The bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Pali: bhavacakka; Tibetan: srid pa’i ‘khor lo) is a symbolic representation of samsara (or cyclic existence) found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Indo-Tibetan region. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the drawing was designed by the Buddha himself in order to help ordinary people understand the Buddhist teachings.
The bhavacakra is popularly referred to as the wheel of life. This term is also translated as wheel of cyclic existence or wheel of becoming.
Legend has it that the Buddha himself created the first depiction of the bhavacakra, and the story of how he gave the illustration to King Rudrāyaṇa appears in the anthology of Buddhist narratives called the Divyavadana.
One of the reasons why the Wheel of Life was painted outside the monasteries and on the walls (and was really encouraged even by the Buddha himself) was to teach this very profound Buddhist philosophy of life and perception to more simple-minded farmers or cowherds. So these images on the Wheel of Life are just to communicate to the general audience.
Explanation of the diagram
The meanings of the main parts of the diagram are:
- The images in the hub of the wheel represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion.
- The second layer represents karma.
- The third layer represents the six realms of samsara.
- The fourth layer represents the twelve links of dependent origination.
- The fierce figure holding the wheel represents impermanence.
- The moon above the wheel represents liberation from samsara or cyclic existence.
- The Buddha pointing to the moon indicates that liberation is possible.
Symbolically, the three inner circles, moving from the center outward, show that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion give rise to positive and negative actions; these actions and their results are called karma. Karma in turn gives rise to the six realms, which represent the different types of suffering within samsara.
The fourth and outer layer of the wheel symbolizes the twelve links of dependent origination; these links indicate how the sources of suffering—the three poisons and karma—produce lives within cyclic existence.
The fierce being holding the wheel represents impermanence; this symbolizes that the entire process of samsara or cyclic existence is impermanent, transient, constantly changing. The moon above the wheel indicates liberation. The Buddha is pointing to the moon, indicating that liberation from samsara is possible.
Hub: the three poisons
In the hub of the wheel are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird. They represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion. The pig stands for ignorance; this comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals, since it sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. The snake represents aversion or anger; this is because it will be aroused and strike at the slightest touch. The bird represents attachment (also translated as desire or clinging). The particular bird used in this diagram represents an Indian bird that is very attached to its partner. These three animals represent the three poisons, which are the core of the bhavacakra. From these three poisons, the whole cycle of existence evolves.
In many drawings of the wheel, the snake and bird are shown as coming out of the mouth of the pig, indicating that aversion and attachment arise from ignorance. The snake and bird are also shown grasping the tail of the pig, indicating that they in turn promote greater ignorance.
Under the influence of the three poisons, beings create karma, as shown in the next layer of the circle.
Second layer: karma
The second layer of the wheel shows two-half circles:
- One half-circle (usually light) shows contented people moving upwards to higher states, possibly to the higher realms.
- The other half-circle (usually dark) shows people in a miserable state being led downwards to lower states, possibly to the lower realms.
These images represent karma, the law of cause and effect. The light half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of positive actions. The dark half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of negative actions.
Ringu Tulku states:
- We create karma in three different ways, through actions that are positive, negative, or neutral. When we feel kindness and love and with this attitude do good things, which are beneficial to both ourselves and others, this is positive action. When we commit harmful deeds out of equally harmful intentions, this is negative action. Finally, when our motivation is indifferent and our deeds are neither harmful or beneficial, this is neutral action. The results we experience will accord with the quality of our actions.
Propelled by their karma, beings take rebirth in the six realms of samsara, as shown in the next layer of the circle.
Third layer: the six realms of samsara
The third layer of the wheel is divided into six sections that represent the six realms of samsara. These six realms are divided into three higher realms and three lower realms.
- The three higher realms are shown in the top half of the circle; the higher realms consist of the god realm, the demi-god realm and the human realm. The god realm is shown in the top middle and the human realm and demi-god realms are on either side of the god realm.
- The three lower realms are shown in the bottom half of the circle; the lower realms consist of the hell realm, the animal realm and the hungry ghost realm. The hell realm is shown in the bottom middle of the circle, with the animal realm and hungry ghost realm on either side of the hell realm.
What is samsara?
The six realms are six different types of rebirth that beings can enter into, each representing different types of suffering. Samsara, or cyclic existence, refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another.
