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The Wheel of Life


Im sure many of you have seen the painting of the
Wheel of Life. Its quite a popular painting that you can
see in front of almost every Buddhist monastery. In fact,
some Buddhist scholars believe that the painting
existed prior to Buddhas statues. This is probably the
first ever Buddhist symbol that existed.
The painting is, loosely, a depiction of life. I guess
curiosity about life is one big curiosity that we have. But
the definition of life is quite a diverse thing so this is
something that we have to come to a mutual agreement
about. I know many refer to this as the wheel of life, srid
pa khor lo . But, actually, the Tibetan word srid pais not
really life. Srid pa actually means possible existence
maybe its existing, maybe its not, but its possible that it
exists. Thats an interpretation of life according to
Buddhism. The interpretation itself is quite profound, I
think. And then khor lomeans the wheel, the chakra,
the mandala, which again in itself has some profound
significance because when we talk about mandala we
are talking about chaos; at the same time we are talking
about order. So we are talking about a chaotic order about
I was asking people about the definition of the word life
in English. There are many, but one that struck me was
coming to life, becoming animated. I have a feeling that
when we talk about animate we are talking about
something like consciousness. So, basically, when we talk
about life I think somehow we are talking about
something to do with a mind, consciousness, awareness.
Would you agree with that?
So, okay, theres this question: What is the purpose of life?
But before we even talk about the purpose of life, what is
life? Now according to Buddhism, life is nothing but a
perception, a continuous perception. This has become the
major, fundamental subject of Buddhist teachings, which
is taught in many different ways, and one way is through
painting, I guess. So if you look at the picture, you will
see the Buddhist interpretation of life. If you ask a
Buddhist, What is life? they will say, This is it, this is
life. Anyway, as I said, life is a perception. Aperception
of what? Who is the perceiver? The black pig in the
centre. Its very difficult to teach about this. It has been
the major subject of Buddhist studies because you have to
define what is ignorance. In Buddhism when we judge
what is ignorance and what is not ignorance, we dont
judge something as ignorant or evil based on morality or
ethics. It has to be judged based on wisdom. So when we
talk about ignorance, we are talking about a mind that is
at its height of abnormality. When the mind is at its
height of normality, then thats wisdom.
Briefly, how do you define what is normal or what is not
normal? Nagarjunas definition of what is normal is when
something is not dependent. If an entity depends on
another entity, then we are never sure whether the colour
or the quality of this present entity is actually the ultimate
nature because it is dependent on the second entity. There
is always a possibility that the second entity can corrupt
the first entity. So, likewise, a mind that is dependent on
an object, a mind that is dependent on all kinds of
education, influence, meditation, is an abnormal mind
according to Nagarjuna. So what is a normal mind? When
you completely renounce all these objects, all these
entities that your mind is totally or partially dependent
So for now you can say the pig, which represents our
ignorance, is the one that causes all this perception. This
is not the best painting. Ideally, the cock and the snake
should be vomited out of the pigs mouth because the pig
gives birth to passion, the cock, and aggression, the
snake. Now please dont bring that petty mentality about
this being such a politically incorrect thing for a pig to
represent ignorance and so on and so forth. This is a
useless debate! Please, you have to understand that this is
a symbolic teaching. And somehow, I dont know why,
pigs have always been unfortunate. The Buddhists have
depicted pigs as the symbol of ignorance and Muslims
have even refrained from eating them.
Anyway, the pig represents ignorance. From the
ignorance comes hope, which is actually like the mother
of passion, and then from the ignorance comes fear,
which is like the mother of aggression. So we have three
kinds of mental factors. Of course, the original one is the
ignorance, which gives birth to aggression and passion.
So you can say that these three are what perceives things.
We were talking about perception. These three perceive
things in so many, many different ways.
Sometimes, out of ignorance comes the hope of wanting
to be good. Out of this wanting to be good, a person
behaves or manifests in a compassionate and non-violent
way. In this case, such a persons perceptions are more
wholesome so you can say that this kind of person
experiences perceptions such as the god realm and the
asura (or jealous god) realm. Sometimes out of ignorance
comes passion or aggression, which creates a lot of havoc
it kills, steals, destroys oneself or others and gives birth
to unwholesome, painful, aggressive perceptions. Thats
depicted in what we call the three lower realms - the hell
realm, the hungry ghost realm and the animal realm. So
these are the six realms.
