The Wheel of
Birth and Death
The Wheel Publication No. 147/148/149
For free distribution only.
You may print copies of this work for your personal use.
You may re-format and redistribute this work for use on computers and
provided that you charge no fees for its distribution or use.
Otherwise, all rights reserved.
Buddhist Publication Society
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Rewritten from an article in
"Visakha Puja" (251), the Annual of the Buddhist Association of
This edition was transcribed from
the print edition in 1995 by Joseph Crea under the auspices of the
DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of
the Buddhist Publication Society.
[Note: The printed edition
of this book includes two large fold-out pictorial supplements: "Tibetan
Wheel of Samsara" (after Waddell) and "Modern Wheel of Samsara" (by the
author). These are not reproduced in this electronic transcription. --
This indeed has been said by the
Two knowable dhammas should be
thoroughly known -- mind and body; two knowable dhammas should be
relinquished -- unknowing and craving for existence; two knowable
dhammas should be realized -- wisdom and freedom; two knowable dhammas
should be developed -- calm and insight.
Eight are the bases of unknowing:
Non-comprehension in dukkha,
noncomprehension in dukkha's arising, non-comprehension in dukkha's
cessation, non-comprehension in the practice-path leading to dukkha's
cessation, non-comprehension in the past, non-comprehension in the
future, non-comprehension in past and future, non-comprehension in
Eight are the bases of knowledge:
Comprehension in dukkha, comprehension
in dukkha's arising, comprehension in dukkha's cessation, comprehension
in the practice-path leading to dukkha's cessation, comprehension in the
past, comprehension in the future, comprehension in past and future,
comprehension in Dependent Arising.
Peace it is and Excellence it is, that
is to say -- the stilling of all conditions, the rejection of all
substrates (for rebirth), the destruction of craving, passionlessness,
O Bhikkhus, there is that sphere where
is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air, nor the sphere of infinite
space; nor the sphere of infinite consciousness, nor the sphere of
no-thingness, nor the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception;
not this world, nor another world, neither the moon nor the sun.
That I say, O bhikkhus, is indeed
neither coming nor going nor staying, nor passing-away and not arising.
Unsupported, unmoving, devoid of object -- that indeed is the end of
And this dhamma is profound, hard to
see, hard to awaken to, peaceful, excellent, beyond logic, subtle and to
be experienced by the wise.
from the Royal Chanting Book (Suan Mon Chabub Luang) compiled by H.H.,
the 9th Sangharaja of Siam, Sa Pussadevo, and printed at Mahamakut
Upon the Full Moon of the month of
Visakha, now more than two thousand five hundred years ago, the religious
wanderer known as Gotama, formerly Prince Siddhattha and heir to the
throne of the Sakiyan peoples, by his full insight into the Truth called
Dhamma which is this mind and body, became the One Perfectly Enlightened
His Enlightenment or Awakening, called
Sambodhi, abolished in himself unknowing and craving, destroyed greed,
aversion and delusion in his heart, so that "vision arose, super-knowledge
arose, wisdom arose, discovery arose, light arose -- a total penetration
into the mind and body, its origin, its cessation and the way to its
cessation which was at the same time complete understanding of the
"world," its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation. He
penetrated to the Truth underlying all existence. In meditative
concentration throughout one night, but after years of striving, from
being a seeker, He became "the One-who-Knows, the One-who-Sees."
When He came to explain His great
discovery to others, He did so in various ways suited to the understanding
of those who listened and suited to help relieve the problems with which
they were burdened.
He knew with his Great Wisdom exactly what
these were even if his listeners were not aware of them, and out of His
Great Compassion taught Dhamma for those who wished to lay down their
burdens. The burdens which men, indeed all beings, carry round with them
are no different now from the Buddha-time. For then as now men were
burdened with unknowing and craving. They did not know of the Four Noble
Truths nor of Dependent Arising and they craved for fire and poison and
were then as now, consumed by fears. Lord Buddha, One attained to the
Secure has said:
"Profound, Ananda, is this Dependent
Arising, and it appears profound. It is through not understanding, not
penetrating this law that the world resembles a tangled skein of thread,
a woven nest of birds, a thicket of bamboos and reeds, that man does not
escape from (birth in) the lower realms of existence, from the states of
woe and perdition, and suffers from the round of rebirth."
The not-understanding of Dependent Arising
is the root of all sorrows experienced by all beings. It is also the most
important of the formulations of Lord Buddha's Enlightenment. For a
Buddhist it is therefore most necessary to see into the heart of this for
oneself. This is done not be reading about it nor by becoming expert in
scriptures, nor by speculations upon one's own and others' concepts but by
seeing Dependent Arising in one's own life and by coming to grips with it
through calm and insight in one's "own" mind and body.
"He who sees Dependent Arising, he sees
Let us now see how this Teaching is
concerned with our own lives. The search of every living being is to find
happiness, in whatever state, human or non-human, they find themselves.
But what it is really important to know is this: the factors which give
rise to unhappiness, so that they can be avoided; and the factors from
which arise happiness, so that they can be cultivated. This is just
another way of stating the Four Noble Truths. In the first half of this
statement there is unhappiness or what is never satisfactory,
called in Pali language, Dukkha.
This Dukkha is the first Noble Truth which
we experience all the time, usually without noticing it, which does
not make the dukkha any less! First, there is occasional dukkha:
birth, old age, disease and death, for these events usually do not compose
the whole of life. Then we have frequent dukkha: being united with
what one dislikes, being separated from what one likes, not getting what
one wants, and this is everyday experience. Finally, as a summary of all
kinds of dukkha there is continuous dukkha: the five grasped-at
groups, that is to say body, feeling, perceptions, volitions (and other
mental activity) and consciousness, the components of a human being.
Explanation of these in full would take too long here but all the readers
are provided with these kinds of dukkha in themselves. They should look to
see whether these facts of existence are delightful or not. This Dhamma
"should be thoroughly known" in one's own person and life, that is where
the first Noble Truth may be discovered.
Then the factors which give rise to
unhappiness were mentioned. Here again one's person and life should be
investigated. Now when living creature are killed intentionally by me,
when I take what is not given, when I indulge in wrong conduct in sexual
relations, when I speak false words and when I take intoxicating drinks
and drugs producing carelessness -- now are these things factors for
happiness or unhappiness? When I covet the belongings of others, when I
allow ill-will to dwell in my heart, and when I have as the tenants of my
heart ignorance, delusion, and views which lead astray -- is this for my
welfare or destruction? There are many ways of describing these factors
which make for unhappiness but all of them derive from unknowing and
craving which are just two sides of the same thing. This is the Second
Noble Truth of the Arising of Dukkha. When craving is at work, when
unknowing clouds one's understanding, then one is sure to experience
dukkha. Lord Buddha instructs us for our own benefit and for the happiness
of others, that this craving "should be relinquished."
Now happiness in the second half of
the statement above can be of many kinds. Two kinds dependent upon
conditions can be seen illustrated by the world, while one kind,
unsupported by conditions "should be realized" in one's own heart. We are
all looking for happiness so let us see what is needed for it. First,
there is materially produced happiness. This is born of possessions and
jugglery with conditions of life "out there." Called amisa-sukha in
Pali, this happiness is most uncertain; for all the factors supporting it
are subject to instability and change. Moreover, they are out in the world
and not in one's own heart, so that they call for expert jugglery to save
one from dukkha. And failure and disappointment cannot be avoided if one
goes after this sort of happiness. So this sort of happiness is
short-lived and precarious. A great improvement on this is the happiness
which comes from practicing Dhamma, called non-material happiness or
niramisa-sukha. This kind of happiness is made sure whenever a person
performs wholesome kamma, such as doing the following ten things: giving,
moral conduct mind-development, reverence, helpfulness, dedicating
meritorious acts to others, rejoicing in the meritorious acts of others,
hearkening to Dhamma, teaching Dhamma and setting upright one's views.
