Bhavachakra, the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life

Since time immemorial, human beings have sought answers that give meaning and structure to the experience of life, to their existential dilemmas and to the mysteries of death. Ancient spiritual and philosophical traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have provided numerous symbols and concepts that offer insights and guidance on these universal themes. One such symbol, which has endured through the centuries, is the Bhavachakra, commonly known as the “Wheel of Life“.

At first glance, the Bhavachakra may appear to be a kaleidoscope of images and figures, each with its own meaning. However, at its core, this mandala communicates a fundamental idea: suffering is an inherent part of human existence. From everyday stresses to the deepest anxieties, we all face challenges and tribulations that often cause us to question the purpose and meaning of our lives.

But Bhavachakra does not stop at merely depicting suffering; it also offers us a light of hope. It suggests that, despite the challenges we face, there is the possibility of transcending this suffering. How? Through spiritual practice. The wheel points out that by cultivating wisdom, understanding and compassion, we can rise above our difficulties and find a sense of peace and purpose.

In this article we will discover the spiritual teachings hidden in the wheel of life.

Spiritual Meaning of the Wheel of Life

El Bhavachakra también se conoce como la rueda de la vida en el budismo tibetano.

There is nothing random in the symbolism of the wheel of life. Each element in it has a meaning and a profound teaching of Buddha. The wheel is an interconnected whole but we can divide it into several distinct sections, which we will describe in detail below:

The Central Axis: The Three Poisons of the Mind

At the center of the wheel is one of the most important lessons, the origin of suffering. It is here that we find the very essence of samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, symbolized by the figure of three animals: a rooster, a snake and a pig. These represent the‘three poisons‘ or the‘three roots of evil‘, which are the main causes of our suffering and our continuous reincarnation in this cycle.

The Rooster: Passion or Desire

The rooster symbolizes desire, greed or passion. In the Buddhist context, this refers not only to sexual or romantic desire, but to any form of clinging to or desiring something that we believe will bring us satisfaction or pleasure. Whether it is wealth, power, recognition or any other form of gratification, desire keeps us trapped in a perpetual state of “wanting”. There is always something more to want, something new to achieve, creating an endless cycle of pursuit and, often, dissatisfaction.

This incessant wanting not only causes suffering in itself, by not getting what you want or losing what you have, but also leads to actions that accumulate negative karma. The rooster, with its wings spread, ready to fly toward what it desires, is a constant reminder of our own tendency to run after mirages of happiness.

The Serpent: Aversion or Hatred

As powerful as desire is aversion, and this is represented in the Bhavacakra by the serpent. The snake, with its slithery nature and its ability to strike with venom, symbolizes hatred, aversion or hostility. Like desire, aversion can manifest in many ways, from mild irritation to deep resentment or anger.

Aversion is the rejection of or resistance to that which is unpleasant or undesirable. As with craving, we are caught in a cycle: we avoid pain, suffering or any experience we consider negative. However, in doing so, we often create more suffering for ourselves and others. Aversion, in its extreme forms, can lead to hatred, violence and division.

The Pig: Ignorance or Confusion

Perhaps the most insidious poison of all is ignorance, represented by the pig. Unlike passion and aversion, which are clear reactions to external stimuli, ignorance is more subtle. It refers to the lack of understanding or recognition of the real nature of things. In Buddhism, the true nature of reality is seen as impermanent, interdependent and without a fixed or inherent self. Ignorance is the inability or refusal to recognize these truths.

The pig, often considered a slow and clumsy animal in many cultures, symbolizes this lack of clarity and understanding. It is the root of the other two poisons: it is because of our fundamental ignorance that we are driven by desire and aversion.

Second Layer: The Law of Cause and Effect, Karma

After the center, which presents the three roots of suffering, we come to the second layer which illustrates the cyclical nature of karma and how our actions, whether positive or negative, push us through the cycle of samsara.

