This passive stage of wanting engenders the ninth link, Upadana, which means indulgence. It is depicted by a man picking fruit and storing it in a basket, symbolic of attachment to the things of this world which one has accumulated in pursuit of ego-aggrandizement.

The tenth link is Bhava which translates as “becoming.” It is illustrated by a pregnant woman or by a couple making love. The idea is that attachment to worldly possessions leads to the security of married life and the effort to produce an heir. Or, if the ninth link is interpreted as meaning attachment to our sense of self, we desire an heir as an ongoing embodiment of the self. In the eleventh stage, Jati, the heir is born. This is depicted by the woman giving birth or by a mother and child. The birth of an heir marks the individual’s maturation point from which arises the twelfth and final link, Jaramarana, meaning decay and death. Here a corpse is being carried to a funeral pyre. Now the cycle begins again with the disembodied will in search of a new existence.

You may, of course, accept or reject this Buddhist ontology. But at one time or another you may have had the thought that you are not who you think you are. If you then wonder which you is wondering and which you is being wondered about it may begin to look a little schizophrenic inside your head. If you feel daring and then ask yourself who’s perceiving the schizophrenia, it will just get worse. Don’t worry. Take refuge in the fact that you probably aren’t who you think you are . . .

* The illustration in this selection is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.