Sipa Khorlo (སྲིད་པ་འཁོར་ལོ་) or bhavacakra is one of the most popular artistic creations in the Buddhist world. Claimed to have been created even during the Buddha’s lifetime, this artistic representation of the Buddhist worldview and its messages of liberation and enlightenment is found at the entrance of almost all temples in Bhutan and the Buddhist Himalayas. Sridpa Khorlo literally means the wheel of becoming, existence or life and shows the classic Buddhist view of life and its origination.
The artistic depiction of the Buddhist existential theory is made up of four layers. At the centre of the wheel are three animals, a pig representing ignorance and stupidity, a snake representing hatred and aggression, and a bird symbolizing attachment and desire. The three defiling features of the mind – attachment, hatred and ignorance – are known as three poisons and the three animals, which represent them, are believed to possess these three poisons in an intense form in the Indo-Tibetan belief systems. The animals chase each other in a circle and are connected in order to illustrate how the three poisons feed into each other.
The second layer has two parts: one part on the left side of the wheel with pious people ascending upward in order to indicate that positive actions leads to higher rebirth and existence, and another part on the right with people falling downward. The former is the white righteous path of virtue and the latter the dark evil path of non-virtue. Those ascending on the virtuous path are portrayed as morally good people while those falling are depicted as evil and morally impoverished.
The third layer has the wheel divided into six parts to indicate the six realms of sentient beings. On the top is the realm of the gods or celestial beings who enjoy temporary happiness and pleasure. Yet, they remain distracted by worldly pleasure, and unaware of the pain and suffering they will go through when their celestial life end and they fall to lower realms.
Adjacent to the representation of the celestial world of devas or gods is the realm of asura or demi-gods. These beings enjoy slightly less prosperity and pleasure than the gods and are thus always occupied with jealousy towards the realm of gods. Their jealousy results in a constant war against and conflict with the gods who have an upper hand.
The third realm on the upper part of the wheel is the world of human beings, which is afflicted by greed and the problems of birth, sickness, old age, death, not having what one wishes, having what one does not wish, encountering unpleasant ones, and separation from loved ones.
In the lower half of the wheel, there are three panels each representing the three lower realms. The animal realm, depicting life both on land and in sea, has many kinds of animals which are afflicted by ignorance and stupidity, and the suffering of being enslaved or eaten by others. On the side of the animal realm is the realm of hungry ghosts, who suffer from stinginess and the pain of hunger and thirst.
At the bottom of the existential tiers is the hell realm, made up of the hot and cold hells. The beings in the hell realm are afflicted by hatred and aggression and the suffering of extreme heat and cold. There are eighteen sections to the hell realm although not all are depicted in the wheel in detail. The six realms make up the cycle of existence or saṃsāra, the phenomenal world from which liberation is sought.
The fourth layer has the wheel divided into twelve parts each showing one of the twelve links of dependent origination. This layer explains the process of how the saṃsāra arises and depicts the Buddhist theory of causation. The Buddha proclaimed the theory of dependent origination or causation as his central philosophical outlook. He taught that things do not come out of nothing or from a static absolute cause. They rather come from a multitude of causes and conditions in a gradual process. The first panel shows a groping blind man symbolizing ignorance, which is the root cause of existential becoming. Ignorance is followed by volition or action, represented by a potter engaged in making pots, and action is followed by consciousness, which is depicted by a restless monkey. The fourth link is name and form, the psychosomatic constituents of a sentient being symbolized by two men in a boat. This is followed by six senses, which are represented by a house with six windows in this artwork.
The sixth link is that of touch or contact which is represented by a kissing couple. Touch leads to sensation which is depicted by a man being pierced by an arrow in the eye. Sensation gives rise to thirst which is symbolized by a person having a drink. Thirst is followed by grasping, indicated by a man picking fruits, and grasping is followed by becoming, which is represented by a pregnant woman or a couple having sexual intercourse. The eleventh link is birth, shown by a woman giving birth, and the final link is a combination of old age and death, represented by a corpse being carried to the grave or cremation ground. The twelve links show the process of existential becoming in the cycle of saṃsāra spanning across three lifetimes.
The space or the moon outside the wheel represents liberation or enlightenment, which one can achieve by breaking out of cycle of existence. The Buddha figure, which stands outside the wheel represents such a case of breakthrough to enlightenment. The Buddha points out with his finger this freedom or nirvāṇa from the cycle of existence. This illustrates how the Buddha, as he proclaimed, merely shows the path to enlightenment but cannot place people in the state of enlightenment. People who wish to escape from the cycle of existence must seek liberation or enlightenment themselves through their own efforts.
The wrathful demon which clutches the cycle of existence in its mouth and claws represent the force of death and impermanence to which all things in saṃsāra are subjected. It shows the inevitability of death and change as long as one is trapped in the cycle of existence. In some paintings of the wheel of life, there are also Buddhas drawn in the six realms of sentient beings to illustrate how the Buddha works in all six realms of sentient beings. This theory of the six Buddhas working for six different sentient realms comes from the Vajrayāna tradition of Bhutanese and Himalayan Buddhism.
Tradition, according to the text Divyāvadāna, believes that the wheel of life was first created in the days of the Buddha to be given to King Udrayaṇa. It encapsulates the four noble truths taught by the Buddha in his first sermon. The six realms represent the first noble truth of suffering, the first, second and fourth layers of the wheel show the second noble truth of the cause of suffering, the moon, the third noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and the following verses are often added to the art work in order to represent the fourth noble truth of the path to the cessation of suffering.
One must act, one must rise.
One must engage in the Buddha’s teachings.
As an elephant tramples a mass of mud,
One must destroy the forces of death.
He who with vigilance
Engages in this dharma and discipline
Shall relinquish the cycle of birth
And put an end to suffering.
The wheel of life is the most common and effective artistic instrument of relying the basic teachings of the Buddha. Besides being drawn and painted on the walls of almost all Buddhist monasteries and dzongs in Bhutan, it is also a common theme for thangka painting. Yet, despite its ubiquity and importance, not many people today reflect on the original purpose and messages of the wheel of life.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.