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The Symbolism of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

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by Sangharakshita

... say that the World of the Gods equals the world of higher aesthetic enjoyment, whether achieved by the fine arts or by meditation.

The world of the Titans represents or equals the world of politics, business and trade unionism. The world of hungry ghosts equals the world of romance or symbiotic personal relationships. The world of tormented beings equals the world of mental illness, and the world of men represents or equals the world of truly normal human beings leading truly human lives. However this is a little in passing. It's time we got back to the main thread of the discussion.

We've looked now into the mirror for the third time. We've seen where we are. We've seen for the moment whether we are a god or a titan or a hungry ghost, a tormented being or an animal or a human being. And when we've seen where we are we know which is the next step that we have to take. And that takes us back to the six Buddhas, that is to say, the six Buddhas appearing in the midst of the six worlds; one Buddha to each world.

And these Buddhas, according to the Tibetan Buddhist teaching, are all manifestatins of the Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Bodhisattva who embodies, as it were, the compassion aspect of the enlightened or the enlightenment experience, the compassion aspexct of Buddhahood itself. Or we may say that the figure of Avalokiteshvara, the one who looks down with compassion, represents absolute love and absolute compassion. Each of these six Buddhas, these six manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, holds, as we saw, some particular object, something needed by the beings of the world in which he appears. Now what each Buddha holds, the particular object that each Buddha holds, indicates the next step to be taken by a person, by a being in a certain state of mind.

Now let's follow this up; let's go into it a little more. As we saw, in the world f the gods there appears a white Buddha and he holds a vena or lute, and he plays the melody of impermanence. Now what does this mean? It means that when we are in the state of aesthetic enjoyment, of higher ascetic enjoyment, the next step for us is to remind ourselves that it doesn't last, to remind ourselves that such enjoyments, such aesthetic enjoyments, however great, is not to be mistaken for the Supreme Bliss of Enlightenment or Nirvana, to remind ourselves that though things seem to be going well now, though we seem to be happy, pleased, contented, joyful, delighted, we still have a long way to go; there still remains a long way to go. We as yet haven't reached Nirvana. And this brings us to the point, the point that is very much insisted on in the general Buddhist tradition and in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the point that prolonged happiness can be spiritually dangerous if not disastrous. If we're happy all the time, contented all the time, things go easily all the time, we have it our own way all the time, there are no problems, no obstacles, if we're in this state of affairs all the time, in this state of mind, what happens; we tend to become self-satisfied, hum, complacent, even careless, even unmindful, and we tend to forget that we are mortal, that life is short, that time is precious. And this applies even to the enjoyment of the experience, the higher aesthetic experience, of meditation itself, meditation in the narrow sense of the term, as well as of the enjoyment of the fine arts. We need to go as it were from the heights, from the pinnacles even of our mundane, in this case aesthetic, experience to the experience of the Transcendental.

And it's interesting incidentally to note that the white Buddha plays the melody of impermanence on a vena, huh? He plays the melody of impermanence, that is to say, he doesn't stand up among the gods, among these sort of people and deliver a lecture on impermanence; he plays a melody on a lute. That melody is itself the melody of impermanence, it communicates the message of impermanence, just that melody. This reminds me of the story of Ashvaghosha (?), the great author of the 'The Awakening of Faith'. He was not only a great philosopher and great spiritual teacher, apparently he was a great musician. He went all over India in mediaeval times, huh? All over India, playing upon a lute, a vena, and Yuan Chan (?) who visited that area, followed in his footsteps as it were a few centuries later and tells us in his memoirs of his sojourn in India that the effect of Ashvagosha's (?) music was such that when people heard him playing upon his vena they at once got a sense of 'It's all impermanent'. They at once got a sense of 'Everything conditioned is unsatisfactory'. They at once got a sense of 'All worldly things are unreal, insubstantial. Nirvana is the only reality. Just by listening to the music, they got that sort of feeling, that sort of impression, that sort of experience. There weren't even any words to the music. It was music without words, if you like, songs without words, huh? But the music, the melody itself condensed that. So it's the same in the case of the white Buddha playing on the vena the melody of impermanence to the gods, waking up those who are in this higher admittedly but somewhat complacent and self-satisfied state of higher aesthetic experience, awakening them up to higher transcendental truths and realities through the medium of the vena, in other words through an artistic medium, in other words not through a philosophical, religious or intellectual medium, but through an artistic medium.

