THE WHEEL OF BIRTH AND DEATH
Rewritten from an article in "Visakha Puja" (251),
the Annual of the Buddhist Association of Thailand.
Wheel Publication No. 147/148/149
First Edition 1970
Copyright 1970, 1995 Buddhist Publication Society
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY Sri Lanka
* * *
DharmaNet Edition 1995
Transcription: Joseph Crea
Proofreading & Formatting: John Bullitt
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951
[NOTE: This text refers heavily to two large drawings depicting
samsara, which are not reproduced in this electronic
transcription. The drawings may be found inside the back cover
of the printed book, available from the BPS. -- DharmaNet ed.]
* * * * * * * *
THIS INDEED HAS BEEN SAID BY THE EXALTED ONE:
Two knowable dhammas should be thoroughly known -- mind and body; two
knowable dhammas should be relinquished -- unknowing and craving for
existence; two knowable dhammas should be realized -- wisdom and
freedom; two knowable dhammas should be developed -- calm and insight.
Eight are the bases of unknowing:
Non-comprehension in dukkha, noncomprehension in dukkha's arising,
non-comprehension in dukkha's cessation, non-comprehension in the
practice-path leading to dukkha's cessation, non-comprehension in the
past, non-comprehension in the future, non-comprehension in past and
future, non-comprehension in Dependent Arising.
Eight are the bases of knowledge:
Comprehension in dukkha, comprehension in dukkha's arising,
comprehension in dukkha's cessation, comprehension in the practice-
path leading to dukkha's cessation, comprehension in the past,
comprehension in the future, comprehension in past and future,
comprehension in Dependent Arising.
Peace it is and Excellence it is, that is to say -- the stilling of
all conditions, the rejection of all substrates (for rebirth), the
destruction of craving, passionlessness, cessation, Nibbana.
O Bhikkhus, there is that sphere where is neither earth nor water
nor fire nor air, nor the sphere of infinite space; nor the sphere of
infinite consciousness, nor the sphere of no-thingness, nor the sphere
of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; not this world, nor another
world, neither the moon nor the sun.
That I say, O bhikkhus, is indeed neither coming nor going nor
staying, nor passing-away and not arising. Unsupported, unmoving,
devoid of object -- that indeed is the end of dukkha.
And this dhamma is profound, hard to see, hard to awaken to,
peaceful, excellent, beyond logic, subtle and to be experienced by the
-- //Translated from the Royal Chanting Book (Suan Mon
Chabub Luang) compiled by H.H., the 9th Sangharaja of
Siam, Sa Pussadevo, and printed at Mahamakut Press,
* * * * * * * *
THE WHEEL OF BIRTH AND DEATH
Upon the Full Moon of the month of Visakha, now more than two thousand
five hundred years ago, the religious wanderer known as Gotama,
formerly Prince Siddhattha and heir to the throne of the Sakiyan
peoples, by his full insight into the Truth called Dhamma which is this
mind and body, became the One Perfectly Enlightened by himself.
His Enlightenment or Awakening, called Sambodhi, abolished in
himself unknowing and craving, destroyed greed, aversion and delusion
in his heart, so that "vision arose, super-knowledge arose, wisdom
arose, discovery arose, light arose -- a total penetration into the
mind and body, its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation
which was at the same time complete understanding of the "world," its
origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation. He penetrated to
the Truth underlying all existence. In meditative concentration
throughout one night, but after years of striving, from being a seeker,
He became "the One-who-Knows, the One-who-Sees."
When He came to explain His great discovery to others, He did so in
various ways suited to the understanding of those who listened and
suited to help relieve the problems with which they were burdened.
He knew with his Great Wisdom exactly what these were even if his
listeners were not aware of them, and out of His Great Compassion
taught Dhamma for those who wished to lay down their burdens. The
burdens which men, indeed all beings, carry round with them are no
different now from the Buddha-time. For then as now men were burdened
with unknowing and craving. They did not know of the Four Noble Truths
nor of Dependent Arising and they craved for fire and poison and were
then as now, consumed by fears. Lord Buddha, One attained to the
Secure has said:
"Profound, Ananda, is this Dependent Arising, and it appears
profound. It is through not understanding, not penetrating this
law that the world resembles a tangled skein of thread, a woven
nest of birds, a thicket of bamboos and reeds, that man does not
escape from (birth in) the lower realms of existence, from the
states of woe and perdition, and suffers from the round of
The not-understanding of Dependent Arising is the root of all
sorrows experienced by all beings. It is also the most important of
the formulations of Lord Buddha's Enlightenment. For a Buddhist it is
therefore most necessary to see into the heart of this for oneself.
This is done not be reading about it nor by becoming expert in
scriptures, nor by speculations upon one's own and others' concepts but
by seeing Dependent Arising in one's own life and by coming to grips
with it through calm and insight in one's "own" mind and body.
"He who sees Dependent Arising, he sees Dhamma."
Let us now see how this Teaching is concerned with our own lives.
The search of every living being is to find happiness, in whatever
state, human or non-human, they find themselves. But what it is really
important to know is this: //the factors which give rise to
unhappiness, so that they can be avoided; and the factors from which
arise happiness, so that they can be cultivated//. This is just
another way of stating the Four Noble Truths. In the first half of
this statement there is //unhappiness// or what is never satisfactory,
called in Pali language, Dukkha.
This Dukkha is the first Noble Truth which we experience //all the
time//, usually without noticing it, which does not make the dukkha any
less! First, there is //occasional dukkha//: birth, old age, disease
and death, for these events usually do not compose the whole of life.
Then we have //frequent dukkha//: being united with what one dislikes,
being separated from what one likes, not getting what one wants, and
this is everyday experience. Finally, as a summary of all kinds of
dukkha there is //continuous dukkha//: the five grasped-at groups,
that is to say body, feeling, perceptions, volitions (and other mental
activity) and consciousness, the components of a human being.
Explanation of these in full would take too long here but all the
readers are provided with these kinds of dukkha in themselves. They
should look to see whether these facts of existence are delightful or
not. This Dhamma "should be thoroughly known" in one's own person and
life, that is where the first Noble Truth may be discovered.
Then //the factors which give rise to unhappiness// were mentioned.
Here again one's person and life should be investigated. Now when
living creature are killed intentionally by me, when I take what is not
given, when I indulge in wrong conduct in sexual relations, when I
speak false words and when I take intoxicating drinks and drugs
producing carelessness -- now are these things factors for happiness or
unhappiness? When I covet the belongings of others, when I allow
ill-will to dwell in my heart, and when I have as the tenants of my
heart ignorance, delusion, and views which lead astray -- is this for
my welfare or destruction? There are many ways of describing these
factors which make for unhappiness but all of them derive from
unknowing and craving which are just two sides of the same thing. This
is the Second Noble Truth of the Arising of Dukkha. When craving is at
work, when unknowing clouds one's understanding, then one is sure to
experience dukkha. Lord Buddha instructs us for our own benefit and for
the happiness of others, that this craving "should be relinquished."
