The wheel of life is a detailed representation of a basic Tibetan belief, i.e., the transmitratory existence. It explains in a most lucid manner the theory of rebirth. The form in which a being is reborn into the universe depends upon his yearnings, prayers, and the amount of merit and demerit (karma) he has stored up in his past life. This suffering of rebirth affects the whole living universe.
The wheel is held in the embrace of shenjhe, who is again represented in the sphere of hell, is a ferocious god with fangs. He is said to symbolize the fearfulness of death and the hideousness of clining to life.
Outside the wheel is a figure of the lord Buddha, who is free from the moral and mental obstructions which can prevent all living beings from achieving enlightenment. His presence outside the wheel implies his escape from the cycle of life.
The wheel of life is divided into three parts: axle, spokes, and rim.
The axle: the noble truth in Buddhist belief holds that “suffering exists”. The purpose of Mahayana Buddhist teachings is to relieve all living beings from suffering. To achieve this end, we must be aware of the three evils which cause our sufferings, ie.e, ignorance, lust and hatred. These three great vices, which rule the universe and the keep it in continuous revolution, are symbolized by pig (ignorance), the cock (lust), and the snake (hatred). By abstaining form these three vices, we may further our progress on the path to nirvana.
The out axle shows the manifestations of a white bright heaven and a dark black hell.
The spoke: the spokes of the wheel divide our universe into six sensual realms: Gods, demigods or titans, human beings, animals yidags or ghosts and hells. Meritorious karma causes beings to take birth in the realms of gods, demi-gods and human. Demeritorious Karma causes rebirth in the lower realms of animals, yidags, and hells. Nevertheless, the beings of the six realms cannot escape the suffering to the universe: in each of the realms, suffering exists. Also, in each realm, the compassion of Lord Buddha is all pervading. This compassion: rising from every direction, helps all being towards the path to enlightenment and release from the suffering of the universe.
1. The realm of the gods: The gods dwell in heavenly bliss. Sweet stains of music are to be heard everywhere, and whenever they wish, they may eat of the tree of life, whose branches instantly yield any food wished for. The gods enjoy bliss for almost incalculable time, but their long life is the source of their sufferings. When a god’s merit is exhausted, he can no longer hear the strains of music, and the power of the wish grant tree is lost to him. His body, no longer bathed by the nectar or the tree, sweats like a mortal’s body and his loathsome person is detested by his companions, he dies miserably.
2. The realm of demi-gods: The demigod leading trait is pride and their realm is reserved for those who, in an earlier life, boated of being more pious than their neighbors. The duration of their life is greater than the human and they have greater luxurious environment. But their sufferings are extreme, for they, in their pride, envy the greater bliss of the gods. They die, fighting vainly for the fruits of the heavenly tree.
3. The realm of human beings: Contrary to popular belief, the region of human beings is the most desirable, for it is only from this life that one may attain enlightenment. Unlike other realms, it is only in the realm of humans, that one may combine reason and faith and earn he privilege to leave the transient life and dwell forever in Nirvana, the end of all Buddhist hope and prayers. Even so, human beings experience four great sufferings: birth illness, old age and death.
4. The realm of animals: the state of the beasts is one of the greater miseries than that of the human beings. Some beings of this realm have to bear the suffering of beings subjected to bondage and slavery. Their great suffering lies in thir inablity to express themselves.
5. The realm of tantalized ghost (yidags): these wrentched beings are condemned to suffer the torment of hunger and thirst. Their mouths are no bigger than a hair and they can never take enough food to fill their huge bellies. Thirst is expressed by flames which issue from the poor yidag’s parched mouth.
6. Hell: The buddhist hell is a true inferno, situated in the bowels of the universe. It is presided over by shenjhe who also holds the entire Buddhist universe in his embrace. It is the world of the lord of death. Shenje is the judge of the dead. The great judgment is determined solely by a being’s own actions. His good deeds (white pebbles), are weighed against his bad (black pebbles), and the huge holds a mirror, which reveals into numerous compartments, each with a special sort of torture devised to suit the sins to be expiated. Eight hot hells are depicted on the left, eight cold hells on the right, and in between are several additioinal hells. In the six realms of the universe depicted on the wheel, Lord Buddha tries to aid the six beings in the elimination of their miseries. The rim: termed the “causal nexus” or the “causes of life and of misery”, the rim symbolically depicts the causes and effects of human life. Life is an eternal cycle of birth, childhood, maturity, old age, death and rebirth, and these stages are represented allegorically.