The creature who turns the wheel of life and holds it in his clutches is Yama, The Lord of Death. Yama symbolizes the inevitability of death, samsara and the impermanence of all things. This does not lead to hopelessness, though, because outside of the wheel stands the Buddha, who points the way to liberation (symbolized by the moon).
The inner circle of the wheel contains symbols of the three root delusions: hatred (snake), ignorance (rooster), and greed (pig).
The ring around the center represents karma, with the figures on the left ascending to higher realms of existence because of virtuous actions, and the figures on the right descending to lower realms of existence because of evil or ignorant actions.
The middle ring of the wheel (the areas between the spokes) symbolizes the six realms of existence:
The three higher realms are:
- God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma. When death comes to them, they are completely unprepared; without realizing it, they have completely exhausted their good karma (which was the cause for being reborn in the god realm) and they suffer through being reborn in the lower realms.
- Demi-god realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they spend their time fighting among themselves or making war on the gods. When they make war on the gods, they always lose, since the gods are much more powerful. The demi-gods suffer from constant fighting and jealousy, and from being killed and wounded in their wars with each other and with the gods.
- Human realm: humans suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don’t want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet the human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).
The three lower realms are:
- Animal realm: wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals; they generally lead lives of constant fear. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans; for example, they are slaughtered for food, overworked, and so on.
- Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time them come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time the get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony.
- Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment. In the hot hells, beings suffer from unbearable heat and continual torments of various kinds. In the cold hells, beings suffer from unbearable cold and other torments
The outer ring represents the 12 links of dependent origination, as follows:
- Just to the right of the top is a blind man with a cane, representing ignorance of the true nature of the world.
- Moving clockwise, a potter molding a pot symbolizes that we shape our own destiny with our actions through the workings of karma.
- The monkey climbing a tree represents consciousness or the mind, which wanders aimlessly and out of control.
- Consciousness gives rise to name and form, which is symbolized by people traveling in a boat on the river of life.
- The next link is an empty house, the doors and windows of which symbolize the developing sense organs. Buddha noted six senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thought.
- The six senses allow us to have contact with the world, which is symbolized by lovers embracing.
- From contact arises feelings, which we categorize as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Feelings are represented on the wheel as an arrow piercing the eye.
- From feelings arises desire or attachment to pleasant feelings and experiences, symbolized by a couple falling in love or a man drinking alcohol.
- Desire or attachment leads to grasping for an object of desire, symbolized by a monkey picking fruit.
- From grasping arises existence, represented by a man and a woman making love.
- Existence culminates in birth (entry into the human realm), which is symbolized by a woman in childbirth.
- Birth naturally leads to aging and death, which is symbolized by an old man carrying a burden.
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