People who practice this Dhamma, purifying their hearts in this way, are
sure to reap happiness. But this happiness, though more lasting than the
first, is not to be relied upon forever. As a fruit of it one may dwell
among the gods for aeons, or be born as a very fortunate man but even the
gods have to pass away, let alone man. And the fruits of kamma, good or
evil, are impermanent, so it cannot be relied upon to produce a permanent
happiness. This can only be found by removing entirely the cause for
dukkha: when craving is uprooted no growth of dukkha can take place. On
the contrary, with purity, compassion and wisdom one has reached the
Supreme Happiness of Nibbana which is stable, indestructible and never
subject to changing conditions. This is the Third Noble Truth of the
Cessation of Dukkha by the removal of its cause. A good deal of hard work
is needed to get to this "which should be realized," and that work must be
done along the right lines, hence the Fourth Noble Truth.
This is called the Truth of the Path,
"which should be cultivated." It comprises elements of wisdom: Right View
and Right Attitude; elements of moral conduct: Right Speech, Right Action,
and Right Livelihood; and elements of meditation: Right Effort, Right
Mindfulness and Right Collectedness. These will not be explained in detail
here. It is certain that any one who
practices Moral Conduct, Collectedness and Wisdom in his life has the
conditions which sustain happiness. From his practice he may have
Dhamma-happiness or the Supreme Happiness, according to the degree he
practices, for the latter requires well-developed meditation both in calm
and in insight.
These Four Noble Truths -- Dukkha, Cause,
Cessation, and Path -- are the heart of the Dhamma and they are in the
heart of every man who cares to see them. From their seeing and
understanding comes happiness but by trying to escape them only more
misery is born.
These Truths are illustrated by the
formula of Dependent Arising which is found elaborated in various ways.
The simplest form is:
Craving being, dukkha is; by the arising
of craving, dukkha arises; craving not being, dukkha is not; by the
cessation of craving, dukkha ceases.
But Dependent Arising can be given in much
more detailed ways than this. The important principle to understand is
that whatever is experienced by us, all that arises due to many
conditions. An aspect which grows in size from birth throughout youth,
which develops certain characteristics in maturity, and as old age creeps
on becomes infirm in various ways, and finally dies. The processes which
govern this growth and decline are of great complexity and
interdependence. The body, to keep going at all, needs clothes, food,
shelter and medicines at least. But once the internal chemistry (also
dependently originated) starts the process leading to old age and death,
none of the exterior supporting conditions can do more than retard the
process for a little while. The body, as a whole, does not arise from
"no-cause" (the physical particles and kamma being its immediate causes);
nor is it derived from one cause. If examined, nothing which we
experience arises from only one, or no cause at all; on the contrary our
experiences all arises dependently. Sight is actually dependent on the eye
as base, the object to be seen, and the operation of eye-consciousness.
(There are other factors that also contribute: light, air,...) Similarly,
there is ear, sound, ear-consciousness; nose, smell, nose-consciousness;
tongue, taste, tongue-consciousness; body, touch, body-consciousness; and
mind, thoughts, mind-consciousness. All of our experience falls within
these eighteen elements and there is nothing which we know outside them.
It is also important to understand that
much of what one experiences arising dependently is the fruit of one's own
actions. The happiness one feels and the dukkha one feels, although
sometimes brought about by events in the physical world (landslides,
earthquakes, a sunny or a rainy day), is very often brought about by one's
own past intentional actions or kamma. And in the present time with each
deliberate action, one performs more kammas which will come to fruit as
experience in the future. So, if one wants to experience the fruits of
happiness, the seeds of happiness must be planted now. They may fruit
immediately, in this life, or in a future existence. We make ourselves, we
are the creators of ourselves, no one else has a hand in this creation.
And the Lord of Creation is no other than Ignorance or Unknowing. He is
the Creator of this Wheel of Samsara, of continued and infinitely varied
forms of dukkha. And this Lord resides in the hearts of all men who are
called "ordinary-men." We shall return to this in more detail later.
The History of the Wheel
Dependent Arising is explained many times
and in many different connections in the Discourses of Lord Buddha, but He
has not compared it to a wheel. This simile is found in the Visuddhimagga
("The Path of Purification") and in the other commentarial literature.
Although Theravada tradition has many references to this simile, it does
not seem to have been depicted at all. But in Northern India and
especially in Kashmir, the Sarvastivada school
was strongly established and besides producing a vast literature upon
Discipline and the Further Dhamma (Vinaya and Abhidhamma), they produced
also a way of depicting a great many important Buddhist teachings by this
picture of the Wheel which is the subject of the present essay.
In Pali it is the bhava-cakka or
Samsara-cakka, which is variously rendered in English as the Wheel of
Life, the Wheel of Becoming or the Wheel of Rebirth.
In their collections of stories about Lord
Buddha and his disciples (known as Avadana), there is one which
opens with the story of this wheel. Readers will observe that the story
refers to Lord Buddha's lifetime and says that He has authorized the
painting of this picture, as well as laying down its contents. It is
certain that in the Buddha-time painting was well known (it is mentioned
several times in the Discourses and the Discipline) while the other facts
given in this short introductory story are quite in accord with the spirit
of the Pali Discourses. Even the collection of stories in which this
account is contained was compiled, according to some scholars, before the
Christian era. So if one does not believe that this painting was ordained
by Lord Buddha, still it has an age of two thousand years, a venerable
tradition indeed. Of all "teaching-aids" this expression of Buddhist
skillful-means (upaya-kosalla), must surely be the oldest. Now let
us turn to the story.
"Lord Buddha was staying at Rajagaha,
in the Bamboo Grove, at the Squirrels' Feeding-place. Now, it was the
practice of Venerable Mahamoggallana to frequent the hells for a certain
time, then the animal-kingdom, also to visit the ghosts, the gods and men.
Having seen all the sufferings to be found in the hells which beings there
experience as they arise and pass away, such as maiming, dismembering and
so forth; having witnessed how animals kill and devour others, how ghosts
are tormented by hunger and thirst, how the gods lose (their heavenly
state), fall (from it), are spoiled and come to their ruin, and how men
crave and come to naught but thwarted desires, -- having seen all this he
returned to Jambudipa (India) and reported this to the four assemblies.
Whatever (venerable one) had a fellow-bhikkhu or a bhikkhu-pupil leading
the holy life with dissatisfaction, he would take him to Venerable
Mahamoggallana (thinking): 'The Venerable Mahamoggallana will exhort and
teach him well'. And (truly) the Venerable Mahamoggallana would exhort and
teach him well. Such (dissatisfied bhikkhus) would again lead the holy
life with keen interest, even distinguishing themselves with the higher
attainments since they had been taught and exhorted so well by the
"At that time (when the Lord stayed at
Rajagaha), the Venerable Mahamoggallana was surrounded by the four
assemblies consisting of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, pious laymen and women.
"Now the illustrious Enlightened Ones who
Know, (also) ask questions. Thus Lord Buddha asked the Venerable Ananda
(why the second of his foremost disciples was surrounded by the four
assemblies). Venerable Ananda then related Venerable Mahamoggallana's
experiences and said that he instructed discontented bhikkhus with
"(The Lord replied:) 'The Elder Moggallana
or a bhikkhu like him cannot be at many places (at the same time for
teaching people). Therefore, in the (monastery) gateways a wheel having
five sections should be made.'
