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Bhavachakra - The Wheel of Life

By Gaurav Manandhar at
Bhavachakra - The Wheel of Life
Bhavachakra is a symbolic representation of Cyclic Existence. It is believed that Lord Buddha drawn this representation himself in order to help ordinary people so that they could easily understand teachings of Buddha.

Bhavachakra is the popular artistic representations that are found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries. Bhavachakra is also known as the Wheel of Life and is the symbolic representation of Samsara or cyclic existence . The Wheel of Life is one of the most common aspects of Buddhist art . The Wheel of life was believed to be drawn by Lord Buddha himself in order to help and guide the ordinary people about the teachings of Buddha , Karma , Six realms of samsara , and three poisons and so on. The Wheel of Life is also known as The Wheel of Cyclic existence and Wheel of Becoming .

Overview of Bhavachakra

According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the reason of painting the Bhavachakra outside the Tibetan temples and monasteries is to teach simple minded, ordinary people about the philosophy of life , teachings of Buddha . The Bhavachakra consists of many layers and figures. Each layer, figures and diagrams have their own meanings.

  • Bhavachakra - The Wheel of Life

The basic aspects of the Wheel of Life are:

  • The center of the Wheel is called the hub and the figures in the hub represent the three poisons. These three poisons are represented by three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird. In Bhavachakra, the three poisons mean ignorance, attachment, and aversion. In the Wheel of Life, the three animals are grasping each other tails. The pig in the hub represents the poison, ignorance. The pig is represented as the core of ignorance since it sleeps in the dirtiest place and eats everything that comes to its mouth. The snake represents the poison, aversion. The aversion simply means anger and it suits the nature of the snake perfectly since the snake got aroused even if it is touched slightly. The bird in the hub represents the attachment. The poison attachment also means desire or clinging. This particular bird from India is said to be very attached to its partner. These three poisons represent the core of the Bhavachakra. The three poisons influenced the next layer of Karma.
  • The second layer after the core hub of the Wheel of Life represents the two halves of Karma. The first half of the layer shows the people moving to the higher realms whereas the second half of the layer shows the people in the miserable state who are moving to the lower realms. These two halves show the cause and effect of the result of Karma. The people of the first half move to higher realms due to the result of positive and good actions. And the people of the second half move to lower realms due to the result of evil and negative actions. Due to the result of their karma, the people take rebirth in the six realms of samsara which is shown the third layer of Bhavachakra.
  • The third layer after three poisons and two halves of Karma represent the six realms of Samsara or cyclic existence. The six realms are divided into higher realms and lower realms. These six realms of Samsara are taught in the teachings of Buddhist tradition. They are gods, demi-gods, humans, animal, hungry ghost,and hell realm. The first three realms are considered as the higher realms and the last three realms are categorized in the lower realms. The three higher realms are:

God realm: The God realm is also known as Deva realm. According to Buddha teachings, gods live a life of pleasure and they spent their life with meaningless work. They never think to practice Dharma. That is the reason when they die, they get rebirth in the lower realms of Samsara.

Demi-god realm: The Demi-god realm is also known as Ashura realm. Demi-god also lives a life of pleasure as well as an abundance. They spent their life with fighting against God and they suffer from constant fighting.

Human Realm: The Human realm is also known as Manusya realm. Unlike god and demi-god, human lack pleasure, and abundance. They suffer from many things like lack of food, separation from friends, and also suffer from the cycle of life. That’s why human realm is considered as the best realm for practicing Dharma.

The three lower realms are:

Animal realm: The Animal realm is also known as Tiryagyoni realm. Animals suffered from being attacked by dangerous animal and domestic animals suffered from the exploitation of the human.

Hungry Ghost realm: The Hungry Ghost realm is also known as Preta realm. Hungry ghost always suffers from constant hunger and they always look for food and drink.

Hell realm: The Hell realm is also known as the Naraka realm. The hell is considered as the lowest realms among the six realms of Samsara. Hell beings always suffer from unimaginable torment either in the hot hell or cold hell for the eternity of time.

  • The fourth layer of the Bhavachakra represents the twelve links of dependent origination. The twelve links shows how the cause and effect of Karma work in detail. These twelve links are Avidya (lack of knowledge), Samskara (constructive volitional activity), Vijnana (consciousness), Namarupa (name and form), Sadayatana (six senses), Sparsa (contact), Vedana (pain), Trsna (thirst), Upadana (grasping), Bhava (coming to be), Jati (being born), and Jaramarana (old and death).

  • The figure that is holding the wheel of three poisons, karma, realms is known as the Impermanence. The Impermanence is shown in the form of the monster that is depicted as the Yama, the god of death. According to the Dalai Lama, Yama is a fearful and wrathful master who symbolizes the various attributes. They are:

• Yama wears a crown of five skulls that are said to symbolize the five poisons.

• Yama has the third and was believed to see everything in the Wheel of Dharma.

• Yama is depicted as the figure that wears the skin of a tiger

• Yama four limbs represent the four suffering of life: birth, old age, sickness, and death.

  • There is a figure similar to the moon above the wheels of life that represents the liberation from Samsara’s suffering.

  • Above the wheel, there is a figure of Lord Buddha and in the Bhavachakra, Lord Buddha points to the direction of moon or path to end the suffering of Samsara.