Bhavacakra: Buddhist Wheel of Life (Part 1)

Translated as “The Wheel of Life” or “The Wheel of Becoming,” the Bhavacakra is a symbolic representation of cyclical existence (samsara) as understood by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Commonly painted outside monastery walls, it is believed the Buddha himself designed the Bhavacakra as a means to transmit his (often difficult) teachings.

In short, the Bhavacakra depicts life and its sufferings and was taught, in part, as a means of describing and detailing the cycle of existence and the process of birth into various forms of existence. As seen in the diagram below, there are six realms of existence. As one can see, the human realm is but one realm. Thanks to karma, so the teaching goes, we may be reborn into any one of such realms.


But at another level of reading, the reading from which this and future posts on the Bhavacakra will proceed, these six realms of existence apply to our daily lives. In other words, we can find ourselves in any number of these realms throughout our days. The Bhavacakra, then, is a map, “an attempt to account for a person’s world experience in terms of the drama of personal choice and consequence” (Robinson and Johnson 20).

However, more than just mapping experience, the Bhavacakra details the experience of suffering–the various forms of suffering–and the beauty of the map is that as much as each realm depicts various experiences of suffering, it also provides the means through which said suffering can be transformed. It is, then, a teaching designed to liberate one from suffering.

From the center, indicated above as the “Three Root Delusions” (also known as the “Three Poisons”), the Wheel of Life radiates outward through the six realms. The outer rim depicts the 12 Links of Dependent Origination, or co-dependent arising (pratitya-samutpada), which, while outside the scope of this post, concerns the Buddha’s teaching regarding the how phenomenon come into existence.

All of this is contained within the jaws of Yama, Lord of Death, Lord of the Wheel. Life, in other words, is in the maw of death–and the beings “trapped” inside the Wheel of Life will constantly make the round of rebirth. This, of course, is problematic, for this world, the world of birth, is characterized, in part, by suffering. So as long as one is reborn, one will suffer.

There is hope, however, in the form of the Buddha and the Moon outside the Wheel of Life, free from Yama. As the diagram above shows, the moon symbolizes liberation (from suffering and rebirth) and the Buddha pointing to the moon is indicative of the possibility of breaking the cycle of rebirth.

Proceeding from the reading of the Wheel of Life as a map of our experience, in the upcoming days (or weeks) I will dedicate a post to each of the six realms, discussing the nature of the suffering and the teaching regarding how one can be liberated from said suffering. I have found such useful in my own life and in teaching my students the Wheel of Life, I have come to learn many have also found it as a means to understand their own experience and suffering in a new, insightful, and meaningful way. Thus, I hope that you too, dear reader, find the Wheel of Life illuminating as well.

In beginning this venture, I will begin by discussing the innermost and outermost layers of the wheel: the Three Poisons at the hub and Yama in whose mouth the round of life is stuck.

The “monster of Time or Impermanence” (Robinson and Johnson 21), Yama is Lord of the Underworld, Lord of Death. Impermanence (anicca) is one of the Buddha’s “Three Characteristics of Existence.” Simply stated, nothing in existence remains permanent. Things change. All things are transient. As such, all life within the six realm of existence, as trapped in Yama’s jaws, is impermanent. Thanks in large part to the ignorance of the impermanent nature of phenomenon, we human beings tend to cling to things, we form attachments. We want things to remain the same. But because phenomenon are impermanent by nature, such “hope” is futile and as long as we continue to cling to that which we are attached, we will suffer. If anything, the Buddha’s teachings were geared toward living a life without suffering. The good thing about impermanence, of course, is that our suffering is impermanent too.

But why? Why do we suffer? We are we born? A Buddhist response to the question lies at the center of the Wheel of Life: the Three Poisons, or Root Delusions, depicted in the Bhavacakra as a pig, snake, and rooster chasing one another, feeding off one another.

Three poisonsIt is thanks to karma, taught the Buddha, that one is reborn into the cycle of existence. The pig, snake, and rooster sit at the center of the Wheel of Life because as long as we come into existence, the three poisons embodied in the animals operate (as well as the karma stemming from them) operate in our lives. “What are these poisons?” you might ask.

The pig embodies moha, variously translated as confusion, ignorance, delusion.

The rooster symbolizes raga, or attachment, passion, greed.

The snake–dvesha: aversion, or hatred.

