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The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

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by Sangharakshita

... quite different. The Wheel of Life is a mirror. It's a mirror in which we see - what else should we see - ourselves. We could even say that the Wheel of Life is made up not of four concentric circles, but of four mirrors, each mirror bigger than the last. Or we could say that looking, we look into the mirror four times. And each time we look into the mirror we see more and more of ourselves, realise more of ourselves, experience more of ourselves. The Wheel of Life, we may say, is in fact a sort of magic mirror or even a sort of crystal ball into which you can gaze.

So let us look now into that mirror, into that crystal ball. Look into it even not just four times but as many times as may be necessary. And let us have the courage to see ourselves. And the first time we look, look into the mirror, what do we see? We see an animal, we see three animals; we see the cock, we see the snake, we see the pig. There we are, looking into the mirror. And what do we see? We see the cock, the snake, the pig. Of course usually there is an explanation. Usually we are told that these represent greed, aversion and ignorance and that these there mental poisons are present in our own hearts. These is what we are usually taught, huh? This is how the whole thing is usually explained. But this, if I may say so, is letting us off far too lightly. We may say that this sort of explanation represents a kind of defensive rationalisation. It is after all, much more of a shock when we actually look into the mirror and we see not the allegedly human face that we expected but the face of a bird, of a cock, the face of a reptile, a snake, the face of an animal, a pig. That's us. We see just that, in the mirror.

In other words, we have a direct experience of our own animal nature. We're just an animal. Even just a beast.

We see that we're really not always quite so human, so civilised as we had thought. We look in the mirror and we see our own animal nature. And this, this realisation is the beginning of spiritual life. We see ourselves, as it were, as we really are on that as it were lowest level. At rock bottom as it were, we see ourselves as we are; we accept ourselves as we are; we go on from there.

Now what does that mean? What does the going on from there mean? Well, to begin with it means that we take another look in the mirror. We take a second look after we get over the shock of the first, after we have seen the animal face or faces in the mirror. When we've recovered from that shock, when we've seen and accepted what we've seen the first time, we take a second look into the mirror. And what do we see this time? We see two paths. One goes up, the other goes down. It's as simple as that. One white, the other black. We see in other words that we are faced with two alternatives. We can either go up or we can go down. It's as simple as this.

We can either evolve or not evolve. Evolve or regress: the choice is before us. And it's before us we may say every minute of the day. Every situation in which we find ourselves, shall we go up or shall we go down? Shall we ascend? Shall we descend? Follow the white path or follow the black path. It's up to us to decide.

So suppose we decide, after thinking it all over, to go up, to follow the white path, to evolve. So then the question arises, how to evolve? What must we do to evolve? What constitutes the next step? Having made that choice, taken that decision, now the nature of the next step depends on where we are now. So we have to find out where we are now. So we look into the magic mirror for the third time and what do we see this time? We see the World of the Gods, the World of the Titans, the World of the Hungry Ghosts, the World of Tormented Beings, the World of Animals and the World of Men. What does this mean? This means that we see where we are. We see where we are at any given moment or over any given period of time. Sometimes when we look into the mirror we see a happy, smiling or peaceful, cheerful face; we see the face of a God. Sometimes we see an angry aggressive face, the face of an Asura. And sometimes when we look in the mirror we see a famished, hollow-eyed face, with a pinched mouth and dissatisfied expression, the face of a Hungry Ghost. On other occasions we see an unhappy, miserable even tormented face, the face of someone in Hell and again when we look sometimes we see the face with a long snout or whiskers or big sharp teeth or a tail; the face of an animal and sometimes when we look in the mirror we see just an ordinary human face. But whatever we see, at any given time, any given moment, whatever we see in the mirror, we see ourselves.

Now let's go into this a little more. I've spoken of the six segments into which the third circle of the Wheel of Life is divided as six worlds, six realms. We've spoken of them as actual realms of existence into which living beings are re-born as a result of their karma and in which they remain, in which they live, until that karma has been exhausted. And that's quite true, but it's only half the truth. The six segments of the third circle also represent six states of mind, six states of mind which we can experience here and now in the course of the present human existence. And sometimes we experience these states of mind so strongly that for the time being we seem actually to be living in another world, in heaven or in hell or among the hungry ghosts. In other words, we experience them almost as states of being, rather than just as states of mind. So let us look at each of the six worlds in this light. That is to say look at them as states of mind or being rather than as realms of existence.

So first of all the World of the Gods. The World of the Gods represents a sort of happy, pleased state of mind, a state we may say of relaxation, of content, of repose. It's the state in which everything seems to go smoothly, to flow smoothly, a state in which there are no obstacles, no difficulties and no problems. It's also a state of aesthetic experience, of artistic enjoyment. It's even the state of meditation in the more limited sense of the term, meditation as an experience of higher states or stages of consciousness, not directly accessible to the Transcendental. So this is the state represented, the state of mind represented by the World of the Gods.

And then secondly, the World of the Titans. This is the aggressive competitive state of mind. Here there is lots of energy, maybe too much energy which all turns outward. There is restlessness, there's suspicion, there's jealousy. And as we saw earlier on the Asuras are fighting for possession of that wish-fulfilling tree. So this state of mind, the Asuras state of mind is one that strives after higher and ever higher standard of living, increased and yet more increased wages and so on. It's a state we may say of assertive egotism, a state in which one wants always to be better than others, be more distinguished than others, superior to others, a state in which one even wants to control others, exercise power over others, dominate others, domineer over others and so on.

That's the Asuras' state of mind.

And then there is the World of the Hungry Ghosts. This is the state of neurotic desire. So when is desire neurotic? Desire is neurotic when it seeks from its object more than the object by its very nature is able to give or even something quite different from what the object is able to give. Let me take for example the neurotic desire for food. Sometimes people gobble down huge quantities of food, especially sweet things. For they don't really want food at all. Food is a substitute for something else. They're after something else. They want something else, and psychologists tell us that people who consumer unnecessarily large quantities of food for psychological reasons, especially sweet things are really craving, are really wanting affection, not just the food, not really the food at all. And we find that neurotic desire in this sense is very often present in personal relationships, especially personal relationships of the more intimate kind. To such an extent in some cases that it looks like one hungry ghost trying to devour another. So that's the Preta's, the hungry ghost's state of mind.

And then the world of the Tormented Beings. Well, this is the state of acute mental suffering, the state of nervous frustration, of mental breakdown, the state even ultimately of insanity, and it's brought about in various ways. For instance by long continued frustration of natural human impulses. It's brought about by sudden unexpected bereavements, by unconscious mental conflicts and so on, all adding up to intense mental suffering.

This is the state represented by the beings in Hell.

And then fifthly, the world of the Animals. This is the state of purely sensual indulgence, the state in which one is interested in only food, sex and simple material comforts, pleasures and convenience of life. And when these are satisfied one is quite gentle, quite tame as it were, quite harmless, but when they are not satisfied, when they are frustrated, then one becomes rather dangerous, rather like the wild animal, hum? And then lastly, sixthly, the world of men. This is the stage distinctively human consciousness, the state of consciousness which is neither ecstatic nor agonised, neither fiercely competitive nor mindlessly sensual nor yet neurotically desirous, the state in which we're aware of our own self, aware of other people, a state in which we satisfy in a reasonable manner objective human needs, but at the same time see that they have their limitations; a state in which we devote ourselves to spiritual development. This is the truly human state, but it's a state which most 'human beings' only intermittently or perhaps never experience.

And if we wanted to sum up in a rather epigrammatic manner, we could say ...

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