Wheel of Existence (Bhavacakra)

This contemporary mural is located at Pal Karma Zurmang Shedrup monastery in Sikkim, India. It faces a mural of the Cakravala Buddhist cosmos (see additional interactive on this site).

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All photographs are by Eric Huntington.

Wheel of Existence (Bhavacakra)
Demon of Death Land of Bliss Three Poisons Rising and Falling Deva Realm Human Realm Asura Realm Animal Realm Preta Realm Hells Hot Hells Cold Hells Yama Indra (deva) Indra (Buddha) Vemacitra (Buddha) Shakyamuni (Buddha) Jvalamukha (Buddha) Sthirasimha (Buddha) Dharmaraja (Buddha) 01 Ignorance 02 Formations 03 Consciousness 04 Name & Form 05 The Six Sense Doors 06 Sense Contact 07 Feeling 08 Initial Desire 09 Strong Desire 10 Mature Karma 11 Birth 12 Old Age & Death Exterior Buddha Preta King

Demon of Death

The Wheel of Existence is held in the grasp of a demon who represents death, sometimes understood as Yama, the god of death. This graphically communicates the idea that all forms of life are subject to death and impermanence.

Land of Bliss

One escape from the wheel of existence, depicted outside of the clutches of the demon of death, is the buddha-field of Amitabha, known as Sukhavati, or the Land of Bliss. Birth here provides enlightenment in a single lifetime.

Three Poisons

A bird, a snake, and a pig represent the three detrimental psychological factors that trap sentient beings in the cycle of births: attraction, aversion, and ignorance. As clearly shown in the 12-fold chain of causation around the outer rim of the wheel, the root cause of the others is ignorance.

Rising and Falling

White and black semicircular arcs depict the cyclic motion of sentient beings upward and downward through the wheel, ultimately caused by the psychological factors at its center. In the white arc, beings appear to be led upward by religious specialists, but ultimately improve their situation by their own actions. In the black arc, beings appear to be dragged downward by demons, but again ultimate responsibility rests with the individual's own choices.

No existence is permanent—even gods will eventually die and be born in hells, so there is no escape from suffering within the wheel. Because no existence is permanent, however, it is possible to improve one's situation by performing good actions. This path can eventually help one escape the wheel entirely.

Deva Realm

Devas (gods) dwell atop the enormous Mount Sumeru at the center of the cosmos. Even gods are trapped in the wheel of existence and subject to death. At the end of their long and pleasurable lives, they too die and are born into the other realms.

Human Realm

The human path of birth is our own. There are four main continents in the human realm, as depicted in a mural of the Cakravala cosmos.

Asura Realm

The asuras are depicted as warriors, battling devas for dominance of the world. They live at the base of Mount Sumeru and below, down into the surrounding ocean.

Animal Realm

Although animals frequently share the landscape with humans, they represent a distinct kind of birth and are understood to dwell in a distinct landscape. In particular, animals as a class are believed to have arisen in the great ocean and migrated to land.

Preta Realm

Pretas live tormented by hunger and thirst. The word "preta" literally means "departed one" and probably relates to concepts of afterlife not explicitly captured in the wheel of existence. Based on Chinese translations of this term, they are also known as hungry ghosts.

Hells

Sentient beings in the hells suffer great torments. There are many different regions of the hells, each with specific punishments for particular misdeeds. Importantly, the demons who inflict punishments in hell are not considered to be sentient beings, because torturing others would cause such immeasurable suffering that these beings could never be reborn in higher realms. Rather, these demons are produced by natural law as the necessary result of one's previous bad actions.

Hot Hells

One division of the hell realms is the so-called hot hells, the name of which is self-explanatory.

Cold Hells

One division of the hell realms is the so-called cold hells, the name of which is self-explanatory.

Yama

Yama, the god of death, presides in judgement over the beings of the hells.

Indra (deva)

Indra (deva), the chief of the gods, is depicted at the center of his palace. See another version of this scene in a mural of the Cakravala cosmos that faces this one.

Indra (Buddha)

The buddha of the deva realm is also called Indra, like its chief god. He holds a stringed musical instrument.

