Wheel of Life

Tonight’s Dharma talk about the Buddha’s “Wheel of Life” is based on a presentation by John Travis on a month-long silent retreat in March of 2003 at Spirt Rock Meditation Center. The “Wheel of Life,” illustrates the causation and cessation of suffering. John notes, “There is suffering that leads to more suffering, and there is suffering that leads to the end of suffering. Vipassana is a skillful way to end it.”

The original paintings of what the Buddha described in detail to his followers as the Wheel of Life were lost in the twelfth century during the Muslim invasions of India. Fortunately, precious copies were preserved in Tibet. On a wall of the meditation hall John hung a diagram of the wheel for us to follow while he explained the significance of each part. As a symbol of impermanence,“ Dependent Origination” is depicted by four wheels, symbolizing the realms of existence that revolve around greed, hatred and delusion. All these conditions for suffering are held in the mouth of the Lord of Death. This fearsome Lord wears five skull-shaped crowns that represent the five aggregates. At the wheel’s center is a pig, the force of ignorance, covering its eyes in mud. Out of the pig’s mouth comes a snake, the force of greed. Biting the pig’s tail is a cock, the force of aversion.

Comprising the second wheel are illustrations of karmic actions that cause suffering, juxtaposed with figures evolving to monkdom and Buddhahood. The third wheel holds six realms, starting with the animal realm, which stands for predictable habits and instinctual urges to eat and copulate. In this realm there is no speculation or understanding about the meaning of life. The next realm of “hungry ghosts” symbolizes addictions as well as endless insufficiency and neediness, without satisfaction. The third realm of thought entails opinions, ideas, and concentration or subtle mind states that are all impermanent. The jealous God realm is a place of war, the result of attachment to possessions and power and trying to hold onto what is impermanent. Contraction, hatred, and anger lead to the hell realm.

The human realm is the sixth one and involves narcissism, accompanied inevitably by arrogance and deflation. In this middle realm human beings become so lost in stories about themselves that they forget the principle of conditionality. According to Buddhist psychology, the forces of ignorance and craving are conditions for “rebirth consciousness,” what Joseph Goldstein refers to as “the arising of consciousness at the moment of conception” (Goldstein, 2002, p. 143). From the Buddhist perspective, people continue to be born as long as they are still caught in the illusion of self. It is only if we wake up from our trance of ignorance that we become free of the wheel of rebirth.

Although many Buddhist monks take the idea of rebirth literally, the concept can be viewed metaphorically as well. In his book “One Dharma,” Goldstein elucidates how often we experience “psychological rebirth” throughout our day-to-day existence:

When we get lost in some pleasant fantasy, the “I” is born in a pleasure realm. If we are caught by some intense unfulfilled wanting, we take birth in a hungry ghost realm. If we are lost in a sea of hatred, it is rebirth in a hell realm. And when the mind is suffused with love or compassion, we dwell in what the Buddha called the “Divine Abodes.” The “I” is taking rebirth countless times a day, traversing the Wheel of Life. Whenever there is birth of “I” and “mine,” born from grasping, there is suffering (Goldstein, 2002, p. 144).

John pointed out that the fourth wheel contains the twelve links of dependent origination and interdependent co-arising. The links of causality, which include four that occur in the past, five in the present and the rest in the future, form the basis of the Four Noble Truths. In this wheel the Buddha is pictured pointing to a symbol of the truth. The first link portrays an old person carrying a bag through a leafless forest. This image represents the ignorance of the pig, which leads humans to poison their own planet.

The next four links arise simultaneously to make up the five aggregates. The second link shows a potter molding bowls; some are in a stack of cracked ones, and others are in a stack of perfect ones. This scene is a representation of karmic unfolding towards bad or good results of various causes. Next, consciousness, which arises from karma, is depicted as a monkey, restlessly picking and throwing fruit down from trees. The fourth picture shows the mind steering a boat (body) to indicate that physical form arises from consciousness. The fifth link consists of the five senses and the mind, depicted as a house with five windows and a door.

When all these conditions are present, the sixth link, “contact,” occurs, represented by a drawing of a couple embracing. Contact leads to feelings arising as the seventh link, portrayed by two arrows in a man’s eyes, conveying physical and mental pain associated with reactions to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations. It is at this crucial juncture that Vipassana practice helps us learn to stop moving towards pleasant sensations and away from unpleasant ones, so that we can break subsequent links in the wheel of causation of suffering. If we miss this opportunity to make mindful choices, we proceed to the eighth link, which is craving, portrayed by a glutton stuffing himself at a banquet table. The ninth link, “clinging and grasping,” pictures a person grabbing fruit from a tree to place atop a basket that is already overflowing. At this stage, attachment has solidified in our consciousness.  A pregnant woman represents the tenth link, known as “becoming” or “action.” Link number eleven is “birth,” and the twelfth link entails disease, death and decay.

This chain is not linear but occurs in cycles. Outside of the wheel of causation is an image of the Buddha pointing to the way to break cycles of greed, ignorance and delusion. In each moment we have chances to choose freedom. John closed his explication of the Wheel of Life by reminding us that the third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering, happens on meditation retreats, where we practice choosing freedom.