1). The Blind Man (Ignorance)
In the first section we discern a tottering shape, unsteadily groping towards its way. It is an old man bent with his years but not with their wisdom.
His eyes gaze before him vacantly. He thinks he has been this way before, he seems to picture to himself the landscape around him, and he moves forward eagerly. But, alas, never has he been here and the scene he imagines is quite different from reality. Over and over again, he staggers and falls. But each time he drags himself to his feet with renewed hope.
Ignorance is blindness, unable to see yet believing that we know it all. It is lack of insight into the reality of things, lack of enlightenment even. Ignorance however is not just that we cannot see but also that we think we can see. We may be ignorant of the real nature of things but we think we know. If we start to examine what is in our minds, trying to see how we came by what we take to be knowledge, we realize that what we pass of as knowledge is derived from other sources. The views of those around us we absorb by a kind of osmosis - in order to satisfy our desire to belong, and our natural disinclination to utilize our own powers of analysis and observation.
2). The Potter at his Wheel (Volitional Activities)
Next we see a potter turning lumps of clay on his wheel and, with deft hands, shaping vases and bowls, pots and dishes.
How each pot turns out depends upon the potter. His skill and experience, aesthetic sense, and even his mood at the time of creation. When rage inflames him, his pot is hard and awkward in shape and, when he is gripped by craving, his desires determine what shape he will form from the lump of clay before him.
The volitional activities are like the potter, formative forces which shape our own future. They are the sum total of all our willing, whether the intentions manifest themselves in overt action, or remain as desires in our hearts. Indeed it is the accumulated momentum of all our wishes which determines the flow of our lives. A rope is plaited from many tiny hairs. But none of these hairs reaches even a fraction of the full length of the rope. Similarly the direction and tendency of our being is shaped by the countless acts of volition which we make in the course of our daily existence. Indeed every thought has a direction, an inherent momentum which discharges itself upon the world. With every mental image, every longing, every coherent idea, we are radiating a very subtle, but extremely powerful, field of energy which influences our environment.
3). The Monkey in the Tree (Sentience)
A young monkey frisks in a tree, leaping from branch to branch, never still for a moment. It sees, at the top of the tree, a glint of ripe fruit and up it leaps, hands and feet clasping the tree-trunk, his tail curved and waving.
It seizes the fruit, plucks it and takes an enormous bite. Its mouthful still unchewed, another fruit catches its eyes. It dashes off towards the new enticement, disregarding the fruit he has just plucked and swallowing down in a hurry whatever is there in his mouth. Soon, there is a heap of half-chewed fruit.
Our restlessness is an inherent part of our nature. An object loses its charm as soon as we are able to acquire it. Our attention then is diverted towards another. In the process we are unable to enjoy either of them. This is true for activities we perform too. Not having finished the job at hand we flit to another diversion, thus remaining unfulfilled and devoid of any sense of achievement.
4). Men in Boat (Name and Form)
Two men ride in a boat, while a third, more imposing than the other two, rows and steers the boat.
Each individual is made up of a mind and the body. These are represented by each of these two persons. The one steering the boat is the mind body composite which makes up the complete individual that of each of us is, better known as the Psychophysical organism. Without the other, each one is incomplete and insufficient.
5). The House with Empty Windows (The Sense Organs)
A man sits within a house which has five windows and a door. Through these apertures, he watches the world. The windows and the door denote the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body together with the mind). The senses are the 'portals' whereby we gain our impressions of the world.
The worlds to which the physical sense gives us access are the lowest. It is only through the door of the mind that we can have access to higher worlds which are no less real than the physical. The faculty for perceiving them is cultivated through meditation, which is defined as exercise for the mind.
6) A Couple Embracing (Sensuous Impressions)
A man and woman gaze at each other passionately. Their hands entwine and pull each toward the other. Clasping each other close, they strain to press their two bodies into one.
A couple embracing depicts the contact of the sense organs with their objects, wherein lies their ultimate fulfillment.
7). Man with an Arrow in his Eye (Feeling)
A howl of pain shatters the silence and a man falls to his knees, groaning, his hands pressed to his face. At the center of his right eye, embedded deeply in it, is an arrow.
The arrow represents sense data impinging upon the sense organs, in this case, the eye. In a very vivid way, the image suggests the strong feelings which our sensory experience invokes.