"Thus the Lord laid down that a wheel with
five sections should be made (whereupon it was remarked:) 'But the
bhikkhus do not know what sort of wheel should be made'.
"The Lord explained: 'The five bourns
should be represented -- the hellish bourn, that of the animal kingdom, of
ghosts, of men, and the bourn of the gods. In the lower portion (of the
wheel), the hells are to be shown, together, with the animal-kingdom and
the realm of the ghosts, while in the upper portion gods and men should be
represented. The four continents should also be depicted, namely,
Pubbavideha, Aparagoyana, Uttarakuru and Jambudipa.
In the middle, greed, aversion and delusion must be shown, a dove
symbolizing greed, a snake symbolizing
aversion, and a hog, delusion. Furthermore, the Buddhas are to be painted
(surrounded by their) halos pointing out (the way to) Nibbana. Ordinary
beings should be shown as by the contrivance of a water-wheel they sink
(to lower states) and rise up again. The space around the rim should be
filled with (scenes teaching) the twelve links of Dependent Arising in the
forward and reversed order. (The picture of the Wheel) must show clearly
that everything, all the time, is swallowed by impermanence and the
following two verses should be added as an inscription:
Make a start, leave behind (the
firmly concentrate upon the Buddha's Teaching.
As He, Leader like an elephant, did
so should you rout and defeat the hosts of Death.
Whoever in this Dhamma-Vinaya will go
ever vigilant and always striving hard,
Can make an end of dukkha here
and leave behind Samsara's wheel of birth and death.
"Thus, at the instance of the bhikkhus, it
was laid down by the Lord that the Wheel of Wandering-on (in birth and
death) with five sections should be made in the gateways (of monasteries).
"Now brahmans and householders would come
and ask: 'Reverend Sir, what is this painting about?'
"Bhikkhus would reply: 'We also do not
"Thereupon the Lord advised: 'A bhikkhu
should be appointed (to receive) visitors in the gateway and to show them
"Bhikkhus were appointed without due
consideration (to be guest-receiver), foolish, erring, confused persons
without merit. (At this, it was objected:) 'They themselves do not know,
so how will they explain (the Wheel-picture) to visiting brahmans and
"The Lord said: 'A competent bhikkhu
should be appointed.'"
The Later History of the Tradition
Tibetan legend says that Lord Buddha
outlined the Wheel with grains of rice while walking with bhikkhus in a
rice field. However this may be, in India, at least in all the
Sarvastivada monasteries, this painting will have adorned the gateways,
arousing deep emotions in the hearts of those who knew its meaning, and
curiosity in others. It is a measure of how great was the destruction of
the Buddhist religion in India that not a single example survives
anywhere, since no gateways to temples are known to have survived. A
solitary painting in Ajanta cave number seventeen may perhaps be some form
of this wheel.
In the translation above, the pictures for
representing the twelve links of Dependent Arising were not given and it
is said that these were supplied from the scriptures by Nagarjuna, a great
Buddhist Teacher (some of whose verses are quoted below). From India the
pattern of this wheel was taken to Samye, the first Tibetan monastery, by
Bande Yeshe and there it was the Sarvastivada lineage of ordination which
was established. The tradition of painting this wheel thus passed to
Tibet, where, due to climatic conditions, it was painted in the vestibule
of the temple, there to strike the eyes of all who entered.
Tibetan tradition speaks of two kinds of
Wheel: the old-style and the new-style. The old-style is based upon the
text translated above, while the new-style introduces new features. The
great reformer, Je Tsongkhapa (b. 1357 C.E.), founder of the Gelugpa (the
Virtuous Ones, the school of which H.H. the Dalai Lama is the head), gave
authority for the division of the Wheel into six instead of five, and for
drawing the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the guise of a Buddha in each of
the five non-human realms. Both these features may be seen upon the
drawing of the Tibetan-style Wheel. The sixth realm is that of the titans
(asura) who war against the gods of the sensual-sphere heavens. These
troublesome and demonic characters are included in a separate part of the
world of the gods in my drawing. The introduction of a Buddha-figure into
each realm illustrates the universal quality of a Buddha's great
compassion, for Avalokitesvara it the embodiment of enlightened
compassion. The writer has preferred to retain the old-style
representation according to the text as it agrees perfectly with Theravada
The terrors and violence of samsara, which
are with us all the time, may be seen plainly in the ravishment of Tibet
by the Chinese invaders. Tibetan artists have kept this tradition alive to
the present day and still paint under difficulties as refugees in India.
But this ancient way of presenting Dhamma deserves to be more widely known
and appreciated. Buddhist shrines could well be equipped with
representations of it in the present day, to remind devotees of the nature
of this whirling wheel of birth and death.
The Symbolism and its Practical Meaning
We now turn to the pictures of the
Bhava-cakka accompanying this book. One is from a Tibetan original after
Waddell. The second is a modern version executed by the author, in which
the scenes and figures have been given a contemporary coloring.
The hub of this painting is the central
point for us who live in the realm of samsara, so it is the best point to
start a description of the symbolism. In this center circle, a cock, a
snake and a hog wheel around, each having in its mouth the tail of the
animal in front. These three, representing Greed, Aversion and Delusion
which are the three roots of all evil, are depicted in the center because
they are the root causes for experience in the wandering on. When they are
present in our hearts then we live afflicted in the transitory world of
birth and death but when they are not there, having been destroyed by
wisdom or pañña, developed in Dhamma-practice, then we find rest, the
unshakable peace of Nibbana. It is notable that Tibetan paintings show
these creatures against a blue ground, showing that even these afflictions
of mind, although powerful, have no real substance and are void, as are
all the other elements of our experience.
The cock of fiery yellow-red represents
greed (lobha). This greed includes every desire for all kinds of "I
wish, I want, I must have, I will have" and extends from the violent
passion for gross physical form, through attachments to views and ideas,
all the way to the subtle clinging to spiritual pleasures experienced by
meditators. The color of the cock, a fiery red, is symbolic of the fact
that the passions burn those who indulge in them. Passions and desires are
hot and restless, just like tongues of flame, and never allow the heart to
experience the cool peace of non-attachment. The cock is chosen as a
symbol of greed because as an animal it is observed to be full of lust and
In the cock's beak there is the tail of a
green snake indicating that people who are not able to "satisfy" their
ocean-like greeds and lusts tend to become angry. Aversion (dosa)
of any form springs up when we do not get what we want, or when we get
what we do not want. This also can be very subtle, from aversion to mental
states ranging through hostile thoughts against other beings, to
expressions of inward resentment finding their way out in untruthful,
malicious or angry words, or as physical violence. The greenness of the
snake indicates the coldness, the lack of sympathy with others, while the
snake itself is an animal killing other beings by poison and
strangulation, which is exactly what aversion does to those who let it
grow in their hearts. Our lives can be corrupted by this venomous beast
unless we take very good care to remove it.
At the bottom of the picture there is a
heavy hog, the tail of which is chewed by aversion's snake, while in turn
it champs upon the tail feathers of greed's cock. This heavy hog is black
in color and represents delusion (moha). This black hog, like its
brethren everywhere, likes to sleep for long, to root for food in filth
and generally to take no care at all over cleanliness. It is a good symbol
for delusion which prevents one from understanding what is advantageous
and what is deleterious to oneself. Its heaviness is that sluggishness of
mind and body which it induces in people, called variously stupidity,
dullness, boredom; but worry and distraction with skeptical doubt also
arise from this delusion-root. One who is overwhelmed by delusion does not
know why he should restrain himself from evil, for he can see neither his
own benefit with wisdom, nor the benefit of others by compassion -- all is
blanketed by delusion. He does not know, or does not believe that kamma
(intentional actions) have results according to kind. Or he has wrong
views which lead him astray from the highway of Dhamma. When people do not
get what they want either using greed or aversion, then they turn dull and
the pain of their desire is dulled by delusion. From this black hog are
born the fiery cock and the cold green snake.