When reading the Wheel of Life as depicting the different forms of existence one may be reborn into, the three poisons “are the propelling forces…in which karmic retribution determine where on the wheel each individual will be born” (Robinson and Johnson 21).

But what about when we are looking at the Wheel of Life from the second perspective, the perspective that says each one of these realms depicts our own experience–our suffering in particular, that we can find ourselves in any one of these realms at any given time through the day?

Again, we find very much the same answer: that suffering has at its root these three poisons, so that when we suffer, greed, hatred, and delusion (and their karmic consequences) are at “work.” Whether we are aware of it or not, the Wheel’s teaching tells us to ask ourselves: How are greed, hatred, and delusion at work in my suffering? Or, whether we like it or not, we may need to ask ourselves: How am I being greedy, hateful, or ignorant?

These Three Poisons are the “negative tendencies within the defiled minds of sentient beings, the obstacles to enlightenment” (Corless 166). The pig (delusion, confusion, ignorance) is, according to Roger J. Corless, the root poison and thanks to confusion, “defiled,” or unenlightened mind, “tries to get certain things and avoid others” (167).

This “trying to get things” is symbolized by the rooster. We want certain things and form attachment to them because we think “a certain thing, person, or place must be had to make us happy” (167). Why? Again, because we are deluded, confused–such is why the pig is the root. The confusion about the “thing we want” leads us into falsely thinking it can give us what we want–in this case, happiness. Attachment, as discussed above, will lead then to more suffering.

The snake is opposite the rooster in that the snake, “regarded as full of hate an anger” (167) says to us a “certain thing, person, or place must be avoided” (167).

Various Buddhist teachers developed methods by which to defeat these defilements. Roger J. Corless relates the method devised by Buddhaghosa (4th/5th century CE) and because the series of posts on the Bhavacakra stem from notion that understanding it can help us understand our own lives and ourselves, a brief exploration of Buddhaghosa’s model can be instructive.

Buddhaghosa  classified people into six personalities: three unwholesome, and three wholesome, each related to the three poisons.

Sensuous Type: Characterized by the rooster (attachment/desire/greed).

Aggressive Type: Characterized by the snake (aversion/hatred).

Muddled Type: Characterized by the pig (confusion/ignorance/delusion).

Indirectly related to these three “unwholesome” types are the “wholesome types”: trusting, intellectual, and discursive, respectively.

The Buddha taught we are all afflicted by each of the three poisons, but one tends to be dominant over the others. The dominant, according to Buddhaghosa, “can by the manner in which a person performs ordinary activities such as walking, eating, and sleeping” (168):

Sensuous/Trusting Types “walk carefully and correctly, eats slowly and with relish, goes to bed methodically, sleeps curled up and in general is precise and neat, seeking out pleasant things and over looking faults. An aggressive or intellectual (critical) type, on the other hand, stomps around, eats quickly and disinterestedly, throws himself into bed, sleeps prone and in general is aggressive, avoiding unpleasant things and overlooking virtues. A muddled or discursive type walks in a vague sort of way, tripping over his feet, eats sloppily, getting food all over the place, gets into bed uncertainly, sleeps supine, and is generally uncoordinated” (168).

Personality typologies, of course, abound and each definition of any given number of personality types depends on varying criteria. The criteria in Buddhaghosa’s typology is, in general, how we carry ourselves normally throughout our days. I view the personality type theories I have come across as various means through which I can view myself. I hold no one superior to the other as defining exactly “who” I am, but am open to the various insights they do provide.

In this case (and within the context of thinking about the Bhavacakra), Buddhaghosa’s typology is instructive in that it can provide a means to explore which of the three poisons may be dominant in my life and, as such, may provide a clue to the primary mode of affliction that tends to dominate my experiences of suffering.

Thus, to end this post (and in thinking forward to future posts on specific realms of existence), if the Wheel of Life teaches us about our experience, the nature of our suffering, it is important to consider which of the three poisons tends to dominate, for as much as the Wheel teaches about the nature of suffering, it also teaches how we can be liberated.




3 thoughts on “Bhavacakra: Buddhist Wheel of Life (Part 1)

  1. In Bhavachakra, Wheel of Life, the main cause of the entire rebirths in six realms, cause of all karma, are ignorance, attachment, and aversion. As you have mentioned, these three causes are also known as the three poisons and are represented by pig, snake, and a bird.


Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s