The Ascending and Descending Path

This layer is often divided into two paths: an ascending path representing positive actions and a descending path showing negative actions. These paths indicate that the actions we perform have consequences: virtuous actions lead us to higher states of existence, while non-virtuous actions drag us down to lower states.

  • The Ascending Path: Here, we see figures ascending toward the top of the wheel. These figures represent beings who perform virtuous actions. They are moved by compassion, love, patience and other virtues. Actions performed with good intentions and purity of heart create positive karma, leading to favorable rebirths and higher states of consciousness.
  • The Descending Path: Contrary to the ascending path, this one shows figures falling toward the lower realms. These figures are representations of those who have indulged in negative actions, driven by the three poisons: desire, aversion and ignorance. Theft, cheating, violence and other harmful acts generate negative karma, leading to unfavorable rebirths and suffering.

The Cycle of Actions

The cycle of actions is not static. Like a constantly turning wheel, our actions, whether positive or negative, propel us forward on our path through samsara. However, this cycle also suggests the possibility of change. Although our past actions have influenced our present situation, our present actions determine our future path. Thus, even if we have accumulated negative karma in the past, through virtuous actions in the present we can redirect our path.

The Interdependence of Actions and Results

This layer of Bhavachakra highlights the fundamental principle of interdependence in Buddhism. Every action, word or thought has a result. This principle is reflected in the law of karma: virtuous actions generate positive results, and non-virtuous actions bring negative consequences. It is a law of cause and effect that operates on a moral and spiritual level.

The second layer of the wheel serves as a daily reminder that we are not passive beings in the universe, but are deeply intertwined in a web of cause and effect. Every decision, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has implications.

Reflections for the Practitioner

For the Buddhist practitioner, this layer of the wheel of life is a call to awareness and ethical responsibility. By understanding the direct connection between actions and results, the practitioner is encouraged to adopt a path of virtue and understanding. To meditate on this layer is to internalize the urgency of virtuous practice and to develop a greater awareness of one’s actions.

In addition, the importance of the present is emphasized at this level. Although one may have made mistakes in the past, there is always room for repentance, correction and transformation. The present is where the future is forged, and by recognizing this, the practitioner can strive to act with wisdom and compassion in each moment.

Third Layer: The Six Realms of Existence

One of the most striking elements of the wheel of life is the representation of the six realms of existence. These realms are not to be understood as physical places, but rather as states of existence or consciousness that beings may experience due to their accumulated karma. Each realm offers its own lessons and challenges, and they all reflect different aspects of the human experience.

Realm of the Gods (Deva)

At the top of the wheel we find the realm of the gods. These beings live lives of extreme pleasure, beauty and bliss. They have supernatural powers and abilities and enjoy a luxurious and pleasurable existence. However, even this realm has its problems. The main trap here is complacency. Because of their easy life, gods often forget impermanence and do not practice dharma. When their positive karma runs out, they may reincarnate in lower realms, facing the loss of their privileges.

Realm of the Semi-Gods (Asura)

Asuras are powerful beings, often described as jealous or envious of the gods. Although they possess wealth and power, they are constantly in conflict, fighting each other or the gods for more power and territory. This realm reflects the human condition of competition, envy and the constant desire for more, regardless of how much one already has.

Human Realm

The human realm is considered special in Buddhism because it is believed to offer the best conditions for dharma practice and the attainment of enlightenment. Although humans face suffering, they also have the capacity to understand the dharma and work to free themselves from the cycle of samsara. Human lives are filled with a balance of joy and suffering, allowing for reflection, learning and spiritual growth.

Animal Kingdom

Beings in the animal kingdom are driven primarily by basic instincts: to seek food, reproduce and avoid danger. Although they can experience joy and pain, their ability to understand the dharma or reflect on existence is limited. This realm reflects human tendencies toward impulsive behavior or lack of awareness.