These three beasts, none more dangerous
anywhere, are shown each biting the tail of the other, meaning that really
they are inseparable, so that one cannot have, say, greed, without the
other monsters lurking in its train. Even characters which are rooted
predominantly in one of these three, have the other two present, while
most people called "normal" have a sort of unhealthy balance of these
three in their hearts, ever ready to influence their actions when a
suitable situation occurs. These three beasts revolve endlessly in the
heart of the ordinary-man (puthujjana) and ensure that he
experiences plenty of dukkha. One should know for one-self whether these
beasts control one's own heart, or not.
The First Ring
Out from the innermost circle, the first
ring is divided into two (not shown at all upon the Tibetan version
illustrated here), one half with a white background and the other having a
black background. In the former, four people are seen ascending: the
bhikkhu holding a Dhamma-light goes on in front, being followed by a
white-robed nun (upasika), after which come a man and a woman in
present day dress. The four of them represent the Buddhist Community made
up of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. They are representative of anyone
practicing the path of good conduct in mind, speech and body. They
represent as well two classes of persons: "going from dark to light" and
"going from light to light." In the first case, they are born in poor
circumstances and have few opportunities due to past evil kamma but in
spite of this, they make every effort to practice Dhamma for their own
good and others' happiness. Thus they go towards the light, for the fruit
of their present kamma will be pleasant and enjoyable. The latter class,
"going from light to light," are those people who have attained many
benefits with plentiful opportunities in their present life, due to having
done much good kamma in the past. In the present they continue with their
upward course devoting themselves to further practice of Dhamma in their
What is this Dhamma-practice? There are
two lists both of ten factors which could be explained here but the space
required would be too great for more than a summary. The first list is
called the ten Skilled Kamma-paths, three of
which pertain to bodily action, four to speech and three to mental action.
"Paths" here means "ways of action" and "skillful" means "neither for the
deterioration of one's own mind nor for the harm of others." The bodily
actions which one refrains from are: destroying living creatures, taking
what is not given, and wrong conduct in sexual desires. In speech, the
four actions which should be avoided are: false speech, slanderous speech,
harsh speech and foolish chatter. The three actions of mind which should
be avoided are: covetousness, ill-will, and wrong views. Anyone who
restrains himself from these ten, practices a skillful path, a white path
which accords with the first steps of training in Dhamma.
The other ten factors are called the Ten
Ways of making Puñña (meaning actions
purifying the heart). They have a different range from the first list of
ten, being divided into three basic ways and seven secondary ones. The
basic factors are giving (dana), moral conduct (sila), and
mind development (bhavana), while the remaining seven are counted
as aspects of these three: reverence, helpfulness, dedicating one's puñña
to others, rejoicing in other's puñña, listening to Dhamma, teaching
Dhamma, and straightening out one's views. These actions lead to
uprightness, skillful conduct and to the growth in Dhamma of oneself, as
well as the benefit of others.
Those who tread upon this white path going
toward the light are able to be born in two bourns: either as men, or as
"shining-ones" -- the gods in the three sorts of heavens of sensuality,
subtle form, and formlessness. A life of good practice is thus usually
followed by a life in one of these two bourns, called sugati or the
good bourns. But Lord Buddha does not declare that everyone who has
led such a life is necessarily born there. This depends not only upon the
intensity of their Dhamma-practice but also upon the vision which
arises at the time of death. Through negligence at the last moment, one
can slip into the three evil bourns difficult to get out of. The round of
Samsara is very dangerous, even for those who lead almost blameless lives.
More of this below. To be born in the two good bourns is the fruiting of
puñña or skillful kamma and the more purified one's heart, the higher and
more pleasant will be one's environment.
In the dark half of the ring, naked beings
are tumbling downwards in disorder. Their nakedness symbolizes lack of
shame in doing evil and their disorder shows the characteristic of evil to
cause disintegration and confusion. "Downwards" means that they are
falling, by the commission of sub-human actions, to sub-human states of
existence. In some Tibetan versions they are chained together and pulled
downwards by a female demon who squats at the bottom. This demoness is
craving of tanha (a noun of female gender). This craving is, of course,
not outside those who follow the path of evil but in their own hearts. On
this path there are two sorts of persons, those "going, from light to
dark" and those "going from dark to dark." The former have good
opportunities in this life but do not make use of them, or else use them
for evil ends without laying up any further store. Instead, they prefer
from delusion to store up evil now for fear and distress in future. Those
who go from dark to dark do not have even the advantages of the former
group for they are born in conditions of deprivation due to past evil
kamma and then, driven on by the fruit of suffering received by them, they
commit more evil.
The Ten Unskillful Kamma-paths are the
ways along which they walk: destroying living creatures, taking what is
not given, wrong conduct in sexual desires; false speech, slanderous
speech, harsh speech, foolish chatter; covetousness, ill-will and
wrong-views. They do not delight in making puñña but are by nature, mean,
immoral, undeveloped in mind, proud, selfish, grasp at possessions,
envious, never listen to Dhamma and certainly never teach it, while their
hearts are ridden with confused and contradictory views and ideas.
For their pains, having pursued evil,
these beings upon their death, already having destroyed "humanness" in
themselves, fall down to the three lower states which are called the Evil
Bourns (duggati). These are, in order of deterioration and increase
of suffering: the hungry ghosts, the animals, and the hell-wraiths. Truly
a case of:
do good, good fruit
do bad, bad fruit
as the Thai proverb says. These two
half-circles are also an illustration of the refrain which closes every
one of the Avadana stories: "Thus bhikkhus, completely black kamma bears
completely evil effects; completely white kamma bears completely good
effects; and composite kamma bears composite effects. Therefore, bhikkhus,
abstain from doing completely black kamma and composite kamma; strive to
do kamma completely white. Thus, O bhikkhus, must you train yourselves."
The Five Divisions
The two good bourns and the three evil
bourns contain the whole range of possibilities for rebirth. In most
Tibetan illustrations, including the one shown here, a sixth bourn is
given, by dividing the devas and asuras (the gods and anti-gods or
titans). In this section the five, or six bourns will be described,
together with the ways to get to them. Birth in any bourn is a fruit or
effect and here we shall see the causes.
A person who has done evil persistently,
or even one heavy crime, is likely to see at the time of death a vision,
either relating to his past evil actions, or else to the bourn which his
past evil actions or kamma have prepared for him. When his physical body
is no longer a suitable basis to support life, his mind creates a body
ghostly and subtle in substance, which then and there begins to experience
one of the evil bourns. But in case his kamma drives him to be born as
animals, there is the vision of animals copulating and he is dragged into
the womb or egg of those animals.
Kamma which leads to birth as an animal is
a strong interest in the things which mankind shares with the animals,
that is, eating, drinking and sex. If a man strengthens the animal in
himself, to become an "animal-man," he can expect only to be born as an
animal. Human beings interested in only these things, strengthening the
Evil Root of Delusion in their minds, have already the minds of animals.
