Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

Additional Explanation of Wheel of Life

The twelve interdependent causes and their effects [outer circle]

The first picture: Beginning with Ignorance, which is spiritual blindness, illustrated by an old and sightless man with a stick, unable to find his way [bottom left].

The second picture shows a potter, his pots being symbolic of his own deeds [acting, speaking and thinking] with which he moulds his own karma, popularly called fate.

The third picture depicts a tree and a monkey springing from branch to branch: this symbolises the major consciousness which in ignorant people springs uncontrolled from object to object. For this reason, by analysis leading to the understanding of inner and outer phenomena, Buddhist psychology always aims at the full control of consciousness.

The fourth picture shows a boat with two people, symbolising name and form, spiritual and physical energy, inseparably floating on the stream of life.

The fifth picture is of a house with five windows and a door, symbolising the five senses and the faculty of thinking, those entrances [i.e. the sense organs] by which the outer world is perceived.

The sixth picture, a man and a woman embracing, demonstrates contact, the consequence of sensual perceptions.

The seventh picture is dedicated to the emotions by which one is struck, as by an arrow in the eye.

The eighth picture, of a woman offering a drink to a man, illustrates desire, stimulated by perceptions and emotions and leading to the socalled thirst for life.

The ninth picture illustrates sensual entanglement: the longing to keep that which is desired, represented by a man plucking the fruits of a tree.

The tenth picture symbolises the procreation of a new life, here depicted by a beautiful bride.

The eleventh picture shows the consequence: procreation is followed by birth, a woman giving birth to a child, shown here in the natural crouching position.

The twelfth and last picture shows old age and death, the inevitable end of all earthly existence, illustrated here by bearers with a bier, the corpse swathed and in the foetal posture ready for the next rebirth and further misery in one of the symbolic six worlds.

Around the inner circle we find the six realms into which we can be reborn:

1. World of the gods

In the realm of pleasure, delusion causes pride and recklessness; suffering consists in the illusion of the eternity of this happy state, which can nevertheless be followed by relapse [rebirth] into lower realms of existence. The gods born of lotus flowers indulge in a splendid life, yet send subject to the law of death and rebirth. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears as a white Buddha with a lute and proclaims the virtue of meditation to liberate the mistaken notion of a permanent "I."

2. World of human

In the realm of action, living beings are entangled in selfishness and passions that bring you old age, disease and death. The yellow Buddha Shakyamuni with alms bowl calls people to willpower and energy. A rebirth as a human being is the most redemptive, as the human being is able to read and understand the holy scriptures.

3. World of Hunger Spirits

The hunger ghosts live in the realm of unsatisfied desires. They cannot eat anything because of their narrow gullet and suffer from hunger and thirst. The red Buddha opposes the poisons of greed and avarice with the nectar vessel, the virtue of generosity and sacrifice.

4. World of hell beings

In the realm of torment, living beings, indebted to anger and hatred, must suffer terrible ordeals of heat and cold. Here, too, a Buddha with water for purification shows the hell beings the virtuous path of patience. In the center of hell, the god of the dead, Yama, sits in judgment on a sinner whose good and bad deeds are symbolized by balls in two containers. On a scale to the left, the balls are weighed against each other to decide man's fate.

5. World of Animals

In the realm of fear, man is born into it out of ignorance and weakness of will. Here are found spiritual ignorance and dullness of animals, which lead to the oppression of animals by humans, hunting and eating meat. The Buddha with the book of virtue perfection wants to lead the way to the realm of knowledge for the animals. The Buddha with the sword points the way to the path of moral discipline.

6. World of the demigods

In the realm of the struggle of the demigods and titans, there is constant fighting and quarreling with de gods, out of envy over the possession of the wishing tree. The demigods own the roots of the tree and have to feed it with water, while the gods get possession of its fruits without any work.

There is also a struggle between the gods and the Titans.

There are also wheels of life with only five realms [here the realms of the gods, and the demigods, are contracted].

The outermost ring illustrates the twelve interdependent causes and their effects, explaining the origin and consequences of karma:

  1. The monkey in a tree represents consciousness. Buddhism focuses on maintaining full control of your consciousness.
  2. The man in the boat represents name and form, the idea that both spiritual and physical being exist in one on the river of life and suffering.
  3. The building with five windows and one door represents the sixth sense of thought and thinking, symbolizing the entrances with which the outer world is perceived.
  4. The man and woman embracing represents contact, the consequences of sensual perception.
  5. The man with the arrow in his eye represents feeling, or all the emotions one can experience in life.
  6. The man offering a cup of water to a woman represents craving, or the so called thirst one has for life.
  7. The man reaching for the fruit in the tree represents grasping, the desire to keep the things we long for.
  8. The pregnant woman represents rebirth, the procreation of new life.
  9. The woman in a crouching position with two children depicts the consequences of rebirth and the procreation of new life.
  10. The two men being bearers of a dead body represents death, a known consequence of old age and life.
  11. The blind man represents spiritual blindness or being unable to find one’s way.
  12. The potter represents formation, or the idea that one moulds his own karma – more popularly known as fate.

The wheel of life as a symbol

According to an ancient Indian text, Maudgalyâyana, one of the most eminent disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, had in the course of his training acquired the ability to empathize deeply with the lives of others. Accordingly, he was constantly surrounded by monks and nuns, male and female lay followers, who asked for his advice or teachings.

When the Buddha saw, he remarked that there were not enough people like Maudgalyâyana to teach all who were in need of him. Therefore, he suggested, let them make a symbol to represent the teachings of Maudgalyâyana. He instructed his disciples to paint the Wheel of Life, which, placed at the entrance of each monastery, would show the different realms of existence and their underlying processes. A monk was to be entrusted there in each case with the task of explaining the imagery to visitors and novices.

So today the wheel represents a memorial to the rebirth realms of living beings as gods, demigods, humans, animals, hunger spirits and hell beings.