Realm of the Hungry Spirits (Preta)

Preta are beings tormented by unquenchable hunger and thirst. They are often depicted with huge stomachs and tiny mouths, symbolizing their inability to satisfy their desires. This realm reflects the human condition of addiction, constant desire and perpetual dissatisfaction, where needs never really feel satisfied.

Hell Realm

In Buddhism, hell is not a place of eternal punishment dictated by a supreme being, but rather a state of existence created by negative karma. Beings in this realm experience extreme torment and suffering. However, like the other realms, the stay here is temporary and determined by karma. Once the negative karma has been exhausted, the being can reincarnate in a different realm. This realm symbolizes the consequences of hatred, anger and violence.

Implications and Reflections

When studying the six realms, it is crucial to remember that they are not to be taken literally, but rather symbolically. Rather than physical places, the realms represent states of mind or experiences that all beings, including humans, may face at different times in life or even in a single day.

For example, when we are driven by anger or revenge, we can say that we are experiencing a state of mind similar to that of the hell realm. When we are consumed by insatiable desire, such as addiction, we are in a state similar to that of hungry spirits. Thus, these realms offer a lens through which we can examine our own lives and behaviors.

The central teaching of the six realms is that our experience is shaped by our karma and our actions. Each realm, with its challenges and lessons, reminds us of the impermanence and interconnectedness of all things. Furthermore, it shows us that liberation from the cycle of samsara and enlightenment are not found in external conditions, but in our own mind and actions.

For the Buddhist practitioner, the six realms are a map detailing the possible outcomes of karma and emphasizing the urgency of practicing the dharma. They are a constant reminder of the importance of understanding, compassion and virtuous action in daily life. By reflecting on these realms, we can develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and the human condition, and strive to live in a way that reflects our highest aspiration: liberation from suffering and realization of true nature.

The Outer Ring: The Twelve Nidanas

The outer ring of the Bhavachakra contains the Twelve Nidanas. These Nidanas, or links, describe how ignorance conditions life, perpetuating the cycle of samsara.

  • 1.Ignorance (Avidya): The first Nidana is represented by a blind man guiding himself with a staff. It symbolizes spiritual darkness, lack of understanding and true knowledge. It is the root of suffering, as it prevents us from seeing the true nature of reality.
  • 2.Karmic Formations (Samskara): Represented by a potter modeling pots, this Nidana refers to the volitional actions, whether good or bad, that we perform under the veil of ignorance. These actions create impressions in the mind, sowing the seeds for future reincarnations and experiences.
  • 3. Consciousness (Vijnana): Illustrated by a monkey jumping from one branch to another, consciousness is the ability to experience or be aware of something. It is the basic principle of life, the spark that moves from one life to another during the process of reincarnation.
  • 4. Name and Form (Namarupa): Represented by two men in a boat, this link describes the emergence of the individual entity, which has physical (form) and mental (name) characteristics. It is, in essence, the personal identity we assume in each rebirth.
  • 5. Six Entrances (Shadayatana): Illustrated by a house with six windows, it refers to the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and the mind. They are the doors through which we experience the outside world.
  • 6. Contact (Sparsha): Represented by a man and a woman touching each other, this link refers to the interaction between the sensory organs and their corresponding objects, resulting in perceptual experiences.
  • 7. Sensation (Vedana): Represented by a man wounded by an arrow in his eye, it symbolizes the immediate response to a perception, which may be one of pleasure, pain or neutrality.
  • 8. Desire (Trishna): Illustrated by a person drinking alcohol, it represents the longing or desire that arises from sensations. It is that insatiable desire to want more pleasure or to want to avoid pain.
  • 9. Attachment (Upadana): Represented by a monkey picking a fruit, attachment is the intensification of desire. It is not only wanting something, but also clinging to it, a clinging that binds the being to the cycle of samsara.
  • 10. Existence or Being (Bhava): Represented by a woman and a man having relations, it symbolizes the accumulation of conditions for a new rebirth. It is the formation of a new life within samsara due to accumulated karma.
  • 11. Birth (Jati): Illustrated by a woman giving birth, this link refers to the emergence of a new life. It is the beginning of a new existence within the cycle.
  • 12. Aging and Death (Jaramarana): Represented by a person carrying a corpse, this link reminds us of the inevitability of aging and death in every existence.