Now //happiness// in the second half of the statement above can be
of many kinds. Two kinds dependent upon conditions can be seen
illustrated by the world, while one kind, unsupported by conditions
"should be realized" in one's own heart. We are all looking for
happiness so let us see what is needed for it. First, there is
materially produced happiness. This is born of possessions and
jugglery with conditions of life "out there." Called //amisa-sukha//
in Pali, this happiness is most uncertain; for all the factors
supporting it are subject to instability and change. Moreover, they
are out in the world and not in one's own heart, so that they call for
expert jugglery to save one from dukkha. And failure and
disappointment cannot be avoided if one goes after this sort of
happiness. So this sort of happiness is short-lived and precarious. A
great improvement on this is the happiness which comes from practicing
Dhamma, called non-material happiness or //niramisa-sukha//. This kind
of happiness is made sure whenever a person performs wholesome kamma,
such as doing the following ten things: giving, moral conduct mind-
development, reverence, helpfulness, dedicating meritorious acts to
others, rejoicing in the meritorious acts of others, hearkening to
Dhamma, teaching Dhamma and setting upright one's views. People who
practice this Dhamma, purifying their hearts in this way, are sure to
reap happiness. But this happiness, though more lasting than the
first, is not to be relied upon forever. As a fruit of it one may
dwell among the gods for aeons, or be born as a very fortunate man but
even the gods have to pass away, let alone man. And the fruits of
kamma, good or evil, are impermanent, so it cannot be relied upon to
produce a permanent happiness. This can only be found by removing
entirely the cause for dukkha: when craving is uprooted no growth of
dukkha can take place. On the contrary, with purity, compassion and
wisdom one has reached the Supreme Happiness of Nibbana which is
stable, indestructible and never subject to changing conditions. This
is the Third Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha by the removal of
its cause. A good deal of hard work is needed to get to this "which
should be realized," and that work must be done along the right lines,
hence the Fourth Noble Truth.
This is called the Truth of the Path, "which should be cultivated."
It comprises elements of wisdom: Right View and Right Attitude;
elements of moral conduct: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right
Livelihood; and elements of meditation: Right Effort, Right
Mindfulness and Right Collectedness. These will not be explained in
detail here. [*] It is certain that any one who practices Moral
Conduct, Collectedness and Wisdom in his life has the conditions which
sustain happiness. From his practice he may have Dhamma-happiness or
the Supreme Happiness, according to the degree he practices, for the
latter requires well- developed meditation both in calm and in insight.
* [See Wheel No. 34/35: "The Four Noble Truths."]
These Four Noble Truths -- Dukkha, Cause, Cessation, and Path --
are the heart of the Dhamma and they are in the heart of every man who
cares to see them. From their seeing and understanding comes happiness
but by trying to escape them only more misery is born.
These Truths are illustrated by the formula of Dependent Arising
which is found elaborated in various ways. The simplest form is:
Craving being, dukkha is; by the arising of craving, dukkha
arises; craving not being, dukkha is not; by the cessation of
craving, dukkha ceases.
But Dependent Arising can be given in much more detailed ways than
this. The important principle to understand is that whatever is
experienced by us, all that arises due to many conditions. An aspect
which grows in size from birth throughout youth, which develops certain
characteristics in maturity, and as old age creeps on becomes infirm in
various ways, and finally dies. The processes which govern this growth
and decline are of great complexity and interdependence. The body, to
keep going at all, needs clothes, food, shelter and medicines at least.
But once the internal chemistry (also dependently originated) starts
the process leading to old age and death, none of the exterior
supporting conditions can do more than retard the process for a little
while. The body, as a whole, does not arise from "no-cause" (the
physical particles and kamma being its immediate causes); nor is it
derived from //one// cause. If examined, nothing which we experience
arises from only one, or no cause at all; on the contrary our
experiences all arises dependently. Sight is actually dependent on the
eye as base, the object to be seen, and the operation of
eye-consciousness. (There are other factors that also contribute:
light, air, ...) Similarly, there is ear, sound, ear-consciousness;
nose, smell, nose-consciousness; tongue, taste, tongue-consciousness;
body, touch, body-consciousness; and mind, thoughts,
mind-consciousness. All of our experience falls within these eighteen
elements and there is nothing which we know outside them.
It is also important to understand that much of what one
experiences arising dependently is the fruit of one's own actions. The
happiness one feels and the dukkha one feels, although sometimes
brought about by events in the physical world (landslides, earthquakes,
a sunny or a rainy day), is very often brought about by one's own past
intentional actions or kamma. And in the present time with each
deliberate action, one performs more kammas which will come to fruit as
experience in the future. So, if one wants to experience the fruits of
happiness, the seeds of happiness must be planted now. They may fruit
immediately, in this life, or in a future existence. We make
ourselves, we are the creators of ourselves, no one else has a hand in
this creation. And the Lord of Creation is no other than Ignorance or
Unknowing. He is the Creator of this Wheel of Samsara, of continued
and infinitely varied forms of dukkha. And this Lord resides in the
hearts of all men who are called "ordinary-men." We shall return to
this in more detail later.
The History of the Wheel
Dependent Arising is explained many times and in many different
connections in the Discourses of Lord Buddha, but He has not compared
it to a wheel. This simile is found in the Visuddhimagga ("The Path of
Purification") and in the other commentarial literature. Although
Theravada tradition has many references to this simile, it does not
seem to have been depicted at all. But in Northern India and
especially in Kashmir, the Sarvastivada school [*] was strongly
established and besides producing a vast literature upon Discipline and
the Further Dhamma (Vinaya and Abhidhamma), they produced also a way of
depicting a great many important Buddhist teachings by this picture of
the Wheel which is the subject of the present essay.
* [One of the eighteen branches of extinct Hinayana].
In Pali it is the //bhava-cakka// or //Samsara-cakka//, which is
variously rendered in English as the Wheel of Life, the Wheel of
Becoming or the Wheel of Rebirth.
In their collections of stories about Lord Buddha and his disciples
(known as //Avadana//), there is one which opens with the story of this
wheel. Readers will observe that the story refers to Lord Buddha's
lifetime and says that He has authorized the painting of this picture,
as well as laying down its contents. It is certain that in the
Buddha-time painting was well known (it is mentioned several times in
the Discourses and the Discipline) while the other facts given in this
short introductory story are quite in accord with the spirit of the
Pali Discourses. Even the collection of stories in which this account
is contained was compiled, according to some scholars, before the
Christian era. So if one does not believe that this painting was
ordained by Lord Buddha, still it has an age of two thousand years, a
venerable tradition indeed. Of all "teaching-aids" this expression of
Buddhist skillful-means (upaya-kosalla), must surely be the oldest. Now
let us turn to the story.
"Lord Buddha was staying at Rajagaha, [*] in the Bamboo Grove, at the
Squirrels' Feeding-place. Now, it was the practice of Venerable
Mahamoggallana to frequent the hells for a certain time, then the
animal-kingdom, also to visit the ghosts, the gods and men. Having
seen all the sufferings to be found in the hells which beings there
experience as they arise and pass away, such as maiming, dismembering
and so forth; having witnessed how animals kill and devour others, how
ghosts are tormented by hunger and thirst, how the gods lose (their
heavenly state), fall (from it), are spoiled and come to their ruin,
and how men crave and come to naught but thwarted desires, -- having
seen all this he returned to Jambudipa (India) and reported this to the
four assemblies. Whatever (venerable one) had a fellow-bhikkhu or a
bhikkhu-pupil leading the holy life with dissatisfaction, he would take
him to Venerable Mahamoggallana (thinking): 'The Venerable
Mahamoggallana will exhort and teach him well'. And (truly) the
Venerable Mahamoggallana would exhort and teach him well. Such
(dissatisfied bhikkhus) would again lead the holy life with keen
interest, even distinguishing themselves with the higher attainments
since they had been taught and exhorted so well by the Venerable
* [the familiar Pali forms of names are used throughout.]
"At that time (when the Lord stayed at Rajagaha), the Venerable
Mahamoggallana was surrounded by the four assemblies consisting of
bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, pious laymen and women.
"Now the illustrious Enlightened Ones who Know, (also) ask
questions. Thus Lord Buddha asked the Venerable Ananda (why the second
of his foremost disciples was surrounded by the four assemblies).