There is no essential "man-ness" which can prevent such a catastrophe, for
no unchanging human soul exists. If a man wishes to guard himself against
this, he must protect the conditions for humanity (manussa-dhamma)
which are the Five Precepts. Sinking below the level of conduct of these
precepts, is to sink into the sub-human levels. Once rebirth as an animal
has taken place it is by no means easy to gain human birth again, as
Venerable Nagarjuna has written:
More difficult is it to rise
from birth as animal to man,
Than for the turtle blind to see
the yoke upon the ocean drift;
Therefore, do you being a man
practice Dhamma and gain its fruits.
-- L.K. 59 ("The
Letter of Kindheartedness" by Acarya Nagarjuna, in "Wisdom Gone Beyond",
Social Service Association Press of Thailand, Phya Thai Road, Bangkok,
Kamma dragging one to the hells, which are
the most fearful and miserable states, are actions involving hatred,
killing, torture and violence generally. People lead themselves to
experience hell because they have made the Evil Root of Aversion very
strong within themselves.
On the other hand, those who have
strengthened the Evil Root of Greed while they were men, having been mean,
possessive and selfish, are liable to arise as spirits with strong
cravings forever unsatisfied, for which reason they are known as "hungry"
However, it does sometimes happen that one
who has led an evil life turns sincerely to religion upon his deathbed.
When this occurs, with his mind centered upon Dhamma and purified by
faith, a person like this may be reborn among men, even arise among the
devas. That evil kamma which has been done though it may have no chance to
fructify in those good bourns, remains a potential for creating very
unpleasant results whenever conditions are favorable to its fruition. The
reverse of this may happen, as when good and noble men become distracted
at death and so remember some small evil done, or see a vision of evil
done in some past life, the result of which is the arising of unwholesome
consciousness leading to the evil bourns.
It is more usual for one who has followed
the path of white deeds to be born as a man or among the gods. The basis
for the former is the practice of the Five Precepts which constitute the
level of humanness. They are in brief: refraining from destroying living
creatures; refraining from taking what is not given; refraining from wrong
conduct in sexual desires; refraining from false speech, and refraining
from distilled and fermented intoxicants which cause carelessness. Those
who refrain from such things, having really lived as men, having
strengthened the base of humanness in their own hearts, are born again as
men well-endowed with the riches of fine qualities; of varied
opportunities, as well as with a wealth of worldly goods.
The path to the heavens is cultivated by
those who make special efforts to live with purity and self-restraint,
exercising loving-kindness toward all beings and so purifying their minds
to some extent through meditation. At the time of death, having fulfilled
the ten Skillful Kamma paths and the ten Ways of Making Puñña, the heart
will be joyful and peaceful to varying degrees, which will result in the
experience of arising in one of the many heavenly levels according to the
degree of purity and concentration which has been attained.
All these possibilities are within the
scope of the mind, the quality of which can be changed in this way or that
by kamma, good or bad. From the type of mind which performs the duty of
relinking-consciousness at birth, is determined the kind of sense-organs
possessed by a being, and hence the kind of world experienced by him.
Perception varies -- as the famous Buddhist verse puts it:
As a water-vessel is
variously perceived by beings:
Nectar to celestials,
is for a man plain drinking-water,
While to the hungry ghost it seems
a putrid ooze of pus and blood,
Is for the water serpent-spirits
and the fish a place to live in,
While it is space to gods who dwell
in the sphere of infinite space.
So any object, live or dead,
within the person or without --
Differently is seen by beings
according to their fruits of kamma.
From such verses we catch a glimpse of the
mysterious depths of the mind, and of the truth of the Exalted Buddha's
words which open the Dhammapada:
Before all dhammas goes the mind; Mind
is the chief, mind-made are they...
To come now to a description of the
picture. In the world of the gods or "shining-ones" (deva, upper
right, but topmost in the Tibetan version), the gilded palaces and
glittering jewel trees of the gods of sensuality are shown in the lower
part of the drawing. The Tibetan picture shows more details of these
superlatively beautiful worlds in which there is also a kind of subtle
sexual relationship. Being based upon sensuality, as this world of men is,
these devas must also pay the price for this -- which is conflict. This
conflict is an ever-recurring battle with the asuras, the anti-gods or
titans who have in past times fallen through their quarrelsome nature from
the heavens and who now enviously try to invade the celestial realms. In
my picture, they share a segment of the world of gods and they are
equipped with ancient and modern weapons and are in the dress of soldiers.
But they do not only battle with the gods but also among themselves and so
a bit of insubordination is depicted as well. The Tibetan picture gives
them a world to themselves among the frontiers of which they are fleeing
from the victorious heavenly hosts led upon a very large elephant by
Sakka, the lord of the sensual-realm gods. These titans only understand
force, so the Buddha shown in their world bears a sword with which to duly
impress them, after which they may be able to hear a little Dhamma. By
contrast, the Buddha appearing among the gods bears a lute, in order to
lure them into listening to Dhamma sung in exquisite strains, for it was
believed that they would not be interested in mere spoken words!
Above the battling of the sensual-realm
gods dwell the Brahmas of subtle form and of formlessness, experiencing
meditative happiness, serene joy, or sublime equanimity. The Tibetan
picture also shows a magnificent Brahma world palace in the upper lefthand
corner. About all this heavenly splendor, Ven. Nagarjuna warns us:
"Great King, although celestial worlds
have pleasures great to be enjoyed,
Greater the pain of dying there.
From often contemplating this
a noble person does not wish
For transient heavenly joys."
-- L.K. 98
He goes on to speak of the devas as those
"Who, dying from celestial realms
with no remaining merit fruits
Must take up their abode
according to the karma past, --
With birth as beast or hungry ghost,
or else arise in hell."
-- L.K. 101
The Brahmas of formlessness dwelling for
unthinkable ages in the realms of infinite space, infinite consciousness,
no-thingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception being quite
without any form, naturally cannot be shown, but even their states are not
eternal, but come to an end.
Among men (upper left in both
pictures), the progress of the human-being is shown: birth (a
perambulator; old-age, sickness (hospital sign) and death (a bloated
corpse in a graveyard), but with this basis of dukkha, men can also
understand Dhamma. Lord Buddha, foremost among men, sits highest in the
human world teaching Dhamma in a forest grove to his first five disciples.
In the original version which my picture follows, He is shown only in the
human world, thus emphasizing the value of human birth, during which it is
possible to gain insight into Dhamma. The religious aspirations of man are
represented by a Hindu temple, a Christian church and Muslim mosque, while
a war and a bar show his tendencies towards aversion and greed. The
Tibetan picture shows several mundane activities such as plowing the
fields, while people climb towards the top of the picture where there is a
temple in which they can listen to Dhamma. In the center stands a Buddha
carrying the almsbowl and staff, showing to men the way of peacefulness
leading to Sublime Peace of Nibbana. This is shown in my picture by the
sure Dhamma-path which issues from the mouth of the Exalted Buddha. Upon
this way a bhikkhu lends a hand to help householders out of the realms of
samsara, leading them forward upon the Eightfold Path. Venerable Nagarjuna
has this to say:
"Who though he has been born a man
yet gives himself to evil ways,
More foolish is he than the fool
who fills with vomit, urine, dung
Golden vessels jewel-adorned --
harder man's birth to gain than these."
-- L.K. 60
Hungry ghosts or peta (lower right
in my picture, lower left in the Tibetan) crave for food and drink but
find that it turns to fire or foul things when they are able to get it. I
have shown a huge moon and a tiny sun, as the verse says:
"From want of merit, hungry ghosts
in summer find the moon is hot,
in winter sun is cold;
Barren are the trees they see
and mighty rivers running on
dry up whene'er they look at them."