The Interconnection of the Twelve Nidanas

Understanding the Twelve Nidanas is essential to charting a path to liberation from samsara. By recognizing the causal chain of events, one can work to break the cycle at its source. For example, by developing a deeper understanding (through meditation and study) of the true nature of reality, one can begin to eradicate ignorance.

The emphasis on interdependence is fundamental to Buddhism, and the Twelve Nidanas offer a tangible representation of this concept. The existence of each stage depends on the previous one, and in turn, influences the next. This interconnectedness shows that our actions and perceptions have consequences, not only in this life, but also in future lives.

The teaching of the Twelve Nidanas is a call for introspection and understanding. By realizing how our own actions, influenced by ignorance, generate suffering and perpetuate samsara, we are motivated to seek liberation. Enlightenment, or nirvana, is attained by breaking this cycle, which is usually achieved by eradicating the root of everything: ignorance.

Yama: The Lord of Death who sustains the Wheel of Life

Yama, in many traditions, is considered the god or lord of death. Originating in the ancient Vedic traditions of India, he was adopted in Buddhism, Jainism and other Asian religions. In Hinduism, for example, Yama is the god of death and also the lord of justice, in charge of maintaining moral order and judging the dead. In Jainism, he is a deity representing death and rebirth. Although interpretations vary, the constant is its association with death and impermanence.

In the visual representation of Bhavachakra, Yama is the monstrous figure holding the wheel in his hands and jaws. His fierce and menacing appearance is a graphic reminder of the inevitability of death and the transitory nature of life.

Its eyes, often shown wide and piercing, watch over everything, reminding us that no creature can escape the inevitability of death. His fangs and wheel-gripping claws evoke the inescapable power of death, which holds all living beings in the cycle of samsara.

Although at first glance Yama may appear to be a symbol of fear or despair, he is actually a spiritual teacher. His presence teaches us about impermanence, one of the three hallmarks of the dharma in Buddhism. Everything in life is ephemeral and constantly changing, and death is a final and definitive manifestation of this impermanence.

This understanding can lead to two responses. The first is a kind of nihilism, a sense that nothing matters since everything ends. But the Buddhist perspective promotes a second response: given the transitory nature of life, one should live with intention, compassion and wisdom, seeking to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth and help others to do the same.

The Lord of Death is not there to discourage us, but to motivate us. Yama’s presence impels practitioners to take their spiritual endeavors seriously. Meditation on death is a common practice in Buddhism, designed not to induce fear, but to cultivate appreciation of life and motivate spiritual practice.

Human life, in particular, is considered precious and rare in Buddhism. Although it is impermanent and will eventually end in death, it offers unique opportunities for spiritual growth and liberation. The figure of Yama reminds us not to waste this opportunity.

Yama is traditionally depicted with five skulls, which carry deep and symbolic meanings in the context of bhavachakra.

The five skulls of the god Yama are generally interpreted as symbols representing the five mental poisons, which are fundamental obstructions on the path to enlightenment. These five poisons are:

