Tibetan Wheel of Life

A Buddhist depiction of life in the cycles of Samsara.


Tibetan Wheel of Life

represents the essence of Buddhist life and the endless cycles of Samsara, or impermanence. It also shows the path out of Samsara, in the form of the Buddha standing on a cloud.

The wheel is held by the deity Yama, the lord of death. This is another representation of impermanence and Samsara, and the fact that eventually we will always come to death unless we can escape the wheel. He is shown as slowly eating the wheel which only reinforces the futility of remaining in the cycle.

However as well as this there is the image of the Buddha pointing to a cloud which shows the way out through enlightenment. This escape from the wheel is a way of hope for many practicing Buddhists. Through enlightenment they may escape the cycles of Samsara after seeing from a step back the whole picture.

Inside the Wheel there are four parts, one with a three animals consuming each other in a cycle, this is the center; the next showing people climbing up one side and falling down the other, showing karma; another, the middle depicting the realms of existence and the outermost depicting the stages of life and Samsara.

The innermost circle depicts a snake eating a rooster, which is eating a pig, which is eating the snake. These represent the three root delusions of hatred (the snake), ignorance (the rooster) and greed (the pig). These are the three aspects that we must conquer if we are to escape out of the wheel (however there are also many aspects that we must develop and sub-aspects of these root delusions.).

The next ring depicts people climbing and falling those climbing are ascending to higher realms due to good karmic actions, while those falling are descending to lower realms as a result of ignorant or evil karmic actions or due to a lack of any good karmic actions (usually as a result of removal from being in a God realm).

The next part of the wheel depicts the six realms, the lower ones, those of the Hell beings, Hungry ghosts (Pretas) and Animals and the higher ones, those of Humans, Asuras (Demi-gods, Titans or Fighting demons are other common Western names) and the Gods (or Devas).

The realms of the Asuras and Devas typically involve longer periods of life and many worldly desires as well as very limited suffering. However these worlds are still subject to the rules of Samsara and so eventually every Asura and Deva must die. Usually the fall from these realms is significant as these beings develop incredible arrogance, greed and ignorance while there.

The realm of Humans is defined as the only realm that one can escape the wheel from and enter Nirvana. This is due to the fact that Humans have the awareness to reach Enlightenment and also a balance of other factors. This meaning that there accumulated karmic potential for there actions is at a sufficient level, while also they do not have the distractions of the Heaven realms to develop ignorance and greed in them and do not have the hatred of the world developed through a stay in the Hell realms.

The realm of Animals is seen as closely related to that of Humans other than the fact that Animals are not seen as having the awareness to reach enlightenment. However they have many of the qualities required to quickly reach the Human realm.

The realm of Hungry ghosts is signified by beings with some unquenchable thirst for anything they cannot attain. Often this involves food and liquids and so they are shown in ways such as having large stomachs but small mouths or holes in there stomachs where all drinks drain out from.

The Hell realms are usually reserved for those with the greatest negative karmic potential. They involve much constant forms of suffering and little in the way of any pleasures. Denizens of these realms may spend extended periods of time in these realms similar to the length spent by Devas in the Heavens. However even those with great negative karma eventually have all of the seeds ripen, and usually are born into the Human or Animal realms afterwards.

The realms are sometimes seen as being individual worlds however they can and are also seen by some as merely states of being in one single world that we are in.

The next and final outer part of the circle represents the twelve stages of life, these are that of:

  1. A Blind Man:

    This represents ignorance and a lack of knowledge of the world at the beginning of life.

  2. A Potter:

    Showing the way that through our actions in the world (even those that are unripened from lives before) shape our existence in this life.

  3. A Monkey Climbing a Tree:

    This shows our conscious minds ability to aimlessly wonder of on purposeless endeavors.

  4. People Traveling Across a River in a Boat:

    Shows the mind developing to Name and Form and the ability to apply basic direction and purpose to our endeavors.

  5. An Empty House:

    The doors and windows of the house symbolize the developing sense organs and the six senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thoughts ability to begin passing into the mind (which at this stage has experienced none).

  6. Lovers Embracing:

    Shows our senses giving us the ability to feel and experience the world.

  7. An Arrow Hitting an Eye:

    Shows our ability to categorize feelings as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

  8. A Man Drinking Alcohol:

    Shows how our feelings cause desire to arise.

  9. A Monkey Picking Fruit:

    Shows our reaching out for our objects of desire.

  10. A Man and Woman Making Love:

    Shows existence in Samsara through always reaching forward for our desires.

  11. A Woman Having a Child:

    Existence in Samsara leading to a new birth.

  12. An Old Man Carrying Heavy Burdens/Possessions:

    Shows the futility of rebirth and desire.

The only way to escape from Samsara permanently is to leave life at death instead of being reborn into a realm. However this is only possible if one is awakened and has reached enlightenment.