Vemacitra (Buddha)

The Buddha of the asura realm is called Vemacitra. He holds a sword and armor.

Shakyamuni (Buddha)

The Buddha of the human realm is Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha who lived about 2500 years ago. He is depicted here holding an alms bowl.

Jvalamukha (Buddha)

The Buddha of the preta realm is called Jvalamukha. In this painting, he is shown dispensing quenching water to the thirsty pretas.

Sthirasimha (Buddha)

The Buddha of the animal realm is called Sthirasimha. He holds a book to help educate the animals, who lack language and higher intelligence.

Dharmaraja (Buddha)

The Buddha of the hell realms is called Dharmaraja. He holds cooling water and warming fire to ease the suffering of beings reborn in the hot and cold hells, respectively.

01 Ignorance

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The first is ignorance, from which all the ills of the world arise. In the Buddhist context, ignorance is not just a lack of knowledge, it is an active misapprehension of the world. In this painting, ignorance is symbolized by a blind person walking with a stick.

02 Formations

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The second is formations, symbolized by a potter shaping ceramics. The key idea is that one's present existence is conditioned by one's former actions.

In the same way, one's former actions are also responsible for how one is born into one of the six realms of existence (red highlighted wedges).

03 Consciousness

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The third is consciousness, active and uncontrolled, symbolized by a monkey. Taming the uncontrolled mind is an important aspect of Buddhist meditative practices.

04 Name & Form

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The fourth is name and form (or sometimes mind and body), here symbolized by a boat in water. One key idea here is the establishment of a distinction between concepts and objects, which promotes undesirable misapprehensions of reality. In terms of mind and body, this stage also represents the arising of our basic physical and mental constituents.

05 The Six Sense Doors

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The fifth is the six sense doors, symbolized by architectural openings. The sense doors, or organs (and their sense media), are the eyes (vision), ears (hearing), nose (smell), tongue (taste), body (touch), and mind (thought).

06 Sense Contact

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The sixth is sense contact, symbolized here by a couple embracing. Sense contact is understood in terms of a connection between an object of perception and the sense faculty suited to that object.

07 Feeling

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The seventh is feeling, symbolized by a person with arrows through the eye. Feeling is the pleasurable, painful, or neutral reaction that one has to an experience of sense contact. This positive or negative evaluation conditions desires in the subsequent stages of causation.

08 Initial Desire

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The eighth is initial desire (or sometimes craving), symbolized in this painting by a person drinking. The key idea here is that even small acts of pleasure have the potential to condition stronger desires.

09 Strong Desire

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The ninth is strong desire (or sometimes grasping), symbolized by a person picking fruit from a tree. In this stage, the initial desire is increased to become a specific motivation to action. The metaphor of the fruit also implies that this stage provides the seeds of future results, future births in the wheel.

10 Mature Karma

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The tenth is mature karma (or sometimes becoming), symbolized in this painting by a couple reproducing but in other paintings by a pregnant woman. The idea here is that the seeds planted by actions motivated by desire result in the creation of new life, new states of existence.

11 Birth

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The eleventh is birth (or sometimes conception), symbolized by a woman giving birth to a child. This image straightforwardly communicates that the preceding stages of causation result in new births, or more generally new states of affairs.

12 Old Age & Death

Around the exterior ring of the wheel of life are depicted 12 stages of a chain of causation.

The twelfth is old age and death, symbolized by a corpse being carried and another corpse being eaten by birds. As also symbolized by the demon of death who encircles the wheel, all births lead directly and inexorably to death.

Exterior Buddha

Escape from the endless cycle of birth and death is possible. One of the ways the wheel of existence mural symbolizes this is by depicting a Buddha outside the wheel, outside the clutches of the demon of death, pointing the way to release. In this mural, the Buddha does not point at anything in particular. In other murals, he may point at a short passage of text or a circle of light sometimes interpreted as a reference to a specific text or the moon.

Preta King

The king of the pretas, identifiable by his larger size and placement in a palace, displays the typical features of a preta: flaming mouth, neck too thin to swallow, and distended belly.