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YOUTH IN FOCUS: Lama, for Saga Dawa, could you simply explain the meaning of the ‘Wheel of Life’ painting that we see at lhakhangs? Thanks. SP, Thimphu

Spinning around the wheel of life

YOUTH IN FOCUS: Lama, for Saga Dawa, could you simply explain the meaning of the ‘Wheel of Life’ painting that we see at lhakhangs? Thanks.

SP, Thimphu

Well, at the centre of the wheel is a pig, a cock and a snake that represent the three poisons – ignorance, desire and hatred –  while the largest section of the wheel depicts six realms. These are the god/heaven, demi-god, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell.

When Buddhists refer to hell, it is not some kind of jail located underground where offenders are sent for punishment. Likewise, the god realms are not places above the clouds to where the good and righteous migrate after death. In Buddhism, there is no concept of punishment or reward and there is no divine being deciding who goes to hell or heaven. There is merely the idea of perception and the illusory results of our action based on this perception, which we call karma. This is represented by the beings in the layer of the wheel that surrounds the hub.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s transpose the social structure of a city with that of the six realms: The gods are the tycoons. Residing in top floor penthouses and moving around in limousines with black-tinted windows, they wield immense power yet are invisible to the common man. The demi-gods are also super-rich but are overwhelmed with jealousy and pride. They are the cut-throat businessmen. Even though they live a luxurious life, their constant squabbling and insecurities prevent them from relaxing and enjoying their wealth.

The human realm is the suburbs. The residents are generally comfortable and relaxed, but they are not immune from suffering. At the very least, they will bear the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death.

People whose perception is tainted by aggression or fear experience the world as a hell. They are the mafia dons and drug dealers. Lurking in the shadows, they are vulnerable to be attacked or tortured. Their minds are never at peace.

The hungry-ghosts have insatiable desires and a miserly disposition. Simple pleasures elude them, and they are tormented by greed and attachment. They are the heirs of the covetous merchants with unquenchable craving. Symbolically, these kinds of people are represented by beings with a large stomach and a narrow neck.

Animals are the members of society whose lives oscillate between being attacked and attacking others. They are ignorant and complacent and so unable to use reason to break out of this cycle.

Now, there’s something very interesting about these realms: No state is permanent. That’s how the cycle functions. Remember that the entire realms are created karma that arises from perception. Therefore, a change in perception corresponds to a shift in experience.

The wheel itself is firmly in the clutches of a demon-like figure. Known as Yama, the Lord of Death, he represents time. Drawing us ever closer to old age and death and bringing change, he is a source of insecurity – hence his scary, demonic appearance.

We may wonder about the purpose of our life. Simply put, it is to leave the Wheel of Life, and to achieve this goal we need to abandon the causes that perpetuate the cycle. Basically, we change our perception. This is the main role of the Buddhist path. When we have a wrong perception, we act like the man who seeks water from a mirage and this creates the karma that locks us in the Wheel of Life. How this scenario unfolds is detailed in the outer rim of the wheel.

Again, we may enquire how the paths taught by the Buddha function? Perhaps a hint can be gained from the symbolic meaning of the wheel held by Yama. In reality, it is one large mirror that reflects our existence. From this we understand that to break free of the cycle, we don’t seek help from an external source, but instead look to ourselves.

Ultimately, the purpose of following the Buddhist path is to experience an awakened state that is completely free from ignorance. Using the symbolism of the Wheel of Life, we can say that when this occurs the pig at the centre of the wheel attains liberation and at the same time the snake and cock that also freed. Liberation is represented by the full moon located above the wheel, and the Buddha pointing to the moon signifies the path to liberation.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.


Email to thinleyzangmo24@gmail.com for any queries

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.


Email to thinleyzangmo24@gmail.com for any queries

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