Teaching Students About the Buddhist Wheel of Life

The wheel of life, also known as The Bhavachakra, is a symbolic representation of the cycle of existence that Buddhists believe in. Buddhists believe in the continuous process of birth, life, and death. They think you can only be liberated from this cycle of rebirth when enlightenment is reached. The wheel is divided into 5 or 6 realms into which a soul can be reborn. The wheel is depicted as being held by a demon, representing impermanence, with the 12 stages of dependent origination around the outside.

The wheel of life can be painted on the walls outside most Tibetan Buddhist temples in Tibet and India. One of the fundamental reasons for painting the Wheel of Life outside Buddhist temples was to teach and spread the Buddhist philosophy of life to poorly-educated farmers and cowherds. These people would find it hard to understand the language and facts about the wheel of life, so this painting was a great visual aid for them.

Facts About the Wheel of Life

Here are some interesting facts about the wheel of life to help you understand the meaning and significance of this vital part of Buddhist beliefs:

  • The figure holding the wheel of life is known as Yama, Lord of the underworld.
  • The purpose of Yama is to protect Buddhism and Buddhist people.
  • Yama represents impermanence and death and holds the wheel of life in his hooves.
  • Duhkha is the Buddhist word for suffering. Buddhists believe that suffering is the true nature of all existence.
  • The Buddha is present in each realm to represent the hope of escape.

The different parts of the wheel of life all have their specific meanings:

  • The images in the center of the wheel represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
  • The second layer of the wheel represents karma.
  • The third layer of the wheel represents the six realms of the cycle of existence.
  • The fourth layer of the wheel represents the twelve links of dependent origination.
  • The demonic figure holding the wheel represents impermanence.
  • The moon depicted above the wheel represents liberation from the cycle of existence.
  • The Buddha pointing to the moon is an indication that liberation is possible.
  • The three inner circles demonstrate that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion bring about both positive and negative actions; the result of these actions is called karma. In turn, karma brings about the six realms, representing the different types of suffering within the existence cycle.

Yama, Lord of the Underworld

As mentioned above, the terrifying, demonic figure depicted holding the wheel of life is called Yama, Lord of the underworld.

Yama, despite his awful appearance, is not an evil figure. On the contrary, Yama is wholly devoted to protecting Buddhism and Buddhists. Buddhist legend states that Yama was once a holy man who believed that he would achieve enlightenment if he medicated in a cave for 50 years. In the 11th month of the 49th year, thieves entered the cave where Yama was meditating. The thieves stole a bull and cut off its head. It came to their attention that Yama had seen them then, so the thieves also cut off his head.

It was not the end of Yama, however, as he put on the bull’s head instead of his own; this is how he came to take on the terrifying form of Yama that we see above the wheel of life. Yama’s next step was to kill the thieves and drink their blood, after which he threatened all Tibet. Yama was on a rampage until Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, manifested as an even more terrifying figure, Yamantaka, and defeated Yama. It was at this point that Yama became a protector of Buddhism.

The Six Realms

Around the inner circle of the wheel of life, the six realms are depicted:

  1. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Hungry ghosts have massive, empty stomachs that they yearn to fill, but their thin necks mean they cannot eat. Food turns to fire and ash in their mouths; this leads to intense hunger and thirst that they are incapable of satisfying and results in an annoying existence. The hungry ghosts have been brought to this realm because of their extreme greed. The Hungry Ghost Realm is usually depicted between the Asura Realm and the Hell Realm

This realm is all about unfulfillable desire. Buddha is depicted with a jar full of nectar to represent the virtue of generosity; this is to show that one must be generous to avoid the fate of hungry ghosts.

  1. The Realm of Hell

The Realm of Hell is associated with severe pain, scorching heat, and intense coldness. Throughout Buddhism, the depictions of hell vary and share many similarities with the hell represented in Christianity. The Realm of Hell is shown as a place of fire and ice. Hell Beings are subjected to pain and torment in the fiery section of the realm. This torment includes being burned slowly over eternal fires as their body parts are cut off, cooked, and eaten by insatiable demons. Elsewhere, in the frozen section of hell, Hell Beings are frozen.

Buddha is also shown in this realm, cleaning the path that leads out of hell to demonstrate that anger and hatred lead the way to hell, and patience leads the way out of it.

  1. The Realm of Animals

Those who have been particularly weak, complacent, and ignorant throughout their lives are sent to the Realm of Animals. While being an animal may sound fine, it is not an easy existence. Those in the Realm of Animals are hunted and eaten by humans or other animals without relief.

A mark of people sent to the Realm of Animals is that they are predictable, incurious, and cling to what is familiar. These people are also regarded as having no sense of humor.

Buddha is also depicted in this realm with his sword, symbolizing the destruction of ignorance and showing the way out of the kingdom.

  1. The Realm of Humans

In the Realm of Humans, people suffer the pain of illness, old age, and death due to their selfishness and passions. While this may not sound appealing, the Realm of Humans is widely regarded as the best of the six realms; this is because, in this realm, humans have access to Buddhist teachings and, therefore, have an opportunity to escape from the wheel of life.

Buddha is depicted in this realm to represent this opportunity for escape.

  1. The Realm of the Gods

The Realm of the Gods is the highest in the wheel of life, which is why it is always depicted at the top. The Realm of Gods represents pleasure and the illusion of eternal happiness. Unfortunately, this ‘illusion’ is what makes this realm so dangerous. Those in this realm live long, happy lives and have no genuine concept of suffering. However, this blissful existence gives way to pride and vanity. Moreover, those in the Realm of the Gods get so comfortable that they have no desire to seek liberation from the wheel. Eventually, their happy lives end and they must face rebirth in another, much less comfortable realm.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the most essential deity in Buddhism, warns against the pride, vanity, and ignorance that can happen in this realm by proclaiming the virtue of meditation.

  1. The Realm of Demi-Gods or The Realm of Asuras

The Realm of the Demi-Gods is inhabited by demigods engaged in a constant, relentless battle with the gods. This battle is over the ownership of the Tree of Desire. The roots of this tree lie on the domain of the demigods, While its leaves, filled with ripe fruits, fall on the side of the gods. Both the gods and the demigods desire full ownership over this tree. It is the jealousy of the demigods that trap them in the wheel of life.

Buddha is also present in this realm to represent the hope that they can one day escape it.

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