-- L.K. 95
Then there is a sky-going peta being torn
to shreds by birds, as seen by Venerable Moggallana; one "resting" upon
rocks under a leafless tree which is the simile used by the Exalted Buddha
in the suttas to symbolize the sole comforts of this realm, and two ghosts
sunk in the water up to their lower lips, their gaping mouths just a
little too high to get any of it. The state of Tantalus was obviously
birth among the hungry ghosts! The ghosts all have bloated bellies,
extremely slender necks and "needle-mouths." Their sufferings are
illustrated further in the Tibetan. They have to bear intense cravings for
food and drink and then more sufferings when they manage to get a little
of it, for it turns to swords and knives in their bellies. The Buddha in
this "abundantly painful" realm carries celestial food to allay the
ghosts' cravings. In the words of Ven. Nagarjuna:
"Lord Buddha has declared the cause
why beings come to birth as ghosts,
torments to endure
For when as men they gave no gifts,
or giving gave with avarice --
They ghostly kamma made."
-- L.K. 97
The animals, in the Tibetan
illustration, are being encouraged in the Dhamma by a Buddha holding a
book, illustrating the point that animals have little ability to
understand and are in need of wisdom. My picture illustrates the
sufferings of animal-life as described by Ven. Nagarjuna:
"Then should you come to birth as beast
many are the pains --
Killing, disease and gory strife
binding, striking too.
Void of peaceful, skillful acts
beasts slay and kill without remorse.
Some among beasts are slain because
they produce pearls, or wool, or bones,
or valued are for meat or hide.
Others are pressed to do men's work
by blows or sticks or iron hook,
by whipping them to work."
-- L.K. 89-90
In the animal-world where feelings
experienced are "painful, sharp and severe," one can see the dukkha, the
hunter and the hunted, in my illustration. The birds of the air are being
shot while a vulture is feeding on its prey. A wasp struggling in the net
of a spider represents the horrors of life among the insects, while among
the larger animals, a buffalo is being forced to work, a deer is being
shot and a lion feeds upon his prey. The fish fare no better and are shown
being devoured by larger fish, or else hooked and netted by men.
Slithering down the division of this world from the hells, there is a
gecko. The Tibetan picture illustrates the diversity of animal life and
shows, under the waters, the palace of the serpent-spirits or naga, half
snake and half man.
The hells, which are not permanent
states of course, have some new horrors of our day: for railway lines run
into a concentration camp from the chimneys of which belches sinister
black smoke, while a uniformed member of some secret police force compels
a suppliant hell-wraith to swallow molten metal. Towards the viewer flows
the river of caustic soda called Vaitarani which burns the flesh off the
bones of those swirling along in it, mingled with a stream of blood from
the clashing mountains. Whatever torments hell-wraiths experience, though
their bodies are mangled, crushed and ripped apart, yet they survive still
for vast ages of time experiencing feelings which are "exclusively
painful, sharp and severe," unrelenting and uninterrupted:
"As highest is the bliss that comes
from all desires' cessation --
No higher bliss than this!
So worst the woe that's known in hell
Avici with no interval --
No woe is worse than this!"
-- L.K. 85
In the foreground is the hell of filth
where hell-wraiths, who as men had corrupted the innocent, are devoured by
gigantic maggots while floundering in a stinking ooze. To the left are the
trees of the sword-blade forest which have to be climbed so that hell
wraiths are pierced through and through. This particular aspect of hell is
said to be the punishment which adulterers bring on themselves. Various
murderers and torturers are impaled upon stakes while a steel-beaked bird
rips out the entrails of former cock-fighters. Venerable Nagarjuna has
some more verses upon these lower and most-miserable states:
"The criminal who has to bear
throughout a single day
The piercing of three hundred spears
as punishment for crime,
His pain can nowise be compared
to the least pain found in hell.
The pains of hell may still persist
a hundred crores of years --
Without respite, unbearable
So long the fruits of evil acts
do not exhaust the force --
So long continues life in hell."
-- L.K. 86-87
Jetsun Milarepa, the great sage and poet
of Tibet, who had seen the heavens and hells and other states, once sung
"Fiends filled with cravings for
Murder even their parents and teachers,
Rob the Three Gems of their treasures,
Revile and falsely accuse the Precious Ones,
And condemn the Dhamma as untrue:
In the hell of unceasing torment
These evil-doers will be burned..."
Those who now violate the peoples of Tibet
and their Dhamma might well take note! This brief survey of the Five
Bourns (pañcagati) may be concluded with a verse of exhortation
from "The Letter of Kindheartedness":
"If your head or dress caught fire
in haste you would extinguish it,
Do likewise with desire --
which whirls the wheel or wandering-on
And is the root of suffering,
No better thing to do!"
-- L.K. 104
The Rim of the Wheel (Dependent Arising)
The Twelve-linked Chain
Our description has now come to the Rim,
or felly of the Wheel, which depicts the Twelve Links of Dependent
Arising. It is these links which chain the entire universe of beings to
re-becoming and to suffering.
It is a well-established tradition to
explain this chain as referring to three lives (past, present and future).
While the present is the only time which is real, it has been moulded in
the past. It is in the present that we produce kamma of mind, speech and
body, to bear fruit in the future. In the twelve nidanas or "links" around
this wheel are set out the whole pattern of life and in it all questions
relating to existence are answered. The teaching of Dependent Arising,
central in our Dhamma-Vinaya, is not, however, for speculation but should
be investigated and seen in one's own and others' lives, and finally it
may be perceived in one's own heart where all the Truths of Dhamma become
clear after practice. But people who do not practice Dhamma are called
"upholders of the world"; they let this wheel whirl them round from
unknowing to old-age and death. The Exalted Buddha urged us not to be
"world upholders" but through Dhamma-practice to relinquish greed,
aversion and delusion so that by the cessation of unknowing there comes to
be a cessation of birth, old-age and death.
Now let us have a look at these twelve
links in brief.
This Pali word "avijja" is a negative term
meaning "not knowing completely" but it does not mean "knowing nothing at
all." This kind of unknowing is very special and not concerned with
ordinary ways or subjects of knowledge, for here what one does not know
are the Four Noble Truths, one does not see them clearly in one's own
heart and one's own life. In past lives, we did not care to see dukkha
(1), so we could not destroy the cause of dukkha (2) or craving
which has impelled us to seek more and more lives, more and more
pleasures. The cessation of dukkha (3) which perhaps could have
been seen by us in past lives, was not realized, so we come to the present
existence inevitably burdened with dukkha. And in the past we can hardly
assume that we set our feet upon the practice-path leading to the
cessation of dukkha (4) and we did not even discover Stream-entry. We
are now paying for our own negligence in the past.
And this unknowing is not some kind of
first cause in the past, for it dwells in our hearts now. But due to this
unknowing, as we shall see, we have set in motion this wheel bringing
round old age and death and all other sorts of dukkha. Those past "selves"
in previous lives who are in the stream of my individual continuity did
not check their craving and so could not cut at the root of unknowing. On
the contrary they made kamma, some of the fruits of which in this present
life I, as their causal resultant, am receiving.
The picture helps us to understand this: a
blind old woman (avijja is of feminine gender) with a stick picks her way
through a petrified forest strewn with bones. It is said that the original
picture here should be an old blind she-camel led by a driver, the beast
being one accustomed to long and weary journeys across inhospitable
country, while its driver could be craving. Whichever simile is used, the
beginninglessness and the darkness of unknowing are well suggested. We are
the blind ones who have staggered from the past into the present -- to
what sort of future?
Depending on the existence of unknowing in
the heart there was volitional action, kamma or abhisankhara, made in
those past lives.