Venerable Ananda then related Venerable Mahamoggallana's experiences
and said that he instructed discontented bhikkhus with success.
"(The Lord replied:) 'The Elder Moggallana or a bhikkhu like him
cannot be at many places (at the same time for teaching people).
Therefore, in the (monastery) gateways a wheel having five sections
should be made.'
"Thus the Lord laid down that a wheel with five sections should be
made (whereupon it was remarked:) 'But the bhikkhus do not know what
sort of wheel should be made'.
"The Lord explained: 'The five bourns should be represented -- the
hellish bourn, that of the animal kingdom, of ghosts, of men, and the
bourn of the gods. In the lower portion (of the wheel), the hells are
to be shown, together, with the animal-kingdom and the realm of the
ghosts, while in the upper portion gods and men should be represented.
The four continents should also be depicted, namely, Pubbavideha,
Aparagoyana, Uttarakuru and Jambudipa. [*] In the middle, greed,
aversion and delusion must be shown, a dove symbolizing greed, [**] a
snake symbolizing aversion, and a hog, delusion. Furthermore, the
Buddhas are to be painted (surrounded by their) halos pointing out
(the way to) Nibbana. Ordinary beings should be shown as by the
contrivance of a water-wheel they sink (to lower states) and rise up
again. The space around the rim should be filled with (scenes
teaching) the twelve links of Dependent Arising in the forward and
reversed order. (The picture of the Wheel) must show clearly that
everything, all the time, is swallowed by impermanence and the
following two verses should be added as an inscription:
Make a start, leave behind (the wandering-on)
firmly concentrate upon the Buddha's Teaching.
As He, Leader like an elephant, did Nalagiri rout,
so should you rout and defeat the hosts of Death.
Whoever in this Dhamma-Vinaya will go his way
ever vigilant and always striving hard,
Can make an end of dukkha here
and leave behind Samsara's wheel of birth and death.
* [These have not been shown in the accompanying drawing and neither
does modern Tibetan tradition represent them. They are,
respectively the eastern western, northern and southern continents
of the old Indian geography.]
** [In modern representations a cock is always shown.]
"Thus, at the instance of the bhikkhus, it was laid down by the
Lord that the Wheel of Wandering-on (in birth and death) with five
sections should be made in the gateways (of monasteries).
"Now brahmins and householders would come and ask: 'Reverend Sir,
what is this painting about?'
"Bhikkhus would reply: 'We also do not know!'
"Thereupon the Lord advised: 'A bhikkhu should be appointed (to
receive) visitors in the gateway and to show them (the mural).'
"Bhikkhus were appointed without due consideration (to be guest-
receiver), foolish, erring, confused persons without merit. (At this,
it was objected:) 'They themselves do not know, so how will they
explain (the Wheel-picture) to visiting brahmins and householders?'
"The Lord said: 'A competent bhikkhu should be appointed.'" [*]
[*] Translation by Ven. Pasadiko from the opening paragraphs of
the Sahasodgata Avadana, Divyavadana 21, Mithila Edition,
page 185 ff.
The Later History of the Tradition
Tibetan legend says that Lord Buddha outlined the Wheel with grains of
rice while walking with bhikkhus in a rice field. However this may be,
in India, at least in all the Sarvastivada monasteries, this painting
will have adorned the gateways, arousing deep emotions in the hearts of
those who knew its meaning, and curiosity in others. It is a measure
of how great was the destruction of the Buddhist religion in India that
not a single example survives anywhere, since no gateways to temples
are known to have survived. A solitary painting in Ajanta cave number
seventeen may perhaps be some form of this wheel.
In the translation above, the pictures for representing the twelve
links of Dependent Arising were not given and it is said that these
were supplied from the scriptures by Nagarjuna, a great Buddhist
Teacher (some of whose verses are quoted below). From India the
pattern of this wheel was taken to Samye, the first Tibetan monastery,
by Bande Yeshe and there it was the Sarvastivada lineage of ordination
which was established. The tradition of painting this wheel thus
passed to Tibet, where, due to climatic conditions, it was painted in
the vestibule of the temple, there to strike the eyes of all who
Tibetan tradition speaks of two kinds of Wheel: the old-style and
the new-style. The old-style is based upon the text translated above,
while the new-style introduces new features. The great reformer, Je
Tsongkhapa (b. 1357 C.E.), founder of the Gelugpa (the Virtuous Ones,
the school of which H.H. the Dalai Lama is the head), gave authority
for the division of the Wheel into six instead of five, and for drawing
the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the guise of a Buddha in each of the
five non-human realms. Both these features may be seen upon the
drawing of the Tibetan-style Wheel. The sixth realm is that of the
titans (asura) who war against the gods of the sensual-sphere heavens.
These troublesome and demonic characters are included in a separate
part of the world of the gods in my drawing. The introduction of a
Buddha-figure into each realm illustrates the universal quality of a
Buddha's great compassion, for Avalokitesvara it the embodiment of
enlightened compassion. The writer has preferred to retain the old-
style representation according to the text as it agrees perfectly with
The terrors and violence of samsara, which are with us all the
time, may be seen plainly in the ravishment of Tibet by the Chinese
invaders. Tibetan artists have kept this tradition alive to the
present day and still paint under difficulties as refugees in India.
But this ancient way of presenting Dhamma deserves to be more widely
known and appreciated. Buddhist shrines could well be equipped with
representations of it in the present day, to remind devotees of the
nature of this whirling wheel of birth and death.
The Symbolism and its Practical Meaning
We now turn to the pictures of the Bhava-cakka accompanying this book.
One is from a Tibetan original after Waddell. The second is a modern
version executed by the author, in which the scenes and figures have
been given a contemporary coloring.
The hub of this painting is the central point for us who live in
the realm of samsara, so it is the best point to start a description of
the symbolism. In this center circle, a cock, a snake and a hog wheel
around, each having in its mouth the tail of the animal in front. These
three, representing Greed, Aversion and Delusion which are the three
roots of all evil, are depicted in the center because they are the root
causes for experience in the wandering on. When they are present in
our hearts then we live afflicted in the transitory world of birth and
death but when they are not there, having been destroyed by wisdom or
panna, developed in Dhamma-practice, then we find rest, the unshakable
peace of Nibbana. It is notable that Tibetan paintings show these
creatures against a blue ground, showing that even these afflictions of
mind, although powerful, have no real substance and are void, as are
all the other elements of our experience.
The cock of fiery yellow-red represents greed (//lobha//). This
greed includes every desire for all kinds of "I wish, I want, I must
have, I will have" and extends from the violent passion for gross
physical form, through attachments to views and ideas, all the way to
the subtle clinging to spiritual pleasures experienced by meditators.
The colour of the cock, a fiery red, is symbolic of the fact that the
passions burn those who indulge in them. Passions and desires are hot
and restless, just like tongues of flame, and never allow the heart to
experience the cool peace of non-attachment. The cock is chosen as a
symbol of greed because as an animal it is observed to be full of lust
In the cock's beak there is the tail of a green snake indicating
that people who are not able to "satisfy" their ocean-like greeds and
lusts tend to become angry. Aversion (//dosa//) of any form springs up
when we do not get what we want, or when we get what we do not want.
This also can be very subtle, from aversion to mental states ranging
through hostile thoughts against other beings, to expressions of inward
resentment finding their way out in untruthful, malicious or angry
words, or as physical violence. The greenness of the snake indicates
the coldness, the lack of sympathy with others, while the snake itself
is an animal killing other beings by poison and strangulation, which is
exactly what aversion does to those who let it grow in their hearts.
Our lives can be corrupted by this venomous beast unless we take very
good care to remove it.
