Buddhism A–Z
What is the Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra) in Buddhism?
Photo by Maren Yumi Motomura on Flickr

The Wheel of Life (Pali: bhavacakka; Sanskrit: bhavacakra) is a visual presentation of the cycle of existence or samsara

While today it is often associated with Tibetan Buddhism, the Wheel originated in India. The earliest extant version is found in the Ajanta cave complex in south India. According to several early Indian texts, the Buddha instructed that the Wheel be displayed at the entrances of monasteries so that lay people might learn from it.

The Wheel illustrates many Buddhist teachings, especially those related to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and the teaching of karma. The illustrations are organized into a series of concentric circles – wheels within wheels. There are some variations in how the illustrations are