  • Ignorance: This is the root of all other poisons. It represents the lack of understanding of the true nature of things, the non-understanding of impermanence, suffering and the absence of an inherent self. Ignorance leads to confusion and misperception of reality, and is the fundamental reason why beings remain trapped in samsara.
  • Desire or Attachment: Refers to craving and clinging to sensual pleasures, people, ideas or things. This unbridled desire is the cause of suffering, since nothing in samsara is permanent. Clinging to something that is inherently ephemeral inevitably leads to pain and suffering.
  • Aversion or Anger: This is the rejection of or resistance to what we do not like or what we perceive as a threat. Aversion can manifest as hatred, anger, resentment or envy. As with desire, aversion is based on a misperception of reality and keeps beings chained to the cycle of samsara.
  • Pride: Represents an inflated view of oneself, often comparing oneself to others. Pride is born of ignorance, as it fails to recognize the interconnectedness between all beings and the lack of an inherent self. Proud people tend to belittle others and overvalue themselves, leading to conflict and suffering.
  • Envy or Jealousy: Refers to the desire to possess what others have and resentment towards those who have what one wants. This mental poison leads to suffering, as it creates divisions and conflicts between beings.

The skulls on Yama’s crown are a constant reminder of these poisons and their power to keep beings bound to the cycle of rebirth and suffering. However, it is not simply a representation of this entrapment; it also shows the path to liberation. By understanding and transforming these five poisons into their corresponding wisdom, one can break the cycle of samsara and attain enlightenment.

The five skulls of Yama are didactic tools, intended to help practitioners understand the nature of their existence and find the path to liberation. By meditating on these symbols, one can generate a deep understanding of the obstacles one faces on the spiritual path and how to overcome them.

The Moon: Spiritual Enlightenment

One of the elements that may go unnoticed at first glance, but has profound significance, is the image of the moon. In the context of Bhavachakra, the moon is much more than just a sphere in the night sky; it is a powerful reminder of the possibility of enlightenment and liberation.

In many traditional depictions of the Wheel of Life, we can find the image of the moon at the top of the picture, out of Yama’s reach and clearly separated from the turbulence and suffering depicted within the wheel.

The moon, with its calming and constant luminosity, has traditionally been associated with enlightenment in various spiritual traditions. Its light cuts through darkness, just as enlightenment cuts through ignorance. In Bhavachakra, the moon serves as a visual reminder of the possibility of attaining a state of understanding and clarity, free from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

Buddha pointing

In many Bhavachakra depictions, it is also common to see a figure of the Buddha pointing away from the wheel or pointing to the moon, which has profound significance.

The Buddha, being outside the wheel, symbolizes liberation from the cycle of samsara. His presence represents enlightenment and transcendence from the sufferings and bondage of the phenomenal world. He is an embodiment of Nirvana, the state of total liberation from suffering and the cessation of rebirth.

The fact that the Buddha is pointing out of the wheel is highly symbolic. It indicates that, even though beings are trapped in the cycle of samsara due to their actions and attachments, there is a path to liberation. This is the essence of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. The direction that the Buddha points to is an invitation to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to enlightenment that he himself walked and taught.

In many Buddhist traditions, human life is considered especially precious because it offers the optimal conditions for receiving the Dharma and practicing it. Unlike other realms, such as that of the gods, where complacency due to pleasure can be an obstacle, or the hells, where suffering is so intense that it is difficult to practice, the human realm offers both suffering and the potential to recognize and overcome it.

Having been born as a human prince, the Buddha experienced both the worldly pleasures and sufferings inherent in existence. After an intense period of seeking and practice, he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and dedicated the rest of his life to teaching the path to liberation.

The Buddha figure serves as a constant reminder that, although samsara is powerful and can seem overwhelming, it is not eternal or unchanging. With effort, diligence and the correct application of the teachings, it is possible to break the chains of rebirth and attain a state of peace and liberation.

It is also a proof of the potential inherent in every being to attain enlightenment. Just as Siddhartha Gautama, being an ordinary human being, was able to overcome the bondage of samsara and become a Buddha, all beings have that spark of potential within them. The Dharma is the tool, and the Buddha is both the guide and the example.

Connecting with the image of the Buddha can be a source of inspiration and refuge for practitioners. It is a visual and tangible reminder that liberation is possible, that there is a clear path laid out for those who seek to transcend the suffering of samsara, and that at the heart of every being is the potential to become a Buddha.

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