Here, there is quite an important message. When
Buddhists talk about hell, they are not talking about a
concrete place somewhere underneath. And when we talk
about heaven we are not talking about somewhere where
everything works. We are not talking about a place to
migrate to, basically. When we talk about going to hell,
we are not talking about being punished. I think the
concept of punishment is quite a new thing for the
Buddhists, actually. Although we may say: If you do
such and such bad karma, because of this bad
karma you will go to hell, we are not saying
that there is a someone called karma
which is going to then force you as a
punishment to experience the lower
realms. As we spoke about before, its
a perception, depending on your
mind, depending on your mental
Lets discuss the six realms. Since
the hell realm is the worst, lets talk
about it first so we can get it out of
the way. This is really quite profound.
In the hell realm all kinds of suffering
are depicted. In the centre of the hell realm
sits Yamaraja, who is like the Lord of Hell. A
Hells Angel, I guess, not on a Harley Davidson,
but sitting comfortably on the throne made out
of skulls. The interesting question is, Who is this guy?
From many Mahayana texts we know who this is. This is
none other than the bodhisattva Manjushri. And who is
Manjushri? Manjushri is the symbol of wisdom. So again,
here, the Lord of Hell who decides who is to suffer what,
so to speak, is actually your own ultimate nature of
wisdom sitting there. Then there are things like being
burned in the hot hell and being trapped in the ice and
snow mountains of the cold hell, and then there are all
kinds of animals. Theres one thing I need to tell you. 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) is 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. The Lord of Hell,
Yamaraja, holds a mirror. Again, this is very symbolic - to
be free of hell you dont look for an external source, you
look at yourself: meditation such as shamatha meditation
or vipashyana meditation.
Now theres something else quite interesting about the
hell realm. Within it you can see a white light going up,
which symbolises that hell is also impermanent. Its not
as if once you go to hell then thats it, theres no way out.
Its not like that. After all, its your perception. If you can
change your perception, you can also get out of hell. So
theres a person depicted leaving hell.
Then theres the animal realm with all kinds of animals.
Tibetans have not seen many animals. Australians would
do better painting this realm. The animals in the oceans
and the animals on the land - I guess they must have
forgotten the animals in the sky, like birds.
And then theres the hungry ghost realm. Beings here
have a very big stomach, a very thin neck and a very
small mouth and are always hungry and thirsty, looking
Gentle Voice - 3
for food everywhere. Quite interestingly, there are some
hungry ghosts sitting there who have jewels, but they are
so stingy they dont give them to other people. Of course
not! But they dont use them for themselves either. They
just save them for the next day or the next year.
Then theres the god realm castles, dancing girls,
beautiful trees that have all sorts of ornaments,
people spending life just listening to music,
playing music, taking baths, everything is
so perfect. And theres the asura realm.
They are as rich as gods, but they have
one problem which is fights. They love
fighting because they are jealous all
the time. For instance, they fight a lot
with the gods. This tree is called the
wish-fulfilling tree. It actually grows
in the asura realm. The jealous gods
are busy taking care of this tree but it is
so tall, when it bears flowers and fruit, it
usually does so up on the top level and
only the gods can reach them. So all the
jealous gods effort in taking care of the tree is
wasted. That really triggers so much anger and
jealousy, which then creates a lot of fighting
between the asura realm and the god realm. Sadly, the
gods almost always win, but the jealous gods just dont
give up. They feel that one day they can topple those in
the god realm.
In the human realm we see suffering and pain birth,
death, old age, sickness. At the same time we also see
people having fun, for instance. We also see people
thinking, contemplating and discovering. 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 realm. When you have a lot of passion you are
reborn in the human realm.
But the word born or reborn means a lot. It does not
necessarily mean that right now we are all in the human
realm and we are not in the other five realms. Depending
on what kind of karma we create, we can go to other
realms. If the karma to experience the hell realm is the
strongest then you will, I guess, change this form and
then with another form you will experience a hellish kind
of perception. But according to Mahayana Buddhism, the
six realms are something that can happen during the
course of a day!
(Photo Stuart MacFarlane)
Gentl e Voi ce : Apri l 2005
The previous issue of the Gentle Voice featured a teaching
by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the Wheel of Life, a
Buddhist depiction of life painted on the walls of many
monasteries. Here is the second half of that talk.
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 realm. When you
have a lot of passion, you are reborn in the human realm.
But the word born or reborn means a lot. It does not
necessarily mean that right now we are all in the human
realm and we are not in the other five realms. Depending
on what kind of karma we create, we will go to other
realms. If the karma to be reborn or to experience the
hell realm is the strongest, then you will, I guess, change
this form and then with another form you will experience
a hellish kind of perception. But according to Mahayana
Buddhism the six realms are something that can happen
during the course of a day!