At the bottom of the picture there is a heavy hog, the tail of
which is chewed by aversion's snake, while in turn it champs upon the
tail feathers of greed's cock. This heavy hog is black in colour and
represents delusion (//moha//). This black hog, like its brethren
everywhere, likes to sleep for long, to root for food in filth and
generally to take no care at all over cleanliness. It is a good symbol
for delusion which prevents one from understanding what is advantageous
and what is deleterious to oneself. Its heaviness is that sluggishness
of mind and body which it induces in people, called variously
stupidity, dullness, boredom; but worry and distraction with skeptical
doubt also arise from this delusion-root. One who is overwhelmed by
delusion does not know why he should restrain himself from evil, for he
can see neither his own benefit with wisdom, nor the benefit of others
by compassion -- all is blanketed by delusion. He does not know, or
does not believe that kamma (intentional actions) have results
according to kind. Or he has wrong views which lead him astray from
the highway of Dhamma. When people do not get what they want either
using greed or aversion, then they turn dull and the pain of their
desire is dulled by delusion. From this black hog are born the fiery
cock and the cold green snake.
These three beasts, none more dangerous anywhere, are shown each
biting the tail of the other, meaning that really they are inseparable,
so that one cannot have, say, greed, without the other monsters lurking
in its train. Even characters which are rooted predominantly in one of
these three, have the other two present, while most people called
"normal" have a sort of unhealthy balance of these three in their
hearts, ever ready to influence their actions when a suitable situation
occurs. These three beasts revolve endlessly in the heart of the
ordinary-man (//puthujjana//) and ensure that he experiences plenty of
dukkha. One should know for one- self whether these beasts control
one's own heart, or not.
The First Ring
Out from the innermost circle, the first ring is divided into two (not
shown at all upon the Tibetan version illustrated here), one half with
a white background and the other having a black background. In the
former, four people are seen ascending: the bhikkhu holding a
Dhamma-light goes on in front, being followed by a white-robed nun
(//upasika//), after which come a man and a woman in present day dress.
The four of them represent the Buddhist Community made up of monks,
nuns, laymen and laywomen. They are representative of anyone
practicing the path of good conduct in mind, speech and body. They
represent as well two classes of persons: "going from dark to light"
and "going from light to light." In the first case, they are born in
poor circumstances and have few opportunities due to past evil kamma
but in spite of this, they make every effort to practice Dhamma for
their own good and others' happiness. Thus they go towards the light,
for the fruit of their present kamma will be pleasant and enjoyable.
The latter class, "going from light to light," are those people who
have attained many benefits with plentiful opportunities in their
present life, due to having done much good kamma in the past. In the
present they continue with their upward course devoting themselves to
further practice of Dhamma in their lives.
What is this Dhamma-practice? There are two lists both of ten
factors which could be explained here but the space required would be
too great for more than a summary. The first list is called the ten
Skilled Kamma-paths, [*] three of which pertain to bodily action, four
to speech and three to mental action. "Paths" here means "ways of
action" and "skillful" means "neither for the deterioration of one's
own mind nor for the harm of others." The bodily actions which one
refrains from are: destroying living creatures, taking what is not
given, and wrong conduct in sexual desires. In speech, the four
actions which should be avoided are: false speech, slanderous speech,
harsh speech and foolish chatter. The three actions of mind which
should be avoided are: covetousness, ill-will, and wrong views. Anyone
who restrains himself from these ten, practices a skillful path, a white
path which accords with the first steps of training in Dhamma.
The other ten factors are called the Ten Ways of making Punna [*]
(meaning actions purifying the heart). They have a different range
from the first list of ten, being divided into three basic ways and
seven secondary ones. The basic factors are giving (//dana//), moral
conduct (//sila//), and mind development (//bhavana//), while the
remaining seven are counted as aspects of these three: reverence,
helpfulness, dedicating one's punna to others, rejoicing in other's
punna, listening to Dhamma, teaching Dhamma, and straightening out
one's views. These actions lead to uprightness, skillful conduct and to
the growth in Dhamma of oneself, as well as the benefit of others.
Those who tread upon this white path going toward the light are
able to be born in two bourns: either as men, or as "shining-ones" --
the gods in the three sorts of heavens of sensuality, subtle form, and
formlessness. A life of good practice is thus usually followed by a
life in one of these two bourns, called //sugati// or the good bourns.
But Lord Buddha does not declare that //everyone// who has led such a
life is necessarily born there. This depends not only upon the
intensity of their Dhamma-practice but //also// upon the vision which
arises at the time of death. Through negligence at the last moment,
one can slip into the three evil bourns difficult to get out of. The
round of Samsara is very dangerous, even for those who lead almost
blameless lives. More of this below. To be born in the two good
bourns is the fruiting of punna or skillful kamma and the more purified
one's heart, the higher and more pleasant will be one's environment.
In the dark half of the ring, naked beings are tumbling downwards
in disorder. Their nakedness symbolizes lack of shame in doing evil
and their disorder shows the characteristic of evil to cause
disintegration and confusion. "Downwards" means that they are falling,
by the commission of sub-human actions, to sub-human states of
existence. In some Tibetan versions they are chained together and
pulled downwards by a female demon who squats at the bottom. This
demoness is craving of tanha (a noun of female gender). This craving
is, of course, not outside those who follow the path of evil but in
their own hearts. On this path there are two sorts of persons, those
"going, from light to dark" and those "going from dark to dark." The
former have good opportunities in this life but do not make use of
them, or else use them for evil ends without laying up any further
store. Instead, they prefer from delusion to store up evil now for
fear and distress in future. Those who go from dark to dark do not have
even the advantages of the former group for they are born in conditions
of deprivation due to past evil kamma and then, driven on by the fruit
of suffering received by them, they commit more evil.
The Ten Unskillful Kamma-paths are the ways along which they walk:
destroying living creatures, taking what is not given, wrong conduct in
sexual desires; false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, foolish
chatter; covetousness, ill-will and wrong-views. They do not delight
in making punna but are by nature, mean, immoral, undeveloped in mind,
proud, selfish, grasp at possessions, envious, never listen to Dhamma
and certainly never teach it, while their hearts are ridden with
confused and contradictory views and ideas.
For their pains, having pursued evil, these beings upon their
death, already having destroyed "humanness" in themselves, fall down to
the three lower states which are called the Evil Bourns (//duggati//).
These are, in order of deterioration and increase of suffering: the
hungry ghosts, the animals, and the hell-wraiths. Truly a case of:
do good, good fruit
do bad, bad fruit
as the Thai proverb says. These two half-circles are also an
illustration of the refrain which closes every one of the Avadana
stories: "Thus bhikkhus, completely black kamma bears completely evil
effects; completely white kamma bears completely good effects; and
composite kamma bears composite effects. Therefore, bhikkhus, abstain
from doing completely black kamma and composite kamma; strive to do
kamma completely white. Thus, O bhikkhus, must you train yourselves."
The Five Divisions
The two good bourns and the three evil bourns contain the whole range
of possibilities for rebirth. In most Tibetan illustrations, including
the one shown here, a sixth bourn is given, by dividing the devas and
asuras (the gods and anti-gods or titans). In this section the five,
or six bourns will be described, together with the ways to get to them.
Birth in any bourn is a fruit or effect and here we shall see the
A person who has done evil persistently, or even one heavy crime,
is likely to see at the time of death a vision, either relating to his
past evil actions, or else to the bourn which his past evil actions or
kamma have prepared for him. When his physical body is no longer a
suitable basis to support life, his mind creates a body ghostly and
subtle in substance, which then and there begins to experience one of
the evil bourns. But in case his kamma drives him to be born as
animals, there is the vision of animals copulating and he is dragged
into the womb or egg of those animals.