Feelings are either painful or pleasant. Pleasure and pain are experienced on a number of different levels ranging from direct physical sensations to the loftiest bliss of liberation. According to Buddhist psychology, the experience of direct pain is confined to a relatively small area of the total possibilities of conscious experience. These unfortunately, more often than not, are the areas in which we habitually dwell.
8). Woman Offering Drink to a Man (Craving)
The next link is illustrated by a seated man being offered a drink by the woman who stands before him. The fact that it is a woman offering a drink to a man may be intended also to bring to the mind the intensity of sexual desire. The man partaking alcohol emphasizes the addictive nature of pleasure.
9). Woman on a Tree Plucking Fruit (Grasping)
This image is a logical development of the previous link, namely that of craving. Craving leads to action to fulfill the desire. The woman who climbs the tree to pluck a fruit represents craving having taken the form of concrete action. Attached to a particular object by our obsessive craving we attempt to grasp it in a futile manner. The fruit is an ancient symbol for earthly desires. A woman going up to the length of climbing a tree to grasp what she perceives as the fulfillment of her desires is metaphor enough for the almost disproportionate efforts we expend in the pursuit of similar temptations.
10). Couple Making Love (Bringing into Existence)
Lost to all but their own urgent desire, a couple melts together in the act of love. Tumbling rapturously to their release, they do not know that a new life has started in the woman's womb. Thus the image for bringing into existence (becoming) is a man and woman performing the sexual act, initiating a new life.
11). Woman in Labor (Birth)
After the process of procreation is the actual episode of giving birth. This is often represented by an explicit image of a woman delivering a child.
This new life is the condition in dependence upon which arises death and decay.
12). A Coffin (Death and Decay)
The final link is frequently portrayed by a coffin being carried towards its ultimate rest.
Whatever is born is bound to experience the attacks of sickness, the waning of physical powers in old age, the pain of separation and loss, and finally death. Once birth has taken place a process has been set in motion which must end in death, for birth and death are but integral parts of the cycle of samsara.
The complete Wheel of Life is gripped tightly in the talons of the Lord of Death, whose horrific face, projecting fangs and the forehead wreathed in the macabre five-skull crown is visible above the diagram.
We are all clutched in the fear of death. But death is not the end. According to Buddhist thought death is the beginning of a new existence. The process of death is evidenced everywhere in the natural rhythms of the earth, sea, and sky. A death occurs each night as the sun sets, each month as the moon wanes, each year as the earth shuts down for the winter, and each time the ocean waters recede with the tide. Thus the concept of death in nature is a promise of hope. With each death there is a resurrection. Nature has the capacity for renewal. The new, renewed state is of course dependent upon our previous karma.
The Buddhist Wheel of Life symbolically represents how all sentient beings, who have not practiced the Dharma and liberated themselves, are bound in a cycle of existences whose very nature is suffering. The symbolism is depicted through a series of pictograms that are meant to act as a powerful mnemonic device for both the serious practitioner and the layman. The Old Masters prescribe that one should think about this diagram and focus on it day and night so as to never forget its meaning. According to Shri Dharmakirti "One should intently and seriously contemplate the meaning of this wheel. If possible, one should put up a pictorial representation of it, if necessary in solitary retreat, until its significance sinks in. Once this happens, the wish to be free of this mindless suffering is spontaneous and constant. An apt comparison would be with a sick man, who while suffering from a chronic painful ailment, discovers after a thorough medical examination that the reason for his illness is some regular component of his diet. Such a person would immediately try to remedy the defect."
References and Further Reading
- Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Oxford, 2000.
- Chopra, Deepak. The Seven Spiritual laws of Success: New Delhi, 2000.
- Dharmakirti, Shri. Mahayana Tantra (An Introduction): New Delhi, 2002.
- Hamani, Laziz, and Claude B. Levenson. Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism: Paris, 1996.
- Innes, Brian. Death and the Afterlife: London, 1999.
- Subhuti, Dharmachari. The Buddhist Vision (An Introduction to the Theory and Practice): London, 1992.
- Shrestha, Romio. Celestial Gallery: New York, 2000.
- Thurman, Robert A.F. (Trans.) The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Liberation Through Understanding in Between): New York, 2000.
- Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.