For instance, when you wake up in the morning you may
be quite dull and kind of stupid or still drowsy. Maybe
you are going through the animal realm a late night
out or a sleepless or depressed night. Perhaps after you
wake up, someone you dislike calls you and your day is
ruined first thing in the morning. Then you really get
angry and thats the hell realm. In order to get out of that
hellish situation you watch television. Maybe you happen
to watch Baywatch. (Im talking about a man, by the
way, a straight man.) You feel a little turned on with all
these sights on Baywatch. And so, maybe at that time,
you go through the human realm. Once you finish
watching that, you go for a walk and your next-door
neighbour, who is actually quite old and geeky-looking,
happens to be walking towards you with a most beautiful
girl on his arm. Then you have a little bit of envy or
jealousy, My God, of all people him? Thats the
asura realm.
After that you go to an anti-war demonstration, but not
necessarily with a good intention. Its more with the
intention of, This is the politically correct thing to do,
and thats arrogance, isnt it? And I guess when you go
through that anti-war demonstration, shouting at some of
the scapegoats that we have elected with our own choice,
thats what I call the god realm self-righteousness, a
politically correct kind of compassion, a do the right
thing attitude. Thats so godly, so very, very arrogant.
And probably, at some time during the day, you go
through a nice time and this nice time you dont want to
share with others. Maybe that is the hungry ghost realm.
So when we talk about six realms, actually we are
talking about experiences that can come within the
course of a day. Its not a different place.
Now the most important aspect of this wheel of life is
this: wherever you are it doesnt matter whether you
are in hell, heaven, the hungry ghost realm or wherever
you are under one law, under one authority, under one
dictator. Who is this? Its this hideous man; youre under
his claws, under his fangs. Who is this? Time. This
monster represents time. And what is so bad about it?
Oh, it is, because time means uncertainty,
impermanence, change.
Of course, it has its positives, but usually we dont realise
them so much. For example, you could be experiencing
the god realm, but its changeable. If it doesnt change
today, it will change tomorrow. You could be experiencing
the hell realm changeable! In this case its good news.
Wherever you are, including experiencing the three
poisons (ignorance, passion and aggression), it is
impermanent and thats time.So what is the purpose of our
life? To get out of this wheel of life. Liberation is when
you get out of this existence.
Q: What is it that is liberated?
R: Good question this pig. So therefore the snake and
the bird also get liberated. Liberated from what? From
these six perceptions. Working with perception is
actually the main path of Buddhism. Its all to do with
that. And its rightfully so, because its all your
perception thats dictating your life, isnt it? For instance,
when you love someone it is your perception that is
dictating your romance, your relationship. If that
perception gets disturbed even slightly, your outlook
towards this person is definitely changed. Maybe
someone at last tells you that a person you have been
dating for twenty years has a tail growing on a certain
Gentle Voice : page 2
The Wheel Of Life
by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Gentl e Voi ce : Apri l 2005
Gentle Voice : page 3
full-moon day. And if you can be convinced of that, then
your perception of this person who you have been dating
for twenty years changes. Next time he calls you, you
have to think twice!
These perceptions are very roughly divided into six.
Thats all it is. Actually, Buddhists themselves say that
these are not the only perceptions that we have, but this
is the generalisation of the perceptions that we have.
Working with perception is really the fundamental
foundation of the Buddhist path, especially in the
Vajrayana. For instance, in the Sakyapas teachings on
path and fruit, there is a whole segment called Triple
Vision and there this is taught so much.
Its very strange, even some cultures are more animal-
oriented, some are more god-oriented and some are more
human-oriented. Now, although for the sake of
communication, we have to divide perceptions into the
three lower realms and the three upper realms, we are not
necessarily saying that one is better than the other.
Buddhists are not judging. Do you know why? Because
according to Buddhism, anyone who is in this mans
clutches is useless, be it in the god realm or the hell
realm. Hierarchy doesnt have much importance here.
They are all equally useless, equally unimportant.
One can easily say that the war that has been going on in
Palestine and Israel shows the asura realm, the demigod
realm. And if you see the hunger and starvation of
Ethiopia, India or Bangladesh, you can almost say this is
the hungry ghost realm. And if you see the endless,
insatiable mind that requires all kinds of hideous toys to
arouse it, like leather and chains and stuff like that,
I think we are experiencing a bit of the animal realm,
dont you?