Patrul Rinpoche states:
- The term samsara, the wheel or round of existence, is used here to mean going round and round from one place to another in a circle, like a potter’s wheel, or the wheel of a water mill. When a fly is trapped in a closed jar, no matter where it flies, it can not get out. Likewise, whether we are born in the higher or lower realms, we are never outside samsara. The upper part of the jar is like the higher realms of gods and men, and the lower part like the three unfortunate realms. It is said that samsara is a circle because we turn round and round, taking rebirth in one after another of the six realms as a result of our own actions, which, whether positive or negative, are tainted by clinging.
A brief description of the six realms
Six realms of existence are identified in the Buddhist teachings: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. These realms can be understood on a psychological level, or as aspects of Buddhist cosmology.[a]
These six realms can be divided into three higher realms and three lower realms. The three higher realms are:
- God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma. When death comes to them, they are completely unprepared; without realizing it, they have completely exhausted their good karma (which was the cause for being reborn in the god realm) and they suffer through being reborn in the lower realms.
- Demi-god realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they spend their time fighting among themselves or making war on the gods. When they make war on the gods, they always lose, since the gods are much more powerful. The demi-gods suffer from constant fighting and jealousy, and from being killed and wounded in their wars with each other and with the gods.
- Human realm: humans suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don’t want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet the human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).
The three lower realms are:
- Animal realm: wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals; they generally lead lives of constant fear. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans; for example, they are slaughtered for food, overworked, and so on.
- Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long, thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony.
- Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment. In the hot hells, beings suffer from unbearable heat and continual torments of various kinds. In the cold hells, beings suffer from unbearable cold and other torments.
Generally speaking, each realm is said to be the result of one of the six main negative emotions: pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger. Dzongsar Khyentse states:
- So we have six realms. Loosely, you can say when the perception comes more from aggression, you experience things in a hellish way. When your perception is filtered through attachment, grasping or miserliness, you experience the hungry ghost realm. When your perception is filtered through ignorance, then you experience the animal realm. When you have a lot of pride, you are reborn in the god realm. When you have jealousy, you are reborn in the asura (demi-god) realm. When you have a lot of passion, you are reborn in the human realm.
Among the six realms, the human realm is considered to offer the best opportunity to practice the dharma. Dzongsar Khyentse states:
If we need to judge the value of these six realms, the Buddhists would say the best realm is the human realm. Why is this the best realm? Because you have a choice … The gods don’t have a choice. Why? They’re too happy. When you are too happy you have no choice. You become arrogant. The hell realm: no choice, too painful. The human realm: not too happy and also not too painful. When you are not so happy and not in so much pain, what does that mean? A step closer to the normality of mind, remember? When you are really, really excited and in ecstasy, there is no normality of mind. And when you are totally in pain, you don’t experience normality of mind either. So someone in the human realm has the best chance of acquiring that normality of mind. And this is why in Buddhist prayers you will always read: ideally may we get out of this place, but if we can’t do it within this life, may we be reborn in the human realm, not the others.
Sometimes, the wheel is represented as only having five realms because the God realm and the Demi-god realm are combined into a single realm.
Sanskrit terms for the six realms
The Sanskrit terms for the six realms are:
- Deva realm: God realm
- Asura realm: Demi-god realm
- Manuṣya realm: Human realm
- Tiryagyoni realm: Animal realm
- Preta realm: Hungry Ghost realm
- Naraka realm: Hell realm
The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. As previously stated, the three inner layers of the wheel show that the three poisons lead to karma, which leads to the suffering of the six realms. The twelve links of the outer rim show how this happens—by presenting the process of cause and effect in detail.
These twelve links can be understood to operate on an outer or inner level.
- On the outer level, the twelve links can be seen to operate over several lifetimes; in this case, these links show how our past lives influence our current lifetime, and how our actions in this lifetime influence our future lifetimes.
- On the inner level, the twelve links can be understood to operate in every moment of existence in an interdependent manner. On this level, the twelve links can be applied to show the effects of one particular action.
The twelve causal links, paired with their corresponding symbols, are:
- Avidyā lack of knowledge – a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out
- Saṃskāra constructive volitional activity – a potter shaping a vessel or vessels
- Vijñāna consciousness – a man or a monkey grasping a fruit
- Nāmarūpa name and form (constituent elements of mental and physical existence) – two men afloat in a boat
- Ṣaḍāyatana six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – a dwelling with six windows
- Sparśa contact – lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined
- Vedanā pain – an arrow to the eye
- Tṛṣṇa thirst – a drinker receiving drink
- Upādāna grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit
- Bhava coming to be – a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person
- Jāti being born – woman giving birth
- Jarāmaraṇa old age and death – corpse being carried
The figure holding the wheel: impermanence
The wheel is being held by a fearsome figure who represents impermanence. The Dalai Lama states:
The fierce being holding the wheel symbolizes impermanence, which is why the being is a wrathful monster, though there is no need for it to be drawn with ornaments and so forth … Once I had such a painting drawn with a skeleton rather than a monster, in order to symbolize impermanence more clearly.
