The Wheel of Life A Buddhist teaching

The Wheel Of Life, sometimes know as the Wheel Of Becoming, is the Buddha Gautama Shakyamuni's first turning of the 'Wheel of the Dharma'. One of the earliest, most profound and approachable of Buddhist teachings. The 'Wheel Of Life' is a comprehensive exposé on the causes of human suffering. In offering the causes of suffering Gautama Shakyamuni also offers a path to liberation.

The Cockrel, The pig and The Snake

The Cockerel

At the very centre, the hub, of the wheel the driving force of human suffering is depicted using three animals. Although essentially different sides of the same, metaphorical, coin they are shown in the dualistic fashion in which the unenlightened view reality.

The Cockerel symbolises grasping/greed.

The Snake

A snake symbolises the opposite of greed/grasping specifically, hatred/aversion.

The Cockerel is the act of appropriation of what we want whilst the Snake is the rejection or pushing away of what we don't want.

The Pig

The pig symbolises ignorance or confusion. Confusion that arises until one decides whether to grasp or reject the object or experience.

If only we could 'let go' or at least attenuate our likes and dislikes we would live a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.

It is these three pivotal forces that drive all human suffering and dissatisfaction. One could say that it is the most basic 'Fight', 'Flight' or 'Freeze' response applied to the emotional/mental experience. Collectively they are often referred to as the three root poisons.

The antidote to these poisons are generosity, loving kindness and awareness of the way things really are.


We are never standing still. Within the context of the spiritual life we are either evolving or devolving. We are either erasing or trying to avoid adding unhelpful patterns whilst cultivating existing helpful habits or creating new ones.

This second level of the wheel depicts spiritual growth or its opposite.

The Six Realms

The realms symbolically represent the various psychological states that one may inhabit.

The God Realm; where everything comes effortlessly and aesthically pleasing.

The Titan Realm; similar to the god realm but lacking contentment, full of envy and grasping.

The Preta Realm; often referred to as hungry ghosts and symbolic of neurotic behaviour, characterised by never feeling satisfied.

The Hell Realm; the antithesis of the god realm characterised by suffering so intense that one is barely able to function.

The Animal Realm; basic animal drives are symbolised here, specifically, seeking food, procreation and sleeping.

The Human Realm; symbolic of a balance of all the realms but not so overwhelming that one is not open and able to practise the spiritual life.

It is said that inhabiting the human realm is the most conducive to spiritual practise. Due to the ease of the god realm their is little to motivate practise, the hell realm is so challenging spiritual practise is all but impossible, the rest are degrees betwixt and between.

The fourth and final level of the 'Wheel' is known as the 'chain' or 'links' of dependent origination. This level goes into great detail of the process of 'becoming'.

A blind person represents ignorance of the way things really are.

In depence of ignorance our habitual patterns filter and colour reality.

A monkey swinging from vine to vine represents the most basic form of consciousness dependent upon habitual patterning.

Next comes name and form. The boat represents the 'form' that carries the 'name', object and subject.

In dependence of 'name and for' arises the six base senses (Buddhists include the mind as a sense) depicted as a house.

With the arising of the five senses there comes the experience of contact.

Feeling gives rise to thirst/desire and arises due to contact via the sense bases. Symbolised by an arrow in an eye... Ouch!

Thirsting pictured by a drink.

Reaching for an apple is the traditional depiction for grasping.

Upon grasping the seed of becoming is sewn symbolised by a pregnant female.

In dependence of becoming comes birth and...


And round and round we go.

The Wheel has one more and very significant character. This character holds the Wheel.


This rather frightening looking character illuminates a central tenet of Buddhism, that of impermanence.

But this is not all. If we look carefully we can make out a finger pointing at the moon. This final image is a warning! No matter how well you think you have grasped the symbolism of the 'Wheel' it is not even close to the experience gained through insight, direct and unmediated things as they really are, of reality.

Triratna Buddhist Community

Further reading

Meeting the Buddhas by Vessantara

Mandala - Journey to the centre by Bailey Cunningham

Vision and Transformation by Sangharakshita

The Buddhist Vision by Subhuti

The Wheel of Life by Kulananda

The Udana and the Itivuttaka by John Ireland

A Guide to the Buddhist Path by Sangharakshita

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