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Buddhist Spectrum: Wheel of existence
Daily News | Sri Lanka Dr Senarath Tennakoon

November 14-- The wheel of life, also known as the wheel of becoming, is essentially a pictorial signifier representing the signified - Buddhist philosophy. The picture shows a wheel of divided into six parts or cells by spokes commencing from a central hub and radiating to the rim of the wheel.


Daily News | Sri Lanka

The six sections or parts depict the nature of life in each of the six realms of rebirth (gati), namely the gods (deva), humans (manussa), demons (asura), hungry ghosts (pretas), and hell (naraka) respectively.

Good destinies

A Buddha is depicted in each of the six cells indicating that the Buddha is present in assisting the dwellers in these states of existence. In the lowest cell there is an exit. The first three are considered to be good destinies (sugati) and the rest 'last three as woeful states (durgati) respectively.

Early Buddhist sources usually omit the third state of demons (asuara). Around the central hub is laid an inner ring in which there are pictures of a red cock, a black pig, and a green snake chasing one another. The cock signifies desire (raga), the pig, ignorance (avidya) and the snake, hatred (dosha) respectively. In some the cock is substituted by a peacock.

The outer rim is divided into twelve equal parts and these signify the twelve links (nidanas) or Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada namely, ignorance (avijja), karmic results/compositional factors (sankharas), consciousness (vinnana), Mind and Form (nama.rupa), the six sense organs (salayatana, touch, sense, impression (passa), feeling/sensation (vedana) craving/thirst (tanha), clinging/grasping (upadana), becoming/re-becoming (bhava), birth (jati) decay (jara;) death (marana) with tribulation (parideva) grief (soka), sorrow (dukka) distress (domanassa) and despair (upayasa) respectively. Behind the wheel and holding it firmly is shown a frightening figure, the god of death (yama). Thus yama seems to be the controlling power or the steering agent of the Bhava Chakra or the wheel of life (samsara) or the cycle of repeated birth and death.

The pictures in these sections of the outer rim illustrate the concepts of patticcasamuppada. For instance, a blind man carrying a walking stick, symbolizes ignorance (avijja), the potter represents karmic formations (sanakara), the monkey represents 'name and form' (nama-rupa), the passenger ship depicts consciousness (vinnana), the empty house with windows is the six senses (salayatana), the embracing couple represents touch (passa), sensation (vedana) is being shown by a man with an arrow pricking his eye, craving (tanha) by a woman offering a drink to a man, a man gathering fruits from a tree indicates grasping (upadana), woman with child represents becoming (bhava), a woman in childbirth suggests a new birth (jati) and an old man carrying a corpse indicates old age and death (jara-marana) respectively.

The Buddha is shown outside the Wheel to symbolize release from the wheel of becoming. According to some accounts the wheel represents a mirror that Yama holds up to a person at the moment of death. The mirror reflects the possible realms of 'rebirth', and the dying soul will be drawn to one of them in accordance with its karma. (Keown, 2003).

The Wheel of Becoming is found both in Heenayana and Mahayana teachings with minor variations and is commonly seen in Tibetan painted scrolls or wall hangings. It represents the universe as seen by the Buddha seated on a lotus seat outside the World of Becoming (Klostermaier, 2006). Insights into the Wheel of Life reveals that it is essentially an appropriate metaphor the Law of Causation (Paticca-samuppada).. Paticca-Samuppada is a discourse on the process of birth and death, and not a philosophical theory of the evolution of the world. It deals with the cause of rebirth and suffering with a view to helping men to get rid of the ills of life.

Symbolic spokes

It makes no attempts to solve the riddle of an absolute origin of life. (Narada, 1980). In Ven Narada's book on Buddhism there is a simple diagram of the Wheel of Life that is extremely resourceful and informative pertaining to the time and space relationships of the Wheel of Life.

The Wheel of the Law (Dhammacakra) is the symbol of the Buddha's doctrine (Buddhadhamma). In it the eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariya-attangika-magga).

The teachings of the Buddha like a wheel, are thought to be eternal in having neither a beginning nor end. The Buddha set the Wheel of the Law (Dhammacakka) in motion with His First Sermon the Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-Sutta or the Sermon on the Foundation of the Kingdom or Righteousness in the Deer Park at Benaris (Saranath).

There have been two types of wheel of law, the desana dhammacakkara and the prativeda dhammacakra. The former is linked with the Buddha's teaching as when it is kept in motion all enemies, the defilements are destroyed. The latter has been used as a powerful sharp weapon in the past during armed struggles.

Sublime teachings

When it was released in the midst of war situations it rotates and chops off the necks of the enemies. In the case of the Buddha, He chopped off 1500 defilments (klesha) by using the dhammacakra like a chakrayuda. So it is also known as the prativeda dhammacakkara (Chandavimala, 2002).

The wheel of the law (dhammacakra) symbolizes both the Buddha and the Buddha's teachings (Buddhadhamma). The genesis of the wheel of law is given in the Chakkavattisihanada sutta (The lion's roar on the turning of the wheel) in the Digha Nikaya and presents the essential characteristics of a Buddhist universal ruler (cakravatti). Hence the dhammacakra also signifies essence of righteous political administration.

In paintings and images representing God Vishnu there is a discuss or a wheel (chakra) being held by His upper right hand.

This wheel is known as Sudarshan. It has six spokes and symbolizes six-petaled lotus. It represents the limitless controlling all the six seasons and is the fearful weapon that cuts off the heads of all demons (Kailash Nath Seth, 1993).

In the centre of the white band in the national flag of India is the design of the Wheel of the Law (dhammacakkara), the symbol of Buddhism. It also reminds the great name of King Asoka. In the emblem for the Sri Lankan Republic, the Wheel of the Law (Dhammacakkara) occupies the apical position indicating justice.

Attractive information

Dharmacakka is the name given to the first discourse of the Buddha. It is frequently represented as meaning The Kingdom of Truth, The Kingdom of Righteousness, The Wheel of Truth..... Dhammacakka means the founding or establishment of wisdom (Narada, 1980). Although we are familiar with verbal, written and electronic communication, there are other forms of communication too. It is said that a picture or an illustration is better than a verbal or a written description.

Symbols, icons and indices can convey information quite attractively than long verbose essays. Particularly when communities do not share a common language or a dialect non verbal signals become subtle and important.

The Bhavacakkra and the Dhammacakkra symbolically convey relevant information about Buddhism in an attractive way.

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