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The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

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von Sangharakshita

... rainbow aprons and in their hands these happy, peaceful, joyful people moving upwards, ever upwards, carry rosaries and prayer wheels and they are telling their beads, reciting mantras on the rosaries and they're whirling the prayer wheels. We call them prayer wheels but the actual term is mani wheel. Om mani padme hum, the Jewel in the Lotus. But what about the black segment of the black half. If we look there we shall se something rather different. There too we shall see human beings but are they really human? We see them plunging headlong downwards as though into a pit, plunging downwards with expressions of fear, horror and terror and they are all naked and they're all chained together. That's the second circle. The third circle is the biggest. The third circle is divided into six segments, more or less equal.

In the first segment, right at the top of the circle we see the World of the Gods; we see heaven, opening before our eyes; we see a world of pleasures, a world of delights; we see the Gods living in beautiful palaces, among beautiful trees, beautiful gardens, living in a place, in a world, where every wish is instantly gratified. As soon as the desire or wish for something floats into your mind however vaguely, however obscurely, there that thing itself is in front of you, in your hands and in your mouth or on your body just as you please, just as you wish.

This is how the Gods live, in heaven.

And then, in the second segment, moving clockwise, we see the World of the Asuras, the anti-gods, the Titans and these are all fierce and war-like beings. They're usually depicted as stoutly and strongly built, well-muscled and not to say heavily built, and they're engaged in perpetual warfare with the Gods and they're fighting especially for the possession of the celestial tree. The Kalpetaru or Kalpebikkshu (?), the magic tree which grants all wishes, which fulfills all desire. So this is the world of the Asuras, the Titans, the Anti-gods.

And in the third segment, carrying on in a clockwise direction we see the world of the Pretas, the World of hungry ghosts and they're all naked and all horribly deformed. They've got enormously swollen bellies, very, very thin necks and mouths no bigger than the eye of a needle and they suffer all the time from ravenous hunger and they grasp all the time at food and at drink and try desperately to cram in into their mouths, their needle-eye mouths, but as they grasp and as they cram, the food and the drink turns into excrement and into liquid fire so that they cannot eat and they cannot drink.

And then in the fourth segment right at the bottom of the circle we see the world of tormented beings, we see Hell and in the middle we see a fiercesome figure sitting enthroned and this is Yama-Raga (?), the King of Death, dark blue in colour, clad in a tiger skin and surrounded by flames and as he sits there he holds in his hand a mirror; this is the mirror of karma and as beings are dragged before him, beings who have just died, he looks into the mirror and there, just as it were standing there, waiting while he looks into the mirror and he sees everything, everything that they've done, everything that they've said or everything that they've thought he sees - he sees it all and he just looks. And if they've done evil, if they've done more evil than good in the course of their preceding life then he orders them to be taken away and punished, tormented. So therefore in this segment, in this world, in hell, purgatory, because it isn't a permanent state, we see guilty people suffering various torments, torments in some cases so terrible that we can hardly bear to think about them, much less still to describe them and the sound of wailing and roaring and gnashing of teeth and lamentation fills the whole place.

And then in the fifth segment we see - the world of animals, wild animals, domesticated animals and they're shown all in pairs, male and female and they're shown living a very peaceful, a very idyllic existence, almost the lion with the lamb, hum? It isn't in fact, at least in Tibetan Buddhist art, a very Darwinian picture here.

There's no nature red in toothe and claw. You don't even see them preying on one another. Perhaps it's intended to show the animal's life from the animal's point of view, because after all the animal doesn't worry what's going to happen tomorrow. The animal lives just for today, peacefully, happily. If he's going to be eaten tomorrow, well, he just doesn't know, he doesn't think about it.

And then, in the sixth and the last segment, we see the world of men. And here there are human beings, buying and selling, reading, talking, meditating on the trees and finally being carried as corpses to the cremation ground.

So these are the six segments; these are the six worlds, but there is one more important feature of this circle.

This whole circle, this third circle, which hasn't yet been mentioned. And that is that in each of the six segments, in each of the six worlds there appears a Buddha, a Buddha figure. Of a particular colour and each Buddha offers to the beings in each of whose world he appears a particular thing that they need.