If we talk about hierarchy or 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. Where does this
choice come from? The gods dont have a choice. Why?
Theyre 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 dont
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 cant do it within this life, may we be
reborn in the human realm, not the others. The human
realm is preferable to the god realm.
Q: Mr. Time seems pretty imposing. Is the whole point
of this to escape Mr Time, to get out of his grip?
R: Yes, thats liberation. We have to go beyond time. If
we liberate ourselves from time and space, then thats it.
Then we have done our job. There is no past, there is no
present, there is no future. Then there is no Mr Sigmund
Freud. We cant brood about our past childhood and all
of that!

Gentl e Voi ce : October 2005
Since some of you are new to Buddhist ideas, this may
be the first time you are encountering the tantric path or
Vajrayana. So I would like to say a little bit based on
this, the Vajrayana path. There are figures such as Tilopa,
Virupa and Kukkuraja, and broadly speaking, from the
mundane worlds point of view, some of the things that
they did werent acceptable in society. This tradition has
existed for a long time in Buddhist history Tilopa
eating live fish! A Buddhist eating live fish? While he
was eating the head, the tail was moving in his mouth.
Virupa was a drunk man, thats what they say. He drank
anyway, he drank constantly. Kukkuraja was sleeping
with his own pet dog, the bitch.
The tantric path is shocking. Im telling you these things
because when I say that Buddhism emphasises more the
appreciation of wisdom, I want you to know how we do
it. Yet, with all their almost inhuman, unacceptable
behaviour eating live fish, becoming alcoholic and all
that these are the people who left behind some of the
most incredible paths of wisdom that today we find are
the only source of solace, the path of the practice lineage
that we can walk, the steps of the staircase we tread.
Im telling you this because we are beginning to talk
about the Twelve Interdependent Links of Origination
and the first thing we are going to talk about is
ignorance. We have already talked about ignorance that
is symbolised by the pig in the centre of the Wheel of
Life. What is ignorance? Very simply, I can say,
ignorance is actually distraction. When the mind is
distracted by something, then that is ignorance. The
whole act of getting distracted is ignorance.
Based on Buddhist theory, the evolution of ignorance is
an idea. Lets take an abstract idea like a table. First we
create a label like a table, but that label is actually an
abstract entity. For instance, when we look at a table, you
will not really see an entity that is tableness. There are
legs, there is wood, there are nails, all of that. If you take
the table apart, each of them is a different phenomenon:
wood is wood, nail is nail. Within the phenomenon of
table there are many, many parts that are not necessarily
referred to as a table. But when they are all together,
then there's the idea or the label a table, and we created
that table, we created that label. That is still fine, that is
still not a big failure. The failure comes next when you
think that abstract idea is not abstract but concrete, when
you think there is actually a table existing, really
existing. You got it?
Actually, to put it very simply, it is attachment to a label.
Ignorance is attachment to a label. Out of all this
labelling flowers, table, chairs, earth, water, fire
there is one label that is probably the most dangerous.
It's not only dangerous; it has the most potential, is the
most destructive, constructive and, at the same time, the
most elusive. Basically, the root of all the other labels is
the label of self, myself, I.
Again, like the table we were referring to earlier, when
we say I, we are referring to something abstract. That is
fine; but what is not fine is strong attachment to this self
that is represented by a picture of a blind person (1)
right under the fangs of Time, the wrathful monster.
What does this ignorance do? The self is such a strong
notion that it can destroy the whole world if it is given
the authority, the equipment, the money, the power.
We all have the potential to be, and we are in our own
way, a little bit of Saddam Hussein, a little bit of Osama
bin Laden, a little bit of George Bush, a little bit of
Donald Rumsefeld. We all have that potential. Why? The
cling-ing to the self is so strong. Why is it that clinging
to the self is so strong? Because, ironically, it still hasnt
con-firmed that it exists, that is why. It is very ironic,
isnt it? It is like when something is not sure, you have
this obsessive impulse to confirm it. You have to get
confirmation. Thats why. And that has been going on
forever. This uncertainty whether the self exists or not
constantly needs to be confirmed and you need to
confirm it.
And what do you do? You take action you make
friends, go shopping, have sex, use whips and chains or
melted wax, which makes you really feel that you exist.
This is the second link, action, which is depicted by a
person making a pot (2). In classic Buddhist terms,
karma is action. You know how when we are insecure we
have to do something, from taking Prozac to meditating
or chanting mantras, whatever all these are actions to
prove that you exist. And when we talk about these links,
they are sort of in order. But dont think that these things
take time like first there's ignorance and then there's a
little bit of a pause and then there's action. It is not like
that. It is really, really speedy. It is very fast, it is almost
at the same time.