This figure is most commonly depicted as Yama, the lord of death. Regardless of the figure depicted, the inner meaning remains the same–that the entire process of cyclic existence (samsara) is transient; everything within this wheel is constantly changing.
Yama has the following attributes:
- He wears of crown of five skulls that symbolize the impermanence of the five aggregates. (The skulls are also said to symbolize the five poisons.)
- He has a third eye that symbolizes the wisdom of understanding impermanence.
- He is sometimes shown adorned with a tiger skin, which symbolizes fearfulness. (The tiger skin is typically seen hanging beneath the wheel.)
- His four limbs (that are clutching the wheel) symbolize the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
The moon: liberation
Thubten Chodron states:
The moon is nirvana [i.e. liberation]. Nirvana is the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It’s the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising. The Buddha is pointing us to that.
Chögyam Trungpa states:
The truth of cessation is a personal discovery. It is not mystical and does not have any connotations of religion or psychology. It is simply your experience … Likewise, cessation is not just a theoretical discovery, but an experience that is very real to you–a sudden gain. It is like experiencing instantaneous good health: you have no cold, no flu, no aches, and no pains in your body. You feel perfectly well, absolutely refreshed and wakeful! Such an experience is possible.
Some drawings may show an image of a “pure land” to indicate liberation, rather than a moon.
The Buddha pointing to the moon: the path to liberation
Thubten Chodron states:
So the Buddha’s gesture is like the path to enlightenment. It’s not that the Buddha is the cause of nirvana. The Buddha is a cooperative condition of our nirvana. He indicates the path to us, he points out to us what to practice and what to abandon in order to be liberated. When we follow the path, we get the result, which is nirvana.
Chögyam Trungpa states:
The nature of the path is more like an exploration or an expedition than following a path that has already been built. When people hear that they should follow the path, they might think that a ready-make system exists, and that individual expressions are not required. They may think that one does not have to surrender or give or open. But when you actually begin to tread on the path, you realize that you have to clear out the jungle and all the trees, underbrush, and obstacles growing in front of you. You have to bypass tigers and elephants and poisonous snakes.
Mark Epstein states:
The entire Wheel of Life is but a representation of the possibility of transforming suffering by changing the way we relate to it. As the Buddha taught in his final exhortation to his faithful attendant Ananda, it is only through becoming a “lamp unto yourself” that enlightenment can be won. Liberation from the Wheel of Life does not mean escape, the Buddha implied. It means clear perception of oneself, of the entire range of the human experience …
According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha told his followers:
I have shown you the path that leads to liberation
But you should know that liberation depends upon yourself.
Drawings of the Bhavacakra usually contain an inscription consisting of a few lines of text that explain the process that keeps us in samara and how to reverse that process.
From a psychological point of view, different karmic actions contribute to one’s metaphorical existence in different realms, or rather, different actions reinforce personal characteristics described by the realms.
Mark Epstein states:
The core question of Buddhist practice, after all, is the psychological one of “Who am I?” Investigating this question requires exploration of the entire wheel. Each realm becomes not so much a specific place but rather a metaphor for a different psychological state, with the entire wheel becoming a representation of neurotic suffering.
Within the Theravada Tradition
T. B. Karunaratne states:
Though in Theravāda literature there is no mention of an actual pictorial execution of a “Wheel of Life,” yet the concept of comparing Dependent Origination to a wheel is not unknown. In the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), the famous commentator Buddhaghosa Acariya says:
- “It is the beginningless round of rebirths that is called the ‘Wheel of the round of rebirths’ (saṃsāracakka). Ignorance (avijjā) is its hub (or nave) because it is its root. Ageing-and-death (jarā-maraṇa) is its rim (or felly) because it terminates it. The remaining ten links (of the Dependent Origination) are its spokes (i.e. karma formations [saṅkhāra] up to process of becoming [bhava]).”
English Translations of the Term Bhavacakra
- Wheel of becoming
- Wheel of cyclic existence
- Wheel of existence
- Wheel of life
- Wheel of rebirth
- Wheel of saṃsāra
- Wheel of suffering
- Wheel of transformation