In the world of the Gods there appears a white Buddha, a pure white Buddha with face and neck and hands just like snow and he is holding a musical instrument, an Indian musical instrument called a vena (?) which we could translate as a lute and he's playing to the Gods in heaven a melody, a sweet melody, a penetrating melody, a meaningful melody. He's playing the melody of impermanence, the melody of nothing lasts, the melody of all is evanescent.

In the world of the Asuras, in the world of the anti-gods, the Titans, there appears a green Buddha, a Buddha of a beautiful emerald green. And he holds in his right hand a sword, a flaming sword, a sword all on fire. And this he brandishes or shakes at the asuras as they're fighting. This is the sword of Transcendental Wisdom.

Then, in the world of the Pretas, the hungry ghosts, there appears a red Buddha, a Buddha of a beautiful ruby red and he showers upon the Pretas, upon the hungry ghosts, food and drink, clouds of food and drink, which they can actually eat, they can actually consume.

Then again, in the world of tormented beings there appears a Buddha the colour of smoke, blueish-grey and he regales the beings in Hell with umbritta (?) which is nectar or ambrosia, the drink or the food of the Gods.

Then in the world of the animals there appears a blue Buddha, a Buddha of deep dark blue, and he's showing something to the animals, something which he holds in his hand. What is he showing to them, displaying to them? He's showing them a book.

And finally there appears, in the human world, a yellow Buddha, a saffron-coloured Buddha or even like a golden Buddha. And he carries, he bears the twin insignia of the spiritual life in ancient India: the begging-bowl and the staff with three rings.

Now what does these six Buddhas, appearing in the six realms, the six gatis (?) represents? They represent the introduction into the symbolism of the Wheel of Life, of a Mahayanistic element, the element we may say of great or absolute compassion, but more about that later on.

Now the fourth and the last circle of the Wheel, the Wheel of Life, contains the greatest number of segments; it contains twelve segments. And in each segment there is a tiny picture, like a little miniature. So in clockwise order from the top these are: 1 a blind man with a stick 2 a potter with a wheel and pots 3 a monkey, climbing a flowering tree 4 a boat with four passengers, one of whom is steering 5 an empty house with six apertures 6 a man and woman embracing 7 a man with an arrow stuck in his eye 8 a woman offering drink to a seated man 9 a man gathering fruit from a tree 10 a pregnant woman 11 a woman in childbirth 12 a man carrying a corpse to the cemetery on his back So these are the four circles of the Wheel of Life, the Tibetan Wheel of Life and we see that the whole Wheel is gripped by a monstrous, as it were, demoniacal figure. The head of this figure peers over the top of the Wheel and its hands and feet which are clawed, firmly grip the sides, and below we see its scaly reptilian tail. The monsters wears however a sort of crown, a crown made up of five human skulls. And these five human skulls represent an introduction into the symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life of a Tantric element, an element of what we may call radical transformation. We shall have something to say on this element in Lecture 5 of the series on the Symbolism of the Cremation Ground and the Celestial Maidens. And outside the Wheel, to the right, above the monster's head, appears the figure of the Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, the human historical Buddha, floating on clouds. And he's pointing, pointing with the finger, pointing to the Spiritual Path, the Path to Enlightenment. And on the left, also above the monster's head, appears the white full moon. And in the full moon appears the figure of a hare. And this is the Wheel of Life, the Tibetan Wheel of Life.

I've described it as it is or was depicted on the walls of temples, monasteries and on painted scrolls all over Tibet and the adjacent especially Himalayan area. What does it mean? What does the Wheel of Life mean? What do all these circles and segments mean? What do all these symbols mean? Even, what do all these illustrations mean? Now I'm not going to say what it means, not going to say what the Wheel of Life means. In any case much of it cannot be explained at all. The symbols at least cannot be explained at all. I'm going to ask you, therefore, to look at the Wheel of Life again. Not only look AT it but look INTO it, because the Wheel of Life is not in fact a picture, not in fact a painting at all. The Wheel of Life is something else, something ...

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