Gentle Voice : page 2
The Twelve Interdependent
Links of Origination by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Gentl e Voi ce : October 2005
The moment you have action it is accompanied by
consciousness that is depicted by a monkey (3)
clever, very clever, jumping all the time, going
everywhere. Here, there, you think hes here and the next
minute hes there. But, you know, those tame monkeys
are chained with all kinds of ropes. It doesnt matter how
clever they are, they still dont know how to undo these
chains and run away from their abuser. Basically, the
consciousness emerges from ignorance. The monkeys are
cleverly stupid, thats all. They are clever idiots. (Its sort
of unfair on the monkeys!)
So what has happened? You need to confirm this
ignorance, this insecurity. You create an action; action
is accompanied by this consciousness, like eye
consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness,
tongue and touch consciousness. This then develops
nama and rupa, which is depicted in the fourth image
on the Wheel of Life, name and form. It could be John,
Paul, democracy, a trend or a fashion. But strictly
speaking, here there is a boat that symbolises identity
and inside the boat there are the five aggregates that are
represented by the five travellers (4). Wherever this
label, this identity, this trend goes, somehow the five
aggregates, without much choice, tag along. Where do
they go? They dont reach anywhere. They just go round
and round in this ocean of samsara. Basically, what we
are talking about is constructing identity, self- identity,
yourself. You have now successfully constructed an
identity myself, me, Buddhist, Hindu.
So once you construct that, then what do you need?
This me, this self, without all the rest is useless. Again, it
will become very lonely. It needs a place to get distract-
ed, to get occupied, like a job or entertainment, which is
represented by an empty house with five doors (5)
sense objects such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
With this identity, this notion of I, we go through or
enter this house of sense objects. It is an empty house;
there is nothing inside but we think there is something
very valuable inside. Or if you happen to be inside, you
think that there must be something very valuable outside
and then you go outside. We go in and out; basically we
create more phenomena. Then what does this give birth
to? Contact (6). Tibetans are just hopeless when they
paint. This is supposedly a man and a woman kissing.
Basically, we meet, we have contact between the sense
and the sense object, consciousness and the object.
There is contact and what does this contact lead to?
It leads to feeling, which is represented by being
blinded by an arrow in one eye (7).
Lets go back to the self. We have the self, ignorance
insecure and at the same time very, very, very proud.
Very egoistic, but at the same time very insecure and
because of that we have to do something. As we do, we
create consciousness, form, we create a certain kind of
identity, a trend or some kind of fashion that we belong
to. With the help of the form, the trend, this feeling, we
go out to the sense objects and when we go out, we meet
the object. The moment we meet, we then feel not
necessarily good feelings, sometimes bad feelings.
A feeling is created. Feeling leads to craving, which is
depicted by a person drinking alcohol (8). This
insecure self is going through this form and feeling and
all this identity and then we meet a very good feeling. Of
course, we crave for more.
But sometimes we even encounter bad contact, bad
feeling, and then crave to dispel it, to outdo it, to gain
some kind of victory. You know how we are so attached
to fixing the problem, aren't we?
Continnued from page 3
In both ways basically whats happening, whether you
are just enjoying the experience or maybe not necessarily
enjoying it, there is some kind of a sense of addiction to
get rid of the problem, to fix the problem. In both ways
you have gained craving, craving for more.
Craving leads to taking, which is depicted by a person
picking some fruit (9). So we then take information,
possessions, food, drink. Once you take, taking leads to
grasping which is symbolised by the pregnant woman.
Then you hold on to what you crave and what you have
just obtained by taking. That holding on is what we call
existence and thats depicted by the pregnant woman
(10), which then leads to birth (11). Birth automatically
leads to old age; old age leads to death (12). These are,
briefly, the Twelve Interdependent Links of Origination.
What I have been explaining to you is only really, really
the basics. This is a very big subject; it is taught in the
Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmakosha-karika really
We are not only talking about a gradual human evolution
first ignorance, then action and so on. It is definitely
that; but we are also talking about what happens within
one instant. When we go to a coffee shop and order a
cappuccino, there is ignorance, which leads to action,
which leads to everything until you finish your
cappuccino, which is death, which then leads to an
appetiser or a headache or something else. In every
action, in every aspect of our life, there are the Twelve
Interdependent Links of Origination.