On Saturday in the refuge group, we had a look at the Tibetan Wheel of Life diagram and reflected on some of its meanings. The Wheel of Life diagram is a kind of teaching aid for conveying a range of Buddhist ideas and teachings.

The wheel has several concentric circles. The innermost circle shows symbols for greed, hate and delusion chasing each other around in a circle. The next outer circle has two sections: one where beings are rising and one where they are falling but this is in a circle, so however much you rise, when you reach the top you are going to go down again on the other side. There is a kind of inescapability about this circularity.

So, those two make up, as it were, the hub of the wheel and then there are the spokes; and the spokes divide the rest of the space into six realms. These are

  • the human realm,
  • the animal realm,
  • the realm of hungry ghosts,
  • the realm of hells

and two realms for the gods:

  • one for the pleasurable gods
  • and one for the waring gods.

Of course, you can see this from different perspectives.

You can see from a metaphysical point of view that, when you die you might be reborn into one of these realms. You might be reborn as an animal; you might be reborn as a god; it might be a happy god or it might be a vengeful god. You might be reborn as a hungry ghost, and so on.

You can also see these zones from a psychological point of view: sometimes we do feel like we’re in hell, sometimes we’re like the hungry ghosts, an addict for instance is like a hungry ghost, never satisfied, can’t get enough and if they ever do have a moment of satisfaction it’s very quickly displaced by new craving. Or you might be one of the super-rich and live among the happy gods – or perhaps the waring gods. The waring gods are more like politicians fighting with one another, struggling for position.

So, we can see it like that and we can use these different ideas as a means of reflection, perhaps in our Nei Quan we can reflect upon: “Which zone am I in today? Which zone is dominating my life at the moment? What am I passing through?”

But the important thing in this diagram is that in each of these zones there is a Buddha. The Buddha is in a little bubble encapsulated. So, the beings in the particular zone don’t necessarily see the Buddha. They don’t necessarily turn to the Buddha. The message here is that whatever state you are in, whatever world you are wandering in, there will be a Buddha who will assist you if you will turn towards him. Of course, this requires that you do so, that you actually make that turn. This is the awakening of faith. If you awaken faith, then even though you suffer in the hells, even though you are driven by your instincts in the animal realm, even though you have your compulsive behaviours like a hungry ghost, even though you’re lost in indulging your pleasures, even though you are in the human realm and overwhelmed with neuroses, there will be a Buddha available to you who will help you in the situation and, at the least, this makes the difficulties easier to bear and at best it offers a doorway to complete liberation.

And outside of all this the design shows Yama, the Lord of Time, gobbling up the whole wheel. The Lord of Time is gobbling up our lives. So, there is a certain urgency. We should not wait too long before we take refuge.

This is the meaning of the wheel of life.

Thank you very much.
Namo Amida Bu



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