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The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 103: The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

What does one mean by the Tantric Path or one may ask what is the Tantra? People no doubt have all sorts of ideas, all sorts of understandings, even no doubt, all sorts of misunderstandings on this particular point, on this particular subject of the Tantra, and, this evening I don't want to attempt any formal definition. I hope to be able to communicate something, as it were, of the inner feeling of the Tantra or the feeling that is conveyed or that should be conveyed or suggested by this word 'Tantra'. But at this point, at this stage one thing I will say, and it is this: the Tantra represents that aspect of Buddhism that is concerned not with theories, much less still with speculations, not with formal religiosity, not with external piety, but concerned with the direct experience, in the depths of one's being, as it were, of what one truly and essentially is. Not 'is' just psychologically but IS. One might say existentially, metaphysically, transcendentally, and this experience, insofar as the Tantric Path is concerned, cannot be mediated by concepts. Concepts can give no idea of it whatsoever, cannot indicate it in any way, cannot lead one to it in any way. But this experience, this direct experience, above, and beyond words, above and beyond thought, above and beyond the conscious mind, even the conscious personality, can be evoked, can almost be conjured up, releasing some partial glimpse, some distant reflection with the help of symbols, symbols of various kinds. The form and colour symbols, for instance which we shall call images in the widest sense of the term. The sound symbols, which we call mantras. And the enacted or acted out symbols, which we call rituals. In fact one may say that the whole Tantric path to Enlightenment is simply strewn with symbols. You as it were stumble over symbols at every step, and it is even of symbols, we may say that the Tantric path largely consists. But what is a symbol? Many people are preoccupied with that question too. What do we mean by a symbol? What do we mean by symbolism? These are very current terms, but ones which are often not very deeply understood. But here again I am not going to attempt any formal definition of what a symbol is. The nature of a symbol itself precludes the possibility of any such attempt. So in the course of the lectures, I shall allow as it were, the symbols to speak for themselves. All I shall be doing is, with the cooperation of everybody present, to try just to evoke the symbols, to conjure up the symbols, so that you can see them, as it were, so that you can experience them even for yourselves. But at this point I am going to say at least one thing, and that is: a symbol is not a sign. A symbol, any symbol does not stand for something that can or that could be known in any other way other than through the symbol. The symbol stands, we may say, for something which cannot be known in any other way. That's why you have the symbol. It's only through the symbol that you can get at or get to, or have any feeling for or of that which the symbol represents, but also which the symbol, in a sense is. The symbol therefore stands in a sense for something of which we are not yet conscious, something which we do not yet know, but for something of which we can become conscious, which we can know in a spiritual sense. Not something of which we can only become conscious, but something which we can realise, which we can realise with the help of the symbol. So symbols therefore, and especially, we may say, the symbols of the Tantric Path to Enlightenment, symbols, as it were, are not dead, inert counters; symbols, we may say, are full of energy, produce life, give birth to life, spiritual life in us. In a word, symbols are, by their very nature, creative. And this is why, for the next eight weeks, we shall be concerned with, we shall be exploring, even experiencing not just the symbols but the creative symbols, symbols of the Tantric Path to Enlightenment and we shall be concerned with them moreover not just as creative in the abstract, creative in the past, or creative in Tibet and India; we shall be concerned with them as creative for us, not as of just historical interest but as acting on us, energising us, even sparking off developments in our own spiritual life here and now, developments which will lead us in the direction, ultimately, of Enlightenment itself.# Now tonight we're dealing with one of the best-known symbols or sets of symbols in the whole field of Buddhism, something in a way very familiar. We're dealing with the symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life.

And we're starting the series with the symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life for two quite definite reasons.

In the first place the symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life is only partly Tantric. It is only partly Tantric, as we shall see in a minute. Secondly the Wheel of Life itself is only partly symbolica.. Now what do we mean by this? What do we mean by these two points? I've said that the Tantra represents that aspect of Buddhism which is concerned not with theories and speculations, not with formal religiosity but with direct experience of what one truly and essentially IS. One could also say that the Tantra represents the stage in the historical development of Buddhism in India which is concerned more with direct experience. Beginning about a century after the death of the Buddha; after what we call the Buddha's Parinirvana, Indian Buddhism as a whole, that is to say the total tradition of Indian Buddhism, passed through in the course of some fifteen hundred years, three great stages or great phases of development. First of all, lasting for roughly five hundred years, the phase or stage of development, which we call the Hinayana. Secondly the stage or phase of development, again lasting five hundred years, which we call the Mahayana. Thirdly and lastly the stage or phase, lasting another five hundred years, called the Vajrayana. Now the Vajrayana of course is the same thing as the Tantric Path. Now the first stage, the stage of the Hinayana, emphasised these aspects of the Buddhist tradition; ethical observance and psychological analysis. What was emphasised in the second stage, that is the Mahayana, was devotion, devotion to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and what we would call metaphysics, though it isn't quite the same thing as our metaphysics. And in the third stage, that of the Vajrayana, what was emphasised was the use of symbols, ritual and meditation. Now I have dealt with all this in some detail on other occasions so I'll say no more than this for the present. At present we're concerned wtih just one point here and that is that these three stages; Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana are successive, successive in time, but not successive in the sense that a later stage entirely replaces an earlier one. The later stage we find, preserves in essentials, all the features of the preceding stage or stages in its own higher synthesis. Thus we find in the course of the development of Buddhism in India that the Mahayana incorporates all the essentials of the Hinayana and that the Vajrayana stage, the Tantric stage, incorporates the essentials not only of the Hinayana but also of the Mahayana, and this process of unfoldment, if you like, applies to doctrines, to practices and also to symbols. The symbol of the Wheel of Life is not exclusively Tantric. We find it in the Hinayana traditions and Scriptures. We find it in the Mahayana traditions and Scriptures too. But it was included with all the other symbols that carried over as it were from the Hinayana and the Mahayana in the Tantric synthesis and imbued with the distinctively Tantric spirit. For this reason, we speak of the symbolism of the Wheel of Life or of the Wheel of Life itself as being only partly Tantric. Again the Wheel of Life is only partly symbolical. The Wheel of Life, as many of you probably know, is a very complex, a very composite structure, as it were, and some parts of this structure are true symbols, some are only illustrative. That is, they represent in pictorial form teachings which we already know from other sources. But tonight I intend to dwell more on the symbolical than on the illustrative elements of the Tibetan Wheel of Life.

Now I'm not going to say very much by way of explanation, trying to tell you what the symbols mean, but I've very probably going to elaborate and amplify even, even extend some aspects of the symbolism itself. So, let us begin with a description. Let's try to see the Tibetan Wheel of Life. In the first place it's a wheel, is it not? A wheel consisting of four concentric circles, that is to say, four circles of different sizes, one inside the other.

And the first, the innermost circle represents the hub of the wheel. And in the hub of the wheel we see three animals. We see a cock; we see a snake, rather venemous-looking, and we see a pig, usually a black pig. And these three animals, the cock, the snake and the pig are arranged head to tail in a sort of triangle, a sort of triangular relationship if you like, and each animal is biting the tail of the animal in front. So this is the first circle, the hub, with the three animals.

The second circle, outside the first one, is divided into two equal halves, two equal segments. One segment is white. The other segment is black. And in the white segment we see various human beings and these human beings are moving upwards as though on a celestial esalator and they're moving upwards with very happy, very peaceful even very joyful expressions on their faces and we see that they're decently clad. In the Tibetan illustrations of cousre we see that both the men and the women wear long garments called chubas which reach from their throat right down to the ankles and long sleeves and the women of course wear multi-coloured aprons, sometimes called ...

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