Kamma which leads to birth as an animal is a strong interest in the
things which mankind shares with the animals, that is, eating, drinking
and sex. If a man strengthens the animal in himself, to become an
"animal-man," he can expect only to be born as an animal. Human beings
interested in only these things, strengthening the Evil Root of
Delusion in their minds, have already the minds of animals. There is no
essential "man-ness" which can prevent such a catastrophe, for no
unchanging human soul exists. If a man wishes to guard himself against
this, he must protect the conditions for humanity (//manussa-dhamma//)
which are the Five Precepts. Sinking below the level of conduct of
these precepts, is to sink into the sub- human levels. Once rebirth as
an animal has taken place it is by no means easy to gain human birth
again, as Venerable Nagarjuna has written:
More difficult is it to rise
from birth as animal to man,
Than for the turtle blind to see
the yoke upon the ocean drift;
Therefore, do you being a man
practice Dhamma and gain its fruits.
-- L.K. 59 ("The Letter of Kindheartedness" by
Acarya Nagarjuna, in "Wisdom Gone Beyond",
Social Service Association Press of Thailand,
Phya Thai Road, Bangkok, Siam.)
Kamma dragging one to the hells, which are the most fearful and
miserable states, are actions involving hatred, killing, torture and
violence generally. People lead themselves to experience hell because
they have made the Evil Root of Aversion very strong within themselves.
On the other hand, those who have strengthened the Evil Root of
Greed while they were men, having been mean, possessive and selfish,
are liable to arise as spirits with strong cravings forever
unsatisfied, for which reason they are known as "hungry" ghosts.
However, it does sometimes happen that one who has led an evil life
turns sincerely to religion upon his deathbed. When this occurs, with
his mind centered upon Dhamma and purified by faith, a person like this
may be reborn among men, even arise among the devas. That evil kamma
which has been done though it may have no chance to fructify in those
good bourns, remains a potential for creating very unpleasant results
whenever conditions are favorable to its fruition. The reverse of
this may happen, as when good and noble men become distracted at death
and so remember some small evil done, or see a vision of evil done in
some past life, the result of which is the arising of unwholesome
consciousness leading to the evil bourns.
It is more usual for one who has followed the path of white deeds
to be born as a man or among the gods. The basis for the former is the
practice of the Five Precepts which constitute the level of humanness.
They are in brief: refraining from destroying living creatures;
refraining from taking what is not given; refraining from wrong
conduct in sexual desires; refraining from false speech, and
refraining from distilled and fermented intoxicants which cause
carelessness. Those who refrain from such things, having really lived
as men, having strengthened the base of humanness in their own hearts,
are born again as men well-endowed with the riches of fine qualities;
of varied opportunities, as well as with a wealth of worldly goods.
The path to the heavens is cultivated by those who make special
efforts to live with purity and self-restraint, exercising
loving-kindness toward all beings and so purifying their minds to some
extent through meditation. At the time of death, having fulfilled the
ten Skillful Kamma paths and the ten Ways of Making Punna, the heart
will be joyful and peaceful to varying degrees, which will result in
the experience of arising in one of the many heavenly levels according
to the degree of purity and concentration which has been attained.
All these possibilities are within the scope of the mind, the
quality of which can be changed in this way or that by kamma, good or
bad. From the type of mind which performs the duty of
relinking-consciousness at birth, is determined the kind of
sense-organs possessed by a being, and hence the kind of world
experienced by him. Perception varies -- as the famous Buddhist verse
As a water-vessel is
variously perceived by beings:
Nectar to celestials,
is for a man plain drinking-water,
While to the hungry ghost it seems
a putrid ooze of pus and blood,
Is for the water serpent-spirits
and the fish a place to live in,
While it is space to gods who dwell
in the sphere of infinite space.
So any object, live or dead,
within the person or without --
Differently is seen by beings
according to their fruits of kamma.
From such verses we catch a glimpse of the mysterious depths of the
mind, and of the truth of the Exalted Buddha's words which open the
Before all dhammas goes the mind;
Mind is the chief, mind-made are they...
To come now to a description of the picture. In the world of //the
gods// or "shining-ones" (deva, upper right, but topmost in the Tibetan
version), the gilded palaces and glittering jewel trees of the gods of
sensuality are shown in the lower part of the drawing. The Tibetan
picture shows more details of these superlatively beautiful worlds in
which there is also a kind of subtle sexual relationship. Being based
upon sensuality, as this world of men is, these devas must also pay the
price for this -- which is conflict. This conflict is an
ever-recurring battle with the asuras, the anti-gods or titans who have
in past times fallen through their quarrelsome nature from the heavens
and who now enviously try to invade the celestial realms. In my
picture, they share a segment of the world of gods and they are
equipped with ancient and modern weapons and are in the dress of
soldiers. But they do not only battle with the gods but also among
themselves and so a bit of insubordination is depicted as well. The
Tibetan picture gives them a world to themselves among the frontiers of
which they are fleeing from the victorious heavenly hosts led upon a
very large elephant by Sakka, the lord of the sensual-realm gods. These
titans only understand force, so the Buddha shown in their world bears
a sword with which to duly impress them, after which they may be able
to hear a little Dhamma. By contrast, the Buddha appearing among the
gods bears a lute, in order to lure them into listening to Dhamma sung
in exquisite strains, for it was believed that they would not be
interested in mere spoken words!
Above the battling of the sensual-realm gods dwell the Brahmas of
subtle form and of formlessness, experiencing meditative happiness,
serene joy, or sublime equanimity. The Tibetan picture also shows a
magnificent Brahma world palace in the upper lefthand corner. About
all this heavenly splendor, Ven. Nagarjuna warns us:
"Great King, although celestial worlds
have pleasures great to be enjoyed,
Greater the pain of dying there.
From often contemplating this
a noble person does not wish
For transient heavenly joys."
-- L.K. 98
He goes on to speak of the devas as those
"Who, dying from celestial realms
with no remaining merit fruits
Must take up their abode
according to the karma past, --
With birth as beast or hungry ghost,
or else arise in hell."
-- L.K. 101
The Brahmas of formlessness dwelling for unthinkable ages in the
realms of infinite space, infinite consciousness, no-thingness, and
neither-perception-nor-non-perception being quite without any form,
naturally cannot be shown, but even their states are not eternal, but
come to an end.
//Among men// (upper left in both pictures), the progress of the
human-being is shown: birth (a perambulator; old-age, sickness
(hospital sign) and death (a bloated corpse in a graveyard), but with
this basis of dukkha, men can also understand Dhamma. Lord Buddha,
foremost among men, sits highest in the human world teaching Dhamma in
a forest grove to his first five disciples. In the original version
which my picture follows, He is shown only in the human world, thus
emphasizing the value of human birth, during which it is possible to
gain insight into Dhamma. The religious aspirations of man are
represented by a Hindu temple, a Christian church and Muslim mosque,
while a war and a bar show his tendencies towards aversion and greed.
The Tibetan picture shows several mundane activities such as ploughing
the fields, while people climb towards the top of the picture where
there is a temple in which they can listen to Dhamma. In the center
stands a Buddha carrying the almsbowl and staff, showing to men the way
of peacefulness leading to Sublime Peace of Nibbana. This is shown in
my picture by the sure Dhamma-path which issues from the mouth of the
Exalted Buddha. Upon this way a bhikkhu lends a hand to help
householders out of the realms of samsara, leading them forward upon
the Eightfold Path. Venerable Nagarjuna has this to say:
"Who though he has been born a man
yet gives himself to evil ways,
More foolish is he than the fool
who fills with vomit, urine, dung
Golden vessels jewel-adorned --
harder man's birth to gain than these."
