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14 October 2014
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Buddhist Wheel of Life

Buddhist Wheel of Life diagram, a circular diagram showing the different realms of life being held by a frightening demon

Wheel of Life overview
The Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming, is a mandala - a complex picture representing the Buddhist view of the universe. To Buddhists, existence is a cycle of life, death, rebirth and suffering that they seek to escape altogether.

The Wheel is divided into five or six realms, or states, into which a soul can be reborn. It is held by a demon. Around the rim are depicted the twelve stages of dependent origination. This gallery will explain the parts of the diagram.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

Black-skinned monster with flames playing over his eyebrows and licking from his open mouth. He is sinking his fangs into the wheel of the universe. He has three fierce eyes and is wearing a crown of skulls

The frightening figure holding the wheel is Yama, the Lord of Death or Monster of Impermanence. He has three eyes and wears a crown of skulls.

Yama symbolises the impermanence of everything. The beings he holds are trapped in eternal suffering by their ignorance of the nature of the universe. Buddhism teaches that death is not the end and is not to be feared.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

The centrepiece of the wheel diagram. A bird, a snake and a pig are rushing around in a circle, each holding the tail of the next in its mouth.

The Three Fires
In the middle of the Wheel are the three causes of all suffering. These are known as the Three Fires: they are greed, ignorance and hatred, represented by a rooster, a pig and a snake. They are shown linked together, biting each other's tails, reinforcing each other.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

A section of the wheel diagram shows the world of humans.  Many human figures are shown going about their lives

The realm of humans
Buddhists consider being born as a human to be the most fortunate state. Because they are not suffering as heavily as those in the other realms, yet are not in lengthy bliss like the gods, humans have the best chance of enlightenment.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

A section of the wheel diagram shows the realm of the gods.  It looks like a happy and peaceful realm.  At the bottom, some of the gods are holding off angry figures, the Titans, who are aiming their bows and arrows at the gods

The realm of gods (and Titans)
The gods, or devas, live in a state of bliss in the realm of heaven. Later sources subdivide this into 26 levels of increasing happiness. The gods live for a long time, but they too will die. Only enlightenment is a complete release.

At the bottom are the angry gods, called Titans or asuras, who hate the devas. Later sources often show these in a realm of their own.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

A section of the wheel diagram shows the abode of the hungry ghosts.  They are misshapen figures with huge bellies and tiny mouths.  They are suffering

The realm of hungry ghosts
Lingering around the edges of the mortal realm, trapped by their overattachment to the world, the hungry ghosts, or pretas, are in the grip of their unfulfilled desires. This is symbolised by their huge bellies and tiny mouths that can never satisfy their appetites.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

A section of the wheel diagram shows the animal realm.  The animals are not having a pleasant time of it.  They are at the mercy of monsters and being captured and killed by humans

The realm of animals
Animals are used by humans and lack the necessary awareness to become enlightened. Buddhists do not believe it is a good thing to be reborn as an animal, although they believe in treating every living thing with loving kindness.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

A section of the wheel diagram shows hell.  The human figures here are being tortured by demons, burned in fire and frozen in ice

At the bottom is the hell realm. People here are horribly tortured in many creative ways, but not for ever - only until their bad karma is worked off.

(We apologise for the image quality; this mural was damaged at the bottom.)
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

The rim of the wheel contains twelve images collected here. In order, they show: a blind man, a man making pots, a monkey swinging in the trees, a man in a boat, a house with doors and windows, two lovers embracing, a man with an arrow in his eye, two people having a drink, a woman picking fruit, a mother-to-be, a woman giving birth and an old man.

Dependent origination
This teaching of the Buddha's is explained in detail here.

The twelve stages of dependent origination are shown around the rim. They are: 1. Ignorance: a blind man; 2. Willed action: a potter; 3. Conditioned consciousness: a restless monkey; 4. Form and existence: a boat; 5. Senses: windows of a house; 6. Sense-impressions: two lovers; 7. Sensation: an arrow in the eye; 8. Craving: a man drinking; 9. Attachment: clinging to a fruit tree; 10. Becoming: a pregnant woman; 11. Birth; 12. Old age, death
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In the corner of the mural outside the wheel diagram is a picture of Buddha. He sits floating in the lotus position, pointing to the demon holding the wheel

In the top right corner, Buddha is showing the way. He is outside the wheel to show that he has escaped the cycle of life and death. Buddha is pointing to Yama and the wheel to teach his followers the true nature of existence.
Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

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