We all live through and in the middle of complicated cycles every day.
In fact, each day is a small stitch in a large pattern—the Circle of Life.
As a kid, I watched The Lion King almost every day, and I am not exaggerating. I loved animals, and I had a crush on Simba. I didn’t realize until later that the movie is talking about something greater than a lion fighting his evil uncle.
It talks about the cycle in which we all live—the rules we subscribe to every day of our lives. But there’s a way to escape this circle that we are living within.
This morning, I was reading from Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anagarika Govinda. In the latter half of the book, he explains the cycles of life—the biological reasons we feel desire, jealousy, clinging, attachment and other emotions that lead us into another cycle: samsara. In fact, the Lion King perfectly illustrates these concepts in a more simplistic way. Through doing good in the world and eliminating desire and attachment, we can get out of this cycle, samsara.
Now for another very simple explanation and summary of Lama Anagarika Govinda’s explanation of samsaric existence:
Samsara, which encapsulates the notion that we are part of a continuous flow of birth, life, death and reincarnation, is a pattern that, according to Buddhist (and other Eastern philosophic) thought, we can indeed escape through the making of merit and the intention of doing good in the universe (karma).
Tibetans have crafted a picture of the way life works—the circle of life—and the steps within the process of living, dying and reincarnating.
It is said that the Buddha himself painted this thangka and put it on the outside of temples so that others could understand his teachings in all the years to come.
Here it is, a true Tibetan thangka:
The Buddha at the top:
The Buddha outside the circle at the top of the wheel is pointing to the moon, showing that liberation from the cycle of existence is possible.
The middle of the wheel:
In the picture above, note the cock, snake and hog. They symbolize passionate desire, hatred and the darkness of ignorance, respectively. They are biting each other’s tails because these emotions are a cycle; each one leads into the other.
The six sectors circumambulating out from the middle:
1. (Top center.) The top three sections represent the god realm and other realms in which people are striving for higher states of existence.
The gods in the top realm are dancing and singing, and they only live in temporary happiness. They only skim the surface of understanding any deeper meaning in life, so they live a somewhat artificial lifestyle. Because they do not suffer at all, they cannot understand what true happiness really is. Striving for rebirth into this realm from another lower realm is pointless because it only leads to rebirth in a lower realm.
2. To the right of the god realm is the Titan Realm. The Titan Realm, which is characterized by the influence and ego of power, is separated from the god realm by the Wishing Tree. The Wishing Tree represents the fruits of knowledge and wisdom. The Titans are greedy, hungry for power and dominance.
3. To the left of the god realm is the realm that man lives in. This is our world, in which the ascension of existence is possible because we have the opportunity to consciously spend our time doing purposeful things. Here, we have the chance to liberate ourselves from cyclical existence. However, the world is also dangerous because it is easy to develop cravings for pleasures here that ultimately keep us from ascending.
4. (Bottom center.) This section mirrors the top section. These people are experiencing the worst forms of torture. They will ascend into other less torturous realms in future reincarnations because specific Buddhas (Amitabha) will descend into this low realm to purify them with cleansing fire, which will come from the Mirror of Knowledge.
Cross culturally, the happenings in this realm are similar to the Christian crucifixion in which Jesus suffered for humanity’s sins. However, the people in this realm will not be subject to the judgment of a ruler, but rather an emanation of a Buddha who will hold up a mirror so that the beings can see and judge themselves.
5. To the right of the bottom center section is the realm of Pretas.
These beings are never satisfied because they pursue pleasures which will never provide them with happiness. In other words, they will never become satiated by the things they are doing. They become lustful skeletons who are always hungry and can’t digest food, always thirsty and still dry up. For them, sex isn’t pleasurable, food isn’t yummy and they will never make enough money. Fortunately, a Buddha will appear with a plateful of pleasures which are wholesome and will liberate the lustful beings from further suffering.
6. To the left of the bottom center realm is the realm in which animals live. According to Buddhist thought, these beings are subjugated because they have no capability to reason, speak or read—all activities which could liberate them from their suffering.
They are dominated by other beings, and they live only according to instinctual ignorance. They could be dependent on other beings for their living. The liberating Buddha will appear with a book so that they will be saved from further ignorance.
Kind of like this, from the best movie ever:
I was fascinated by the symbolism within the Wheel of Life because it helped me to better understand other teachings I have been given.
And while it would take me a lifetime(s) to study every little piece of symbolism in it (I only glossed over about half of the layers in the Wheel of Life in this article!), it also made me wonder which realm I fall into right now. It made me want to strive to reach a higher realm of existence. Studying the Wheel of Life made me want to listen to good music, exercise, volunteer my time and material possessions to help others and walk my dog.
Here’s the kicker:
The point of the Wheel is that we can liberate ourselves from feeling unsatisfied, feeling hungry for more things, and craving pleasures that will never make us happy. Karma will save you if you do good things with it.
Let’s strive together to be better people every day.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman