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The Wheel of Life: A Treatise


Disclaimer: There is so much going on in The Wheel of Yama that requires at least a brief description, before we get into the interpretation and real-world application of its vivid imagery.  If it is true that a picture if worth a thousand words, then the wheel of life ought to merit ten- or a hundred-thousand, and we might still not get to the deepest levels of meaning contained within it.  This is a treatise, which means it is more thorough than an essay, and my descriptions of the various aspects of the wheel are as concise as possible, so that we may focus more of our attention and energy on the conclusions that can be drawn from contemplation.    ​​





One of the most famous works of art in Tibetan Buddhism is The Wheel of Yama. As such, it is often featured prominently on Buddhist thangkas and in monasteries around the world, where students and teachers alike choose to contemplate the many meanings and applications of its imagery.


A proper definition of The Wheel of Yama, which can be found in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “The Path of Individual Liberation,” indicates that what we see is an “iconographic portrayal of the activities of samsara in the form of a wheel held in the jaws of Yama, the personification of death” (574). 


Samsara is sanskrit for “cyclic existence; the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences” (Rinpoche 587).


So, The Wheel of Yama is an artistic portrayal of the activities of our cyclical existence, as we continually experience birth, life, death, and rebirth; it is a sacred meditation tool that serves as a guide on the path of enlightenment.




The Story of Yama


The colorful and graphic image of the wheel of life is always shown as being held by Yama, in his jaws and with his hands, which are sometimes portrayed as hooves.  Yama often has a bull's face, a crown of skulls, and a third eye.


Yama, the personification of death, is a wrathful dharmapala who is lord of the hell realm.  In sanskrit, dharmapala stands for “dharma protector,” so Yama exists as a guardian devoted to protecting the path of enlightenment and those who follow the path—devoted to protecting the wheel of life.


Yama’s evil face, with his frightening eyes, peers over the wheel of life, creating what appears to be quite a terrible spectacle, yet this symbolic visual representation is rather appropriate: While we tend to be frightened of death, it is not evil, just inevitable.


According to popular legend, Yama was a holy man who believed he would become enlightened if he meditated in a cave for 50 years.  However, in the 11th month of the 49th year, robbers entered his cave with a stolen bull, cut off the bull’s head, and when they realized this holy man had seen them, the robbers cut off his head as well.  But the holy man put on the bull’s head and took on the form of Yama, killing the robbers, drinking their blood, and threatening all of Tibet.  He could not be stopped until Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, manifested as an even more powerful dharmapala, Yamantaka, and defeated Yama.  Appropriately, Yamantaka is sanskrit for “the destroyer or conqueror of the lord of death.”  So, in the end, Yama became a protector of Buddhism, of Buddhists, and of the wheel of life.




The Bhavachakra: From Inside-Out


The sanskrit word for “The Wheel of Life” is bhavachakra; however, the literal translation of bhavachakra is “the wheel of becoming.”  So, The Wheel of Yama is often referred to as the wheel of life, the wheel of becoming, the wheel of cyclic existence, of samsara, of suffering, of rebirth, and of transformation.


Looking at the wheel from the inside-out, we begin at the center, where we find the images of three animals: a pig, a rooster, and a snake.   These animals symbolize the three poisons: ignorance, passion, and aggression.


Moving outward from the three animals at center, there is an inner ring, which contains and depicts the six worldly realms, and an outer ring, which contains and depicts the twelve nidanas, or links in the chain of causation of suffering.   




The Center: The 3 Poisons


The pig, which represents “not seeing,” ignorance, or delusion, lies at the heart of the wheel and at the beginning of the twelve nidanas, or links, that form the outermost ring of the wheel.  The rooster, or the chicken, represents passion, attachment, or even greed. The snake represents aggression, anger, or hatred.


In most depictions, the rooster and the snake, representing passion and aggression, respectively, are shown as coming out of the mouth of the pig, supporting the idea that ignorance, or delusion, is the fundamental poison from which all suffering originates.  


The center of the wheel contains a second layer, where, just outside of the three animals, are six images representing the six worldly realms. These six realms constitute all possible states of existence in the universe, and all beings, even gods, cycle between these states. They are divided into two half-circles, one light and one dark—the light, or the higher realms, representing the results of positive actions, and the dark, or the lower realms, representing the results of negative actions.




The Inner Ring: The 6 Realms


Of the six worldly realms, the three higher realms are the human realm, the jealous god realm, and the god realm; the three lower realms are the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the hell realm.


The human realm “is said to be the land of karma, because human beings can perceive and work with the karmic force…the human realm presents the rare opportunity of hearing the dharma and practicing it” (75).


In the jealous god realm, “the ambition of gaining a victory and the fear of losing a battle cause you to feel alive, as well as cause you irritation.  You lose the point of an ultimate goal, but in order to keep the driving force, you have to maintain the ambition” (75).


The god realm, “also known as heaven, is the product of self-indulgence in ideal pleasure.  This realm has different degrees, and each degree of intensity of pleasure is based on a corresponding degree of maintenance of the pleasure and fear of losing it” (76).


The animal realm is characterized by the “tendency to cling to the familiar and to fight your way from one familiar situation to another” (76).


In the hungry ghost realm, hunger is defined as “the fear of letting go,” and “an intense state of grasping in the midst of continual, overwhelming psychological poverty” (76).  Here, the pain exists not so much in not finding what you want, but rather, “it is the frustration of the wanting itself that causes excruciating pain” (77).


Finally, there is the hell realm, where there is “the extreme of aggression and its passionate expression” and “a tendency to try to escape, but the attempt to escape intensifies the imprisonment” (77).


Visual representations of the six realms, which make up the inner ring, receive the most real estate on the wheel of life.  Depicted within each realm, there is a Buddha representing the possibility of enlightenment or bodhisattva trying to help the beings living in that realm to find their way to nirvana.




The Outer Ring: The 12 Nidanas


Finally, at the outermost concentric ring of the wheel of life, we have the twelve nidanas, or links in the chain of causation, representing each stage in the evolution of suffering. 


The first of the twelve stages is avidya, or ignorance, portrayed by the blind grandmother. “She has her own concepts and ideas about how the world should be, and she struggles constantly, trying to communicate [them]…” (68).


The second stage is that of saṃskara, mental formation, or impulsive accumulation, portrayed by a potter’s wheel. “The potter’s wheel is the sense of obligation that we should make our life into something…” (69).


The third stage is vijnana, or consciousness, portrayed by a monkey.  “The monkey not only says, ‘I am a monkey,’ but ‘I am a monkey; therefore, I should be doing this and that.’ Things slowly escalate in that way” (69). 

The fourth stage is nama-rupa, or name and form, portrayed by a person in a boat.  “This nidana is a gesture of hope and of a dream coming true…When you name a person, you are providing a home for that person.  You create an image of the person in accordance with the house that you have created” (69-70).

The fifth stage is shaḍayatana, or the six sense faculties, portrayed by a six-windowed house.  “The six windows represent the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the sixth sense of mental faculty…But there is still a sense of the absence of somebody sophisticated and capable enough to run the place you have created” (70).

The sixth stage is sparsha, or contact, portrayed by a married couple, or two lovers kissing or entwined.  “Having already made your situation very solid and clear, you would like to test whether it is functioning properly or not, so you need to make some kind of contact with the situation…contact between the masculine and feminine principles, which complement each other” (70-71).

The seventh stage is vedana, or feeling, portrayed by an arrow through the eye.  “The arrow in the eye is the first real perception of this and that, the world outside.  That arrow is not particularly regarded as a message of death, but as a message of life.  It is like feeling alive, feeling that you are really living in this world” (71).

The eighth stage is tṛishṇa, or craving, portrayed by the drinking of milk and honey.  “With craving, you don’t know what happened; you just did it…Craving just happens to you—and it happens to you constantly” (72).

The ninth stage is upadana, or grasping, portrayed as gathering fruit.  “You have a courtship with the world. You are demonstrating youthful exuberance…Your life is so good, so absolutely good, that you are falling in love with it.  With this nidana, there is a tendency to do whatever you feel like doing” (72).

The tenth stage is bhava, or becoming, portrayed as copulation.  “Instead of dancing around, listening to sweet music and enjoying everything, you have been captured by this life…The nidana of becoming celebrates the achievement of relating with another mind” (73).

The eleventh stage is jati, or birth, portrayed by a woman in childbirth.  “With the nidana of birth, becoming has gone into action and produced karmic results…You are responsible for the whole thing; you are stuck with it, you cannot deny it…The discovery of change becomes irritating and the achievement of self-indulgence becomes questionable…You have to face the possibility of decay, feebleness, and imminent death. It is inescapable” (74).

The twelfth and final stage is jara maraṇa, or old age and death, portrayed by a funeral procession.  “You experience decay, sickness, and dying…Having had so much fun playing with phenomena, finally birth and death become very close to one another” (74).




The Story the Wheel Tells


It is certainly true that The Wheel of Yama tells a story; in fact, it tells many stories.  It can be seen to function like a fractal: Within the broadest story of our existence, there are endless other stories that can exist individually, which stand alone, but each of which also contain the essence of the whole. 


It’s easy to get lost in the wheel, to see it as a maze, to get caught up in particular realms and stages of suffering.  Perhaps, that’s the point—it is in getting caught and stuck time and time again that we learn the lessons we must learn on the path toward enlightenment. 


Despite all the many things that are going on in The Wheel of Yama, there are a handful of specific, fundamental observations we might make: the first, is about suffering—the wheel teaches us about suffering, in all its myriad forms; the second, is about the function of art and the function of the stories we tell—art reveals, and stories provide new ways of seeing; the third, is a suggestion about what we might do, in light of all this—we might choose to integrate into our lives the wisdom that emanates from the wheel.


There is a poem, written and published by Paul Edwin Zimmer in 1981, titled, “The Wheel of Life,” which really ought to be included in any discussion or contemplation of The Wheel of Yama, because it highlights some of the key takeaways: suffering is inevitable and all-pervasive (even the gods are not exempt); just because you know the story does not mean you have learned all that you can from it and integrated all that you might into your existence; and in every realm, at every stage, there exists the ever-present possibility of liberation and enlightenment.     


The full text of Zimmer’s poem is contained here:    


Time is—

Love is—

Death is—

And the Wheel turns,

And the Wheel turns,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.


And the Sage said:

Lo, that which binds you to the Wheel

Is of your own making,

And the very Wheel

Is of your own making.

And the Wheel turns,

And the Wheel turns,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.


And the Sage said:

Know that we all are the One.

Know that the Wheel is of your own making,

Know that the Wheel is of your own making,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.


And the Sage said:

Free yourself from the Wheel.

Know you are the One,

Accept your own work,

Free yourself from the Wheel.

Know that the Wheel is of your own making,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.


And the Sage freed himself from the Wheel,

And became the One,

The immortal God,

Freed from the Wheel,

Freed from illusion,

And knew then why the One had created the Wheel.

And the One became many,

And the One became we,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.


Time is—

Love is—

Death is—

And the Wheel turns,

And the Wheel turns,

And we are all bound to the Wheel.




Conclusions: Interpreting the Wheel of Yama


While there are many conclusions we can draw from each individual aspect of the wheel, here are three takeaways on The Wheel of Yama in the broadest sense and scope:


1) By working with our fundamental ignorance and delusions, the core from which all other suffering originates, we can make out the vague outlines of the path toward enlightenment.  If there is any chance of obtaining liberation, it must include growing a willingness to face the reality of suffering and developing an ever-greater acceptance of suffering’s many faces and manifestations.


“Samsara is a complex situation based on passion, aggression, and ignorance.  Its essence is turmoil.  But unless you relate to passion, aggression, and ignorance as the path—understanding them, working with them, and treading on them—you will not discover the goal.  Seeing the truth as it is, is the goal as well as the path” (Rinpoche 65).


2) The Wheel of Yama is, in its most fundamental definition, a work of art—Tibetan Buddhist iconography—that endeavors to tell a story.  It tells the oldest story that there is: the archetypal tragedy.  In fact, it is primarily in the telling of our stories of suffering, in the sharing our war stories, that we can hope to evolve, to become.


“If we were stuck in our pain, we would have no way to talk about it.  However, by telling the story of pain, we are not perpetuating pain.  Instead, we have a chance to know what suffering is all about.  That is quite good” (Rinpoche 384).


The Wheel of Yama is the wheel of life, or the wheel of becoming.  In the concluding remarks of her 2018 memoir, appropriately titled, “Becoming,” Michelle Obama shines a light on the inherent power of the stories we tell, and on the impact our stories have on the paths we and others tread:


“In sharing my story,

I hope to help create space

for other stories and other voices,

to widen the pathway for who belongs and why.


For every door that has been opened to me,

I have tried to open my door to others,

and here is what I have to say, finally:


Let’s invite one another in.

Maybe then we can begin

to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions,

to let go of the biases and stereotypes that divide us.


Maybe we can better embrace

the ways we are the same.

It’s not about being perfect;

it’s not about where you get yourself

in the end.


There’s power in allowing yourself

to be known and heard,

in owning your unique story,

in using your authentic voice,

and there’s grace in being willing

to know and hear others.


This, for me, is how we become.”


3) We have been taking our lives too seriously.  We take in so much, and we hold onto it, and we don’t let it go.  There are ways to make it all less heavy, to lighten the load and reduce the burden: to give out, to give in, to surrender, and to let it go.


“Throughout the whole process depicted in the wheel of life, the problem seems to be that we have been taking our life too seriously… Taking everything so seriously is not just about being solemn and unhumorous.  It is that in every aspect of our life, we have been taking in so much and not giving out anything.  When we do not give out, automatically the input is heavy, heavy, heavy” (Rinpoche 79, emphasis mine).



Works Cited


Obama, Michelle. Becoming. Random House/Penguin Random House LLC, 2018.


Trungpa Chögyam, and Judith L. Lief. The Path of Individual Liberation. Vol. 1, Shambhala, 2013.


Zimmer, Paul Edward. “The Wheel of Life.” 1981.

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