Intentional actions have the latent power
within them to bear fruit in the future -- either in a later part of the
life in which they were performed, in the following life, or in some more
distant life, but their potency is not lost with even the passing of
aeons; and whenever the necessary conditions obtain that past kamma may
bear fruit. Now, in past lives we have made kamma, and due to our
ignorance of the Four Noble Truths we have been "world-upholders" and so
making good and evil kamma we have ensured the continued experience of
Beings like this, obstructed by unknowing
in their hearts have been compared to a potter making pots: he makes
successful and beautiful pottery (skillful kamma) and he is sometimes
careless and his pots crack and break up from various flaws (unskillful
kamma). And he gets his clay fairly well smeared over himself just as
purity of heart is obscured by the mud of kamma. The simile of the potter
is particularly apt because the word Sankhara means "forming,"
"shaping," and "compounding," and therefore it has often been rendered in
English as "Formations."
Depending on the existence of these
volitions produced in past lives, there arises the consciousness called
"relinking" which becomes the basis of this present life.
This relinking consciousness may be of
different qualities, according to the kamma upon which it depends. In the
case of all those who read this, the consciousness "leaping" into a new
birth at the time of conception, was a human relinking consciousness
arising as a result of having practiced at least the Five Precepts, the
basis of "humanness" in past lives. One should note that this relinking
consciousness is a resultant, not something which can be controlled by
will. If one has not made kamma suitable for becoming a human being, one
cannot will, when the time of death comes round, "Now I shall become a man
again!" The time for intentional action was when one had the opportunity
to practice Dhamma. Although our relinking-consciousness in this birth is
now behind us, it is now that we can practice Dhamma and make more sure of
a favorable relinking consciousness in future -- that is, if we wish to go
on living in Samsara.
This relinking-consciousness is the third
constituent necessary for conception, for even though it is the mother's
period and sperm is deposited in the womb, if there is no "being" desiring
to take rebirth at that place and time there will be no fertilization of
Appropriately, the picture shows a monkey,
the consciousness leaping from one tree, the old life, to another tree.
The old tree has died, while the one towards which it jumps is laden with
fruits -- they may be the fruits of good or evil. The Tibetan picture
shows a monkey devouring fruit, experiencing the fruits of deeds done in
Dependent upon relinking-consciousness
there is the arising of mind-body.
This is not a very accurate translation
but gives the general meaning. There is more included in rupa that is
usually thought of as body, while mind is a compound of feeling,
perception, volition and consciousness. This mind and body is two
interactive continuities in which there is nothing stable. Although in
conventional speech we talk of "my mind" and "my body," implying that
there is some sort of owner lurking in the background, the wise understand
that laws govern the workings of both mental states and physical changes
and mind cannot be ordered to be free of defilements, nor body told that
it must not grow old, become sick and die.
But it is in the mind that a change can be
wrought instead of drifting through life at the mercy of the inherent
instability of mind and body. So in the illustration, mind is doing the
work of punting the boat of psycho-physical states on the river of
cravings, while body is the passive passenger. The Tibetan picture shows a
coracle being rowed over swirling waters with three (? or four) other
passengers, who doubtless represent the other groups or aggregates
With the coming into existence of
mind-body, there is the arising of the six sense-spheres.
Six sense-spheres (salayatana)
A house with six windows is the usual
symbol for this link (but the Tibetan shows a house with one (?) window).
These six senses are eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind, and these are
the bases for the reception of the various sorts of information which each
can gather in the presence of the correct conditions. This information
falls under six headings corresponding to the six spheres: sights, sounds,
smells, tastes, tangibles and thoughts. Beyond these six spheres of sense
and their corresponding six objective spheres, we know nothing. All our
experience is limited by the senses and their objects with the mind
counted as the sixth. The five outer senses collect data only in the
present but mind, the sixth, where this information is collected and
processed, ranges through the three times adding memories from the past
and hopes and fears for the future, as well as thoughts of various kinds
relating to the present. It may also add information about the spheres of
existence which are beyond the range of the five outer senses, such as the
various heavens, the ghosts and the hell-states. A mind developed through
collectedness (samadhi) is able to perceive these worlds and their
The six sense-spheres existing, there is
This means the contact between the six
senses and the respective objects. For instance, when the necessary
conditions are all fulfilled, there being an eye, a sight-object, light
and the eye being functional and the person awake and turned toward the
object, there is likely to be eye-contact, the striking of the object upon
the sensitive eye-base. The same is true for each of the senses and their
type of contact. The traditional symbol for this link shows a man and a
Where contact arises, feeling exists.
When there have been various sorts of
contact through the six senses, feelings arise which are the emotional
response to those contacts. Feelings are of three sorts: pleasant, painful
and neither pleasant nor painful. The first are welcome and are the basis
for happiness, the second are unwelcome and are the basis for dukkha while
the third are the neutral sort of feelings which we experience so often
but hardly notice.
But all feelings are unstable and liable
to change, for no mental state can continue in equilibrium. Even moments
of the highest happiness whatever we consider this is, pass away and give
place to different ones. So even happiness which is impermanent based on
pleasant feelings is really dukkha, for how can the true unchanging
happiness be found in the unstable? Thus the picture shows a man with his
eyes pierced by arrows, a strong enough illustration of this.
When feelings arise, cravings are
Up to this point, the succession of events
has been determined by past kamma. Craving, however, leads to the making
of new kamma in the present and it is possible now, and only now, to
practice Dhamma. What is needed here is mindfulness (sati), for without it
no Dhamma at all can be practiced while one will be swept away by the
force of past habits and let craving and unknowing increase themselves
within one's heart. When one does have mindfulness one may and can know
"this is pleasant feeling," "this is unpleasant feeling," "this is neither
pleasant nor unpleasant feeling" -- and such contemplation of feelings
leads one to understand and beware of greed, aversion and delusion, which
are respectively associated with the three feelings. With this knowledge
one can break out of the Wheel of Birth and Death. But without this
Dhamma-practice it is certain that feelings will lead on to more cravings
and whirl one around this wheel full of dukkha. As Venerable Nagarjuna has
"Desires have only surface sweetness,
hardness within and bitterness --
deceptive as the kimpa-fruit.
Thus says the King of Conquerors.
Such links renounce -- they bind the world
Within samsara's prison grid.
If your head or dress caught fire
in haste you would extinguish it,
Do likewise with desire --
Which whirls the wheel of wandering-on
and is the root of suffering.
No better thing to do!"
-- L.K. 23, 104
In Sanskrit, the word trisna (tanha) means
thirst, and by extension implies "thirst for experience." For this reason,
craving is shown as a toper guzzling intoxicants and in my picture I have
added three bottles -- craving for sensual sphere existence and the
craving for the higher heavens of the Brahma-worlds which are either of
subtle form, or formless.
Where the kamma of further craving is
produced there arises Grasping.
This is an intensification and
diversification of craving which is directed to four ends: sensual
pleasures, views which lead astray from Dhamma, external religious rites
and vows, and attachment to the view of soul or self as being permanent.
When these become strong in people they cannot even become interested in
Dhamma, for their efforts are directed away from Dhamma and towards
dukkha. The common reaction is to redouble efforts to find peace and
happiness among the objects which are grasped at. Hence both pictures show
a man reaching up to pick more fruit although his basket is full already.
Where this grasping is found there
Becoming is to be seen.
With hearts boiling with craving and
grasping, people ensure for themselves more and more of various sorts of
life, and pile up the fuel upon the fire of dukkha. The ordinary person,
not knowing about dukkha, wants to stoke up the blaze, but the Buddhist
way of doing things is to let the fires go out for want of fuel by
stopping the process of craving and grasping and thus cutting off
Unknowing at its root. If we want to stay in samsara we must be diligent
and see that our becoming, which is happening all the time shaped
by our kamma, is becoming in the right direction. This means
becoming in the direction of purity and following the white path of
Dhamma-practice. This will contribute to whatever we become, or do not
become, at the end of this life when the pathways to the various realms
stand open and we become according to our practice and to our
Appropriately, Becoming is
illustrated by a pregnant woman.
