The Wheel of Life

A Modern Version of the Wheel of Life or Samsara

The above image is a modern depiction of the Buddhist Wheel of Life which represents six realms we move through – even during a single day. There’s the Hell Realm of violent passions and hatred. The Hungry Ghosts realm where creatures with enormous bellies and constricted throats ever thirst but what little gets down their throats burns them and is never remotely enough: this is the main realm of our addictions. But all the realms contain the twins of strong desire and equally strong repulsion or hatred. At the centre of the wheel, tied together in perpetual cycling are the rooster of passionate clinging, the snake of passionate repulsion and hatred, and the pig of ignorance of our condition, a condition which traps us in an endless cycle:

Around the centre a light arc of whoesomeness as boy scouts enjoy the outdoors. This is matched by a dark arc which shows an unfortunate slave dragged by a master, as addicts are.

The other realms are the gods realm: here there is a state of purity and rising above the enslaving passions, enlightenment even. But this too will pass. It will prove to be that the individual was strongly attached to their state. In Buddhism, attachment to anything no matter how noble is seen as a great hindrance which must inevitably bring suffering for any joy we experience must surely die as it was born. Ignorance means that we do not live out or knowledge that nothing lasts; instead we cling to objects, people, feelings, beliefs as if they are independent and permanent realities. What we cling to most of all is our sense of self. As if ‘I’ is separate from all existence and has a completely permanent essence. Today modern neuroscience confirms the ancient Buddhist insight that our ‘self’ is an illusion

In the Jealous Gods realm we find ‘people at the top’ – anywhere from sporting stars to academics to music stars. Their godliness is their fame. This realm is full of bitter jealousies, deceit, manipulation, ambition and competitiveness, strong repulsion towards others in the field. It is a precarious realm, maintaining oneself a s a god is soul-sapping. And it, like everything, cannot last. Ozymandias.

The animal realm is where we, usually with others, indugle our animal appetites. Food, sex, aggression. Lust and gluttony, greed and selfish pleasure. The human realm is, according to Buddhism, always unstable and we fall often to lower realms/ But the human realm is the best chance we have of ‘seeing through’ our plight. In Buddhism this is the start of understanding which is a foundation for finding the way out of being stuck on the wheel. The wheel is called Samsara which is connected with illusion: the ultimate dynamic of our suffering is to take illusions as real, then to attach ourselves to these images.

Well, that’s a feeble attempt to condense thousands of years of ideas into a few words. Far better to read the book from which the image at the top of the page was taken. It’s by David Nichtern and is called Awakening from the Daydream which you can find here. I’m not a Buddhist but have always been fascinated by the more philosophical side of Buddhism, and especially its status as a psychology. Nichtern’s book is a delight. Short, succinct and often beautiful, the book contains meditation/contemplation suggestions after discussion of each realm. A bonus is an essay by Chögyam Trungpa in whose lineage is David Nichtern, a former student. Nichtern is a successful musician, producer and composer, a four-times Emmy winner, which I mention to assure the reader that this great book is not written from a Tibetan mountaintop. This shows especially in the avoidance of esoteric vocabulary or requirement of previous knowledge. I’d urge anyone to get the book who wants to understand a little about Buddhism and to learn a lot about our everyday sufferings, their causes and the ways over them.

The modernised version of the Wheel shows its being kept in place by a skeleton, our deepest symbol of Death. We are born, then we have our ups and downs, suffer pains, the slowing down of the body in age then death. Can’t argue with that! Notice that beyond the Wheel is a figure of the Buddha who promises to help beings escape Samsara. The traditional Wheels which date back to the time of Buddha show the Wheel held by Mara who represents something like a devil, something that thwarts escape from suffering.