Snakes, Roosters and Pigs – Oh My God – Symbols Themes and Teachings of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

Every day we turn the wheel of life and its samsaric mechanisms. Like cogs in an illusory clock, we blindly circle your karmic center as we move from one realm of life to the next. This is the fundamental teaching described within the Buddhist paradigm known as the ‘Wheel of Life’. Within its radii the twelve links of dependent origin are registered. Each one links a phenomenal state that differs only in its degree of unhappiness or dissatisfaction.

The ‘Wheel’ symbolizes the Buddhist perspective on a life lived in ignorance of the ultimate truth. It is held by the claws of ‘Yama’, an irate deity known as the ‘Lord of Death’. He is the manifestation of Samsara; the seemingly endless cycle of reincarnation. Outside the Wheel stands the Buddha as a guide pointing the way to liberation.

To understand the teaching, it is best to begin the exam at its center where the three roots of deception reside. The first is hatred, symbolized by a snake, the second is ignorance personified by a rooster, and the third is greed, represented as a pig. Around the central axis there is a ring that represents the karmic states of existence. The figures on the left ascend to higher realms of existence, due to virtuous actions, while the figures on the right descend to lower realms, due to evil or ignorant acts.

Moving outward, the next ring is the largest and is divided by six spokes. Within each segment the six realms of phenomenal experience are illustrated. The upper half, from left to right, portrays the three higher realms of existence; humans, demigods and gods. The lower half represents the three lower kingdoms; animals, hungry ghosts and beings from hell. It may be helpful to think of these realms as metaphorical examples of mental conditions.

Within each segment a different realm is represented in which sentient beings are reborn; divas, gods or demigods (a demigod is described as a jealous anti-god or god), humans, animals (sentient beings from whales to insects), hungry ghosts (depicted with a tiny mouth with a large stomach, never able to fulfill their hunger), beings from hell (there are eight possible different hells and each is a product of the mind). These segmented realms are related to six different mental conditions: Pride and jealousy fall within the realm of the gods and demigods. Human beings are afflicted with five disturbing emotions; naivety, arrogance, greed, jealousy and anger. The lower kingdoms of animals, hungry ghosts, and beings from hell are associated with ignorance, desire, and anger.

Beyond this is the upper ring that graphically describes the twelve stages of “dependent origin.” The first stage expresses a fundamental ignorance of the true nature of sentient beings. He is represented as a blind man with a cane. Moving clockwise around the wheel, the following is the workings of karma. It is embodied by the image of a potter molding a vessel (the shape of destiny). Next, the aimless wanderings of the mind are expressed by a monkey climbing a tree, swinging from branch to branch without thinking.

Moving further into the concept of self-awareness evokes self-awareness (name and form). This is represented by the image of people traveling in a boat on a river. The next stage is reflected in an image of an empty house with its doors and windows open. This symbolizes the developing sense organs; sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thought. These senses, in turn, allow us to establish contact with the world around us as portrayed in the image of lovers embracing. From the contact comes to categorize the feelings; pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is illustrated as an arrow going through an eye. Feelings give rise to desire or attachment that is represented by a partner falling in love (sometimes illustrated as a man drinking alcohol). Attachment leads to the grasping shown by a monkey (the mind) when picking fruit. Phenomenal existence arises from grasping. This is represented by a man and a woman making love. Existence culminates spontaneously at birth, the entrance to the samsaric realm, it is expressed by a woman giving birth. Finally, birth naturally leads to aging and death symbolized as an old man carrying a burden.

This is the only teaching that Buddha wrote from his own hand. By drawing the diagram in sand, he reinforced the essential precept that all phenomena are merely temporary. At first glance, teaching presents a rather bleak picture. However, within its structure are lessons that inspire awareness. It is this awakening that leads to complete liberation from what appears to be the almost eternal trap of mindless wandering. We are the dreamers lost within our own dreams and without realizing that we are dreaming. Understanding and recognizing our individual roles and our participation within this system allows each of us to discover the innate freedom that lies dormant within us; our Bodhi self.

The man stopped and asked the Buddha:

“My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

– “No,” replied the Buddha.

“Well then, are you some kind of wizard or wizard?”

Again the Buddha replied, “No.”

“You are a man?” – “Not.”

“Well my friend, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”