During a recent visit to the Buddhist monasteries of Thiksay (sometimes transcribed as Thiksey) and Hemis in Ladakh I came across the concept of the wheel of life, respectively wheel of existence. The below description is adapted from an explanation of the wheel of life at Thiksay monastery.
The Wheel of Life or Wheel of Existence was designed to help us understand the workings of our mind. It shows the way to liberation from cyclic existence of birth and death.
In the innermost part of the wheel are three animals – the pig, the serpent or snake and the cockerel – representing the three cardinal sins respectively ignorance, hatred and greed. Complete control over the three cardinal sins leads to liberation from the wheel of existence.
The largest portion of the wheel is divided into six sections – the six realms of transmigration. At the very bottom is the hell realm (Nyalwa), to the left is the realm of ghosts (Yidaks) and to the right, the animal realm (Dundo). At the centre top is the realm of gods (Deva-Chan), to the right Titans (Lhamayin) and to the left is the realm of man (Mi).
The three realms of the upper half of the wheel of life represent a more fortunate life compared to the lower three, although even in the upper realms there is much suffering and unhappiness caused by negative actions. Those that are born in the upper realms are there because of previous positive actions, but even so there is no guarantee that one will achieve Nirvana, and so one is not liberated from the lower realms. A birth in the lower realms due to negative actions may lead to re-birth in an upper realm in the future, or even Nirvana as a result of positive actions.
The causes of endless rebirth are illustrated in the twelve sections of the outer ring of wheel of life, which are called the twelve links of interdependent origination. The blind man symbolizes ignorance. Out of ignorance, is brought the potter making pots, from which arises consciousness, illustrated by the monkey restlessly climbing up and down. From consciousness arises name and form – shown by rowing a boat, which illustrates the need for a body and mind in order to take rebirth in the ocean of Samsara. Name and form bring about the six senses, shown by six senses shown with five windows that are the eye, nose, tongue, skin and mind. From the six senses arise contact, shown by a man and woman embracing. From contact comes feeling shown by a man having been shot in the eye with an arrow. From feeling comes craving and grasping – pictured by a monkey grabbing fruit. From grasping arises existence (a pregnant women about to give birth), and from existence comes birth (a baby being born); from birth comes old age, and from old age comes death.
The teeth and claws of Yamantaka, the Lord of Death, hold the circle of the wheel, illustrating that there is no escape from suffering, death and rebirth unless the living being completely overcomes the three cardinal sins of ignorance, hatred and greed and attains Nirvana.