-- L.K. 60
//Hungry ghosts// or peta (lower right in my picture, lower left in
the Tibetan) crave for food and drink but find that it turns to fire or
foul things when they are able to get it. I have shown a huge moon and
a tiny sun, as the verse says:
"From want of merit, hungry ghosts
in summer find the moon is hot,
in winter sun is cold;
Barren are the trees they see
and mighty rivers running on
dry up whene'er they look at them."
-- L.K. 95
Then there is a sky-going peta being torn to shreds by birds, as
seen by Venerable Moggallana; one "resting" upon rocks under a
leafless tree which is the simile used by the Exalted Buddha in the
suttas to symbolize the sole comforts of this realm, and two ghosts
sunk in the water up to their lower lips, their gaping mouths just a
little too high to get any of it. The state of Tantalus was obviously
birth among the hungry ghosts! The ghosts all have bloated bellies,
extremely slender necks and "needle- mouths." Their sufferings are
illustrated further in the Tibetan. They have to bear intense cravings
for food and drink and then more sufferings when they manage to get a
little of it, for it turns to swords and knives in their bellies. The
Buddha in this "abundantly painful" realm carries celestial food to
allay the ghosts' cravings. In the words of Ven. Nagarjuna:
"Lord Buddha has declared the cause
why beings come to birth as ghosts,
torments to endure
For when as men they gave no gifts,
or giving gave with avarice --
They ghostly kamma made."
-- L.K. 97
//The animals//, in the Tibetan illustration, are being encouraged
in the Dhamma by a Buddha holding a book, illustrating the point that
animals have little ability to understand and are in need of wisdom. My
picture illustrates the sufferings of animal-life as described by Ven.
"Then should you come to birth as beast
many are the pains --
Killing, disease and gory strife
binding, striking too.
Void of peaceful, skillful acts
beasts slay and kill without remorse.
Some among beasts are slain because
they produce pearls, or wool, or bones,
or valued are for meat or hide.
Others are pressed to do men's work
by blows or sticks or iron hook,
by whipping them to work.
-- L.K. 89-90
In the animal-world where feelings experienced are "painful, sharp
and severe," one can see the dukkha, the hunter and the hunted, in my
illustration. The birds of the air are being shot while a vulture is
feeding on its prey. A wasp struggling in the net of a spider
represents the horrors of life among the insects, while among the
larger animals, a buffalo is being forced to work, a deer is being shot
and a lion feeds upon his prey. The fish fare no better and are shown
being devoured by larger fish, or else hooked and netted by men.
Slithering down the division of this world from the hells, there is a
gecko. The Tibetan picture illustrates the diversity of animal life
and shows, under the waters, the palace of the serpent-spirits or naga,
half snake and half man.
The //hells//, which are not permanent states of course, have some
new horrors of our day: for railway lines run into a concentration
camp from the chimneys of which belches sinister black smoke, while a
uniformed member of some secret police force compels a suppliant
hell-wraith to swallow molten metal. Towards the viewer flows the
river of caustic soda called Vaitarani which burns the flesh off the
bones of those swirling along in it, mingled with a stream of blood
from the clashing mountains. Whatever torments hell-wraiths
experience, though their bodies are mangled, crushed and ripped apart,
yet they survive still for vast ages of time experiencing feelings
which are "exclusively painful, sharp and severe," unrelenting and
"As highest is the bliss that comes
from all desires' cessation --
No higher bliss than this!
So worst the woe that's known in hell
Avici with no interval --
No woe is worse than this!"
-- L.K. 85
In the foreground is the hell of filth where hell-wraiths, who as
men had corrupted the innocent, are devoured by gigantic maggots while
floundering in a stinking ooze. To the left are the trees of the
sword- blade forest which have to be climbed so that hell wraiths are
pierced through and through. This particular aspect of hell is said to
be the punishment which adulterers bring on themselves. Various
murderers and torturers are impaled upon stakes while a steel-beaked
bird rips out the entrails of former cock-fighters. Venerable
Nagarjuna has some more verses upon these lower and most-miserable
"The criminal who has to bear
throughout a single day
The piercing of three hundred spears
as punishment for crime,
His pain can nowise be compared
to the least pain found in hell.
The pains of hell may still persist
a hundred crores of years --
Without respite, unbearable
So long the fruits of evil acts
do not exhaust the force --
So long continues life in hell."
-- L.K. 86-87
Jetsun Milarepa, the great sage and poet of Tibet, who had seen the
heavens and hells and other states, once sung this verse:
"Fiends filled with cravings for pleasures
Murder even their parents and teachers,
Rob the Three Gems of their treasures,
Revile and falsely accuse the Precious Ones,
And condemn the Dhamma as untrue:
In the hell of unceasing torment
These evil-doers will be burned..." [*]
* [See "Sixty Songs of Milarepa", Wheel, No. 95/97.]
Those who now violate the peoples of Tibet and their Dhamma might
well take note! This brief survey of the Five Bourns (//pancagati//)
may be concluded with a verse of exhortation from "The Letter of
"If your head or dress caught fire
in haste you would extinguish it,
Do likewise with desire --
which whirls the wheel or wandering-on
And is the root of suffering,
No better thing to do!"
-- L.K. 104
The Rim of the Wheel (Dependent Arising)
//The Twelve-linked Chain//
Our description has now come to the Rim, or felly of the Wheel, which
depicts the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising. It is these links which
chain the entire universe of beings to re-becoming and to suffering.
It is a well-established tradition to explain this chain as
referring to three lives (past, present and future). While the present
is the only time which is real, it has been moulded in the past. It is
in the present that we produce kamma of mind, speech and body, to bear
fruit in the future. In the twelve nidanas or "links" around this
wheel are set out the whole pattern of life and in it all questions
relating to existence are answered. The teaching of Dependent Arising,
central in our Dhamma-Vinaya, is not, however, for speculation but
should be investigated and seen in one's own and others' lives, and
finally it may be perceived in one's own heart where all the Truths of
Dhamma become clear after practice. But people who do not practice
Dhamma are called "upholders of the world"; they let this wheel whirl
them round from unknowing to old-age and death. The Exalted Buddha
urged us not to be "world upholders" but through Dhamma-practice to
relinquish greed, aversion and delusion so that by the cessation of
unknowing there comes to be a cessation of birth, old-age and death.
Now let us have a look at these twelve links in brief.
//First Link//: Unknowing (avijja)
This Pali word "avijja" is a negative term meaning "not knowing
completely" but it does not mean "knowing nothing at all." This kind
of unknowing is very special and not concerned with ordinary ways or
subjects of knowledge, for here what one does not know are the Four
Noble Truths, one does not see them clearly in one's own heart and
one's own life. In past lives, we did not care to see //dukkha// (1),
so we could not destroy //the cause of dukkha// (2) or craving which
has impelled us to seek more and more lives, more and more pleasures.
//The cessation of dukkha// (3) which perhaps could have been seen by
us in past lives, was not realized, so we come to the present existence
inevitably burdened with dukkha. And in the past we can hardly assume
that we set our feet upon the //practice-path leading to the cessation
of dukkha// (4) and we did not even discover Stream-entry. We are now
paying for our own negligence in the past.
And this unknowing is not some kind of first cause in the past, for
it dwells in our hearts now. But due to this unknowing, as we shall
see, we have set in motion this wheel bringing round old age and death
and all other sorts of dukkha. Those past "selves" in previous lives
who are in the stream of my individual continuity did not check their
craving and so could not cut at the root of unknowing. On the contrary
they made kamma, some of the fruits of which in this present life I, as
their causal resultant, am receiving.