Now in the world of the Asuras there appears a green Buddha, and he brandishes a flaming sword and this is the sword of wisdom, of transcendental wisdom and what does this represent? It means that when we are in this state of competitiveness and aggressiveness, the next step for us is to develop intellectual insight, insight into truth and reality, and this brings us to a very interesting point. It's a point briefly discussed by Dr. Conze in an essay on Hate, Love and Perfect Wisdom. The Asura-like person, the Titan, the anti-god, the enemy of the gods is dominated by Hate. But Hate in Buddhist tradition we are told, hate has an affinity for Wisdom, or even Wisdom has an affinity for Hate. There is a very close connection between the two. If you've got lots of anger and hatred, strange to say in a sense, you're near to Wisdom, you can fairly easily develop Wisdom, Wisdom in the sense of intellectual penetration into truth and reality, as a spiritual experience, not just intellectual knowledge in the ordinary sense. And how is this? But what is the characteristic of hatred, we are asked? The characteristic of hatred is to seek to destroy the hated object. If you really hate something if you really hate someone, what do you want to do? You want to destroy them, you want to finish them off, you want to annihilate them, to smash them to smithereens, huh? To make just one big nothing where they were before.

That's what you want to do. That is the characteristic of hatred, hum? You may not always admit it to yourself, but this is what you'd like to do sometimes to something or somone that you hate. So this is the characteristic of hatred: to destroy, to kill, in the widest sense of the term. And what about wisdom? Transcendental wisdom? The charcteristic or the function of Wisdom, of Transcendental Wisdom, is to destroy, to kill, to annihilate.

To destroy what? Kill what? Annihilate what? Conditioned existence itself. Everything that is unreal or illusion and so on. To break through, to smash through, to reduce to dust, to powder, everything which stands in its way isn't reality, isn't truth, isn't Buddhahood, huh? And this is why, again a bit of symbolism, anticipating another lecture, this is why Transcendental Wisdom is symbolised by the thunderbolt. The thunderbolt is supposed to be the most powerful thing of all, that smashes all obstacles, that destroys all obstacles. So prajna, transcendental wisdom is symbolised by the thunderbolt, huh? We have the Vajracchedika, Prajna Paramita Sutra, that sutra, that discourse on the perfection of wisdom, transcendental wisdom, that cuts like the thunderbolt or the diamond. So therefore to destroy, the characteristic of wisdom, as of hatred is through the characteristic of destruction, of destructiveness, huh? In one case unskilful, the other highly skilful. That we find, this affinity between hatred and wisdom, transcendental wisdom, and we do see in fact very often, that people with bad tempers, people who tend to get rather angry rather easily, people with hot tempers, very often have well developed, not to say highly developed, intellects. I must say quite frankly in passing that I've noticed this among oriental scholars, scholars specialising in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese studies, specialising in Buddhism, all about love and meditation and all that sort of thing, higher spiritual experiences from a scholarly point of view, they've nearly alway been bad-tempered and quarrelsom to a very remarkable degree, especially among themselves. And if I may even say so, a good example of that is Dr. Conze himself who is celebrated not only for his tremendous scholarship, wonderful acumen, intellectual penetration, but also for his rather hot, not to say (dramatic pause) peppery temper. So that if Dr. Conze is giving a lecture you have to be really careful, huh, er, because sometimes he he really does come back, eh, at people, especially if they've asked, he thinks, a foolish question. He doesn't spare you at all, eh? And unlike some other kinder people. So this is just an example. It's as though the energy which is in hatred, the destructive power which is in hatred, the tremendous force which is in hatred, can be diverted into purely intellectual channels, can be used for the discovery and realisation of truth. But incidentally in the little essay that I mentioned, Dr. Conze ...

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