In the presence of Becoming there is
arising in a new birth.
Birth, as one might expect, is shown as a
mother in the process of childbirth, a painful business and a reminder of
how dukkha cannot be avoided in any life. Whatever the future life is to
be, if we are not able to bring the wheel to a stop in this life,
certainly that future will arise conditioned by the kamma made in this
life. But it is no use thinking that since there are going to be future
births, one may as well put off Dhamma practice until then -- for it is
not sure what those future births will be like. And when they come around,
they are just the present moment as well. So no use waiting! Venerable
Nagarjuna shows that it is better to extricate oneself:
"Where birth takes place, quite
are fear, old age and misery,
disease, desire and death,
As well a mass of other ills.
When birth's no longer brought about
All the links are ever stopped."
-- L.K. 111
Naturally where there is Birth, is also
Old-age and Death.
Old-age and death (jara-marana)
In future one is assured, given enough of
Unknowing and Craving, of lives without end but also of deaths with end.
The one appeals to greed but the other arouses aversion. One without the
other is impossible. But this is the path of heedlessness. The Dhamma-path
leads directly to Deathlessness, the going beyond birth and death, beyond
The Tibetan picture shows an old man
carrying off a bundled-up corpse upon his back, taking it away to some
charnel ground. My picture has an old man gazing at a coffin enclosing a
corpse. We are well exhorted by the words of Acarya Nagarjuna:
"Do you therefore exert yourself:
At all times try to penetrate
Into the heart of these Four Truths;
For even those who dwell at home,
they will, by understanding them
ford the river of (mental) floods."
-- L.K. 115
This is a very brief outline of the
workings of this wheel which we cling to for our own harm and the hurt of
others. We are the makers of this wheel and the turners of this wheel, but
if we wish it and work for it, we are the ones who can stop this wheel.
Both pictures show the Wheel as being in
the grip of a fearful monster. In my drawing the monster's name is
engraved upon his crown so that people should not think of him as a common
demon. He is no such thing, for his name is Impermanence and his crown
shows his authority over all worlds whatever. He devours them and they are
all, heavens and hells together, securely held in the grasp of his taloned
hands. The crown upon his head is adorned with five skulls, representing
the impermanence of the five groups or aggregates comprising the person.
His eyes, ears, nose, and mouth have flames about them, an illustration of
the Exalted One's Third Discourse in which He says: "The eye is afire..."
and so on. Above the monster's two eyes, there is a third one meaning that
while for the fool impermanence is his enemy, for the wise man it helps
him to Enlightenment. Although the monster has adorned himself with
earrings and the like he fails to look attractive -- in the same way, this
world puts on an outer show of beauty puts its beauty fades when examined
Below the painting of the wheel, some
Tibetan examples show parts of a tiger-skin adorning the monster, a symbol
of fearfulness. In my drawing I show the monster's tail which has no
beginning, looping back and forth. In the same way, we have been born,
lived and then died countless times in the whirl of samsara. Sometimes our
deeds were mostly good and sometimes mostly bad, and we have reaped the
fruit of it all.
Some other features
The whole wheel glows with heat and is
surrounded by flames burning with the fires of greed, aversion and
delusion as the Exalted One has repeated many times in His Discourses.
In the upper right corner of both pictures
stands the Exalted Buddha shown crossed over to the Further Shore, meaning
Nibbana. The Tibetan picture shows him pointing out the moon upon which is
drawn a hare, the symbol of renunciation, the way to practice Dhamma, and
the way out of this wheel. In my picture,
He indicates with his hand the nature of samsara and warns us to beware.
He is adorned with a radiance about Him symbolizing the spiritual freedom
and majestic wisdom won by Him which can be described in many ways but is
finally beyond the limitations of everything known to us.
The Tibetan picture shows in the upper
left, a drawing of Avalokitesvara, the
embodiment of compassion as the way and the goal for those who follow the
bodhisattva-path. My picture has the Path of Dhamma of eight lotuses
leading to the wheel of Dhamma. The eight lotuses are the eight factors of
the Noble Path, the first two -- Right View, Right Attitude -- being the
wisdom-section; the next three -- Right Speech, Right Action, Right
Livelihood -- being the morality section; and the last three -- Right
Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Collectedness -- being the section of
collectedness or meditation. The Wheel of Dhamma has at its center
suññata, the Void, another name for the experience of Nibbana. Around its
hub are the ten petals of a lotus, representing the ten perfecting
qualities (parami) which are necessary for complete attainment:
generosity, moral conduct, renunciation, wisdom, determination, energy,
patience, truthfulness, loving-kindness and equanimity. Eight spokes
radiate from the hub which stand for the practice by the Arahant, the one
perfected, of the Eightfold Path when each factor, instead of being just
right, becomes perfect. On the inside of the wheel's nave there are 37
jewels symbolizing the thirty-seven factors of Enlightenment, while the
outer edge of the nave is adorned with four groups of three jewels showing
the Four Noble Truths in each of the three ways wherein they were viewed
by the Exalted Buddha when he discovered Enlightenment.
This picture teaches us and reminds us of
many important features of the Dhamma as it was intended to by the
teachers of old. Contemplating all its features frequently helps to give
us true insight into the nature of Samsara. With its help and our own
practice we come to see Dependent Arising in ourselves. When this has been
done thoroughly all the riches of Dhamma will be available to us, not from
books or discussions, nor from listening to others' explanations...
The Exalted Buddha has said:
"Whoever sees Dependent Arising, he sees
Whoever sees Dhamma, he sees Dependent Arising."
* * *
Anicca vata sankhara
tesam vupasamo sukho.
Conditions truly they are transient
With the nature to arise and cease
Having arisen, then they pass away
Their calming, cessation is happiness.
1. See Wheel No.
34/35: "The Four Noble Truths." [Go back]
2. One of the
eighteen branches of extinct Hinayana. [Go back]
3. the familiar
Pali forms of names are used throughout. [Go back]
4. These have not
been shown in the accompanying drawing and neither does modern Tibetan
tradition represent them. They are, respectively the eastern western,
northern and southern continents of the old Indian geography. [Go
5. In modern
representations a cock is always shown. [Go back]
6. Translation by
Ven. Pasadiko from the opening paragraphs of the Sahasodgata Avadana,
Divyavadana 21, Mithila Edition, page 185 ff. [Go back]
Dasa-kusala-kammapatha. [Go back]
Dasa-puñña-kiriya-vatthu. [Go back]
9. See "Sixty
Songs of Milarepa", Wheel, No. 95/97. [Go back]
10. Not included
in the reproduction given here. [Go back]
11. Not included
in the reproduction given here. [Go back]
12. See the Wheel
No. 17: "Three Cardinal Discourses" p. 7f. [Go back]
The Buddhist Publication Society is
an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha,
which has a vital message for people of all creeds.
Founded in 1958, the BPS has
published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of
topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the
Buddha's discourses, standard reference works, as well as original
contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works
present Buddhism as it truly is -- a dynamic force which has influenced
receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as
it was when it first arose.
A full list of our publications
will be sent free of charge upon request. Write to:
The Hony. Secretary
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
149 Lockwood Road
Barre, MA 01005 USA
The Wheel of Samsara, drawn by Bhikkhu
Tibetan Wheel of Samsara
Top of page