The picture helps us to understand this: a blind old woman (avijja
is of feminine gender) with a stick picks her way through a petrified
forest strewn with bones. It is said that the original picture here
should be an old blind she-camel led by a driver, the beast being one
accustomed to long and weary journeys across inhospitable country,
while its driver could be craving. Whichever simile is used, the
beginninglessness and the darkness of unknowing are well suggested. We
are the blind ones who have staggered from the past into the present --
to what sort of future?
Depending on the existence of unknowing in the heart there was
volitional action, kamma or abhisankhara, made in those past lives.
//Second Link//: Volitions (sankhara)
Intentional actions have the latent power within them to bear fruit in
the future -- either in a later part of the life in which they were
performed, in the following life, or in some more distant life, but
their potency is not lost with even the passing of aeons; and whenever
the necessary conditions obtain that past kamma may bear fruit. Now,
in past lives we have made kamma, and due to our ignorance of the Four
Noble Truths we have been "world-upholders" and so making good and evil
kamma we have ensured the continued experience of this world.
Beings like this, obstructed by unknowing in their hearts have been
compared to a potter making pots: he makes successful and beautiful
pottery (skillful kamma) and he is sometimes careless and his pots crack
and break up from various flaws (unskillful kamma). And he gets his
clay fairly well smeared over himself just as purity of heart is
obscured by the mud of kamma. The simile of the potter is particularly
apt because the word //Sankhara// means "forming," "shaping," and
"compounding," and therefore it has often been rendered in English as
Depending on the existence of these volitions produced in past
lives, there arises the consciousness called "relinking" which becomes
the basis of this present life.
//Third Link//: Consciousness (vinnana)
This relinking consciousness may be of different qualities, according
to the kamma upon which it depends. In the case of all those who read
this, the consciousness "leaping" into a new birth at the time of
conception, was a human relinking consciousness arising as a result of
having practiced at least the Five Precepts, the basis of "humanness"
in past lives. One should note that this relinking consciousness is a
resultant, not something which can be controlled by will. If one has
not made kamma suitable for becoming a human being, one cannot will,
when the time of death comes round, "Now I shall become a man again!"
The time for intentional action was when one had the opportunity to
practice Dhamma. Although our relinking- consciousness in this birth
is now behind us, it is now that we can practice Dhamma and make more
sure of a favorable relinking consciousness in future -- that is, if
we wish to go on living in Samsara.
This relinking-consciousness is the third constituent necessary for
conception, for even though it is the mother's period and sperm is
deposited in the womb, if there is no "being" desiring to take rebirth
at that place and time there will be no fertilization of the ovum.
Appropriately, the picture shows a monkey, the consciousness
leaping from one tree, the old life, to another tree. The old tree has
died, while the one towards which it jumps is laden with fruits -- they
may be the fruits of good or evil. The Tibetan picture shows a monkey
devouring fruit, experiencing the fruits of deeds done in the past.
Dependent upon relinking-consciousness there is the arising of
//Fourth Link//: Mind-body (Nama-rupa)
This is not a very accurate translation but gives the general meaning.
There is more included in rupa that is usually thought of as body,
while mind is a compound of feeling, perception, volition and
consciousness. This mind and body is two interactive continuities in
which there is nothing stable. Although in conventional speech we talk
of "my mind" and "my body," implying that there is some sort of owner
lurking in the background, the wise understand that laws govern the
workings of both mental states and physical changes and mind cannot be
ordered to be free of defilements, nor body told that it must not grow
old, become sick and die.
But it is in the mind that a change can be wrought instead of
drifting through life at the mercy of the inherent instability of mind
and body. So in the illustration, mind is doing the work of punting the
boat of psycho-physical states on the river of cravings, while body is
the passive passenger. The Tibetan picture shows a coracle being rowed
over swirling waters with three (? or four) other passengers, who
doubtless represent the other groups or aggregates (khandha).
With the coming into existence of mind-body, there is the arising
of the six sense-spheres.
//Fifth Link//: Six sense-spheres (salayatana)
A house with six windows is the usual symbol for this link (but the
Tibetan shows a house with one (?) window). These six senses are eye,
ear, nose, tongue, touch and mind, and these are the bases for the
reception of the various sorts of information which each can gather in
the presence of the correct conditions. This information falls under
six headings corresponding to the six spheres: sights, sounds, smells,
tastes, tangibles and thoughts. Beyond these six spheres of sense and
their corresponding six objective spheres, we know nothing. All our
experience is limited by the senses and their objects with the mind
counted as the sixth. The five outer senses collect data only in the
present but mind, the sixth, where this information is collected and
processed, ranges through the three times adding memories from the past
and hopes and fears for the future, as well as thoughts of various
kinds relating to the present. It may also add information about the
spheres of existence which are beyond the range of the five outer
senses, such as the various heavens, the ghosts and the hell-states. A
mind developed through collectedness (samadhi) is able to perceive
these worlds and their inhabitants.
The six sense-spheres existing, there is contact.
//Sixth Link//: Contact (phassa)
This means the contact between the six senses and the respective
objects. For instance, when the necessary conditions are all
fulfilled, there being an eye, a sight-object, light and the eye being
functional and the person awake and turned toward the object, there is
likely to be eye-contact, the striking of the object upon the sensitive
eye-base. The same is true for each of the senses and their type of
contact. The traditional symbol for this link shows a man and a woman
Where contact arises, feeling exists.
//Seventh Link//: Feeling (vedana)
When there have been various sorts of contact through the six senses,
feelings arise which are the emotional response to those contacts.
Feelings are of three sorts: pleasant, painful and neither pleasant
nor painful. The first are welcome and are the basis for happiness,
the second are unwelcome and are the basis for dukkha while the third
are the neutral sort of feelings which we experience so often but
But all feelings are unstable and liable to change, for no mental
state can continue in equilibrium. Even moments of the highest
happiness whatever we consider this is, pass away and give place to
different ones. So even happiness which is impermanent based on
pleasant feelings is really dukkha, for how can the true unchanging
happiness be found in the unstable? Thus the picture shows a man with
his eyes pierced by arrows, a strong enough illustration of this.
When feelings arise, cravings are (usually) produced.
//Eighth Link// Craving (tanha)
Up to this point, the succession of events has been determined by past
kamma. Craving, however, leads to the making of new kamma in the
present and it is possible now, and only now, to practice Dhamma. What
is needed here is mindfulness (sati), for without it no Dhamma at all
can be practiced while one will be swept away by the force of past
habits and let craving and unknowing increase themselves within one's
heart. When one does have mindfulness one may and can know "this is
pleasant feeling," "this is unpleasant feeling," "this is neither
pleasant nor unpleasant feeling" -- and such contemplation of feelings
leads one to understand and beware of greed, aversion and delusion,
which are respectively associated with the three feelings. With this
knowledge one can break out of the Wheel of Birth and Death. But
without this Dhamma-practice it is certain that feelings will lead on
to more cravings and whirl one around this wheel full of dukkha. As
Venerable Nagarjuna has said:
"Desires have only surface sweetness,
hardness within and bitterness --
deceptive as the kimpa-fruit.
Thus says the King of Conquerors.
Such links renounce -- they bind the world
Within samsara's prison grid.
If your head or dress caught fire
in haste you would extinguish it,
Do likewise with desire --
Which whirls the wheel of wandering-on
and is the root of suffering.
No better thing to do!"
-- L.K. 23, 104
In Sanskrit, the word trisna (tanha) means thirst, and by extension
implies "thirst for experience." For this reason, craving is shown as
a toper guzzling intoxicants and in my picture I have added three
bottles -- craving for sensual sphere existence and the craving for the
higher heavens of the Brahma-worlds which are either of subtle form, or
Where the kamma of further craving is produced there arises
//Ninth Link//: Grasping (upadana)
This is an intensification and diversification of craving which is
directed to four ends: sensual pleasures, views which lead astray from
Dhamma, external religious rites and vows, and attachment to the view
of soul or self as being permanent. When these become strong in people
they cannot even become interested in Dhamma, for their efforts are
directed away from Dhamma and towards dukkha. The common reaction is to
redouble efforts to find peace and happiness among the objects which
are grasped at. Hence both pictures show a man reaching up to pick
more fruit although his basket is full already.
Where this grasping is found there Becoming is to be seen.
//Tenth Link//: Becoming (bhava)
With hearts boiling with craving and grasping, people ensure for
themselves more and more of various sorts of life, and pile up the fuel
upon the fire of dukkha. The ordinary person, not knowing about
dukkha, wants to stoke up the blaze, but the Buddhist way of doing
things is to let the fires go out for want of fuel by stopping the
process of craving and grasping and thus cutting off Unknowing at its
root. If we want to stay in samsara we must be diligent and see that
our //becoming//, which is happening all the time shaped by our kamma,
is //becoming// in the right direction. This means //becoming// in the
direction of purity and following the white path of Dhamma-practice.
This will contribute to whatever we become, or do not become, at the
end of this life when the pathways to the various realms stand open and
we //become// according to our practice and to our death-consciousness.
Appropriately, //Becoming// is illustrated by a pregnant woman.
In the presence of Becoming there is arising in a new birth.
//Eleventh Link//: Birth (jati)
Birth, as one might expect, is shown as a mother in the process of
childbirth, a painful business and a reminder of how dukkha cannot be
avoided in any life. Whatever the future life is to be, if we are not
able to bring the wheel to a stop in this life, certainly that future
will arise conditioned by the kamma made in this life. But it is no
use thinking that since there are going to be future births, one may as
well put off Dhamma practice until then -- for it is not sure what
those future births will be like. And when they come around, they are
just the present moment as well. So no use waiting! Venerable
Nagarjuna shows that it is better to extricate oneself:
"Where birth takes place, quite naturally
are fear, old age and misery,
disease, desire and death,
As well a mass of other ills.
When birth's no longer brought about
All the links are ever stopped."
-- L.K. 111
Naturally where there is Birth, is also Old-age and Death.
//Twelfth Link//: Old-age and death (jara-marana)
In future one is assured, given enough of Unknowing and Craving, of
lives without end but also of deaths with end. The one appeals to
greed but the other arouses aversion. One without the other is
impossible. But this is the path of heedlessness. The Dhamma-path
leads directly to Deathlessness, the going beyond birth and death,
beyond all dukkha.
The Tibetan picture shows an old man carrying off a bundled-up
corpse upon his back, taking it away to some charnel ground. My
picture has an old man gazing at a coffin enclosing a corpse. We are
well exhorted by the words of Acarya Nagarjuna:
"Do you therefore exert yourself:
At all times try to penetrate
Into the heart of these Four Truths;
For even those who dwell at home,
they will, by understanding them
ford the river of (mental) floods."
-- L.K. 115
This is a very brief outline of the workings of this wheel which we
cling to for our own harm and the hurt of others. We are the makers of
this wheel and the turners of this wheel, but if we wish it and work
for it, we are the ones who can stop this wheel.
Both pictures show the Wheel as being in the grip of a fearful monster.
In my drawing the monster's name is engraved upon his crown so that
people should not think of him as a common demon. He is no such thing,
for his name is Impermanence and his crown shows his authority over all
worlds whatever. He devours them and they are all, heavens and hells
together, securely held in the grasp of his taloned hands. The crown
upon his head is adorned with five skulls, representing the
impermanence of the five groups or aggregates comprising the person.
His eyes, ears, nose, and mouth have flames about them, an illustration
of the Exalted One's Third Discourse in which He says: "The eye is
afire..." and so on. Above the monster's two eyes, there is a third
one meaning that while for the fool impermanence is his enemy, for the
wise man it helps him to Enlightenment. Although the monster has
adorned himself with earrings and the like he fails to look attractive
-- in the same way, this world puts on an outer show of beauty puts its
beauty fades when examined more carefully.
Below the painting of the wheel, some Tibetan examples show parts
of a tiger-skin adorning the monster, a symbol of fearfulness. In my
drawing I show the monster's tail which has no beginning, looping back
and forth. In the same way, we have been born, lived and then died
countless times in the whirl of samsara. Sometimes our deeds were
mostly good and sometimes mostly bad, and we have reaped the fruit of
//Some other features//
The whole wheel glows with heat and is surrounded by flames burning
with the fires of greed, aversion and delusion as the Exalted One has
repeated many times in His Discourses.
In the upper right corner of both pictures stands the Exalted
Buddha shown crossed over to the Further Shore, meaning Nibbana. The
Tibetan picture shows him pointing out the moon upon which is drawn a
hare, the symbol of renunciation, the way to practice Dhamma, and the
way out of this wheel. [*] In my picture, He indicates with his hand
the nature of samsara and warns us to beware. He is adorned with a
radiance about Him symbolizing the spiritual freedom and majestic
wisdom won by Him which can be described in many ways but is finally
beyond the limitations of everything known to us.
* [Not included in the reproduction given here.]
The Tibetan picture shows in the upper left, a drawing of
Avalokitesvara, [*] the embodiment of compassion as the way and the
goal for those who follow the bodhisattva-path. My picture has the
Path of Dhamma of eight lotuses leading to the wheel of Dhamma. The
eight lotuses are the eight factors of the Noble Path, the first two --
Right View, Right Attitude -- being the wisdom-section; the next three
-- Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood -- being the morality
section; and the last three -- Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and
Right Collectedness -- being the section of collectedness or
meditation. The Wheel of Dhamma has at its center sunnata, the Void,
another name for the experience of Nibbana. Around its hub are the ten
petals of a lotus, representing the ten perfecting qualities (parami)
which are necessary for complete attainment: generosity, moral
conduct, renunciation, wisdom, determination, energy, patience,
truthfulness, loving-kindness and equanimity. Eight spokes radiate
from the hub which stand for the practice by the Arahant, the one
perfected, of the Eightfold Path when each factor, instead of being
just right, becomes perfect. On the inside of the wheel's nave there
are 37 jewels symbolizing the thirty-seven factors of Enlightenment,
while the outer edge of the nave is adorned with four groups of three
jewels showing the Four Noble Truths in each of the three ways wherein
they were viewed by the Exalted Buddha when he discovered
* [Not included in the reproduction given here.]
** [See the Wheel No. 17: "Three Cardinal Discourses" p. 7f.]
This picture teaches us and reminds us of many important features of
the Dhamma as it was intended to by the teachers of old. Contemplating
all its features frequently helps to give us true insight into the
nature of Samsara. With its help and our own practice we come to see
Dependent Arising in ourselves. When this has been done thoroughly all
the riches of Dhamma will be available to us, not from books or
discussions, nor from listening to others' explanations...
The Exalted Buddha has said:
"Whoever sees Dependent Arising, he sees Dhamma;
Whoever sees Dhamma, he sees Dependent Arising."
* * * * * * * *
Anicca vata sankhara
tesam vupasamo sukho.
Conditions truly they are transient
With the nature to arise and cease
Having arisen, then they pass away
Their calming, cessation is happiness.
* * * * * * * *
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TITLE OF WORK: The Wheel of Birth and Death (Wheel Publication No.
AUTHOR: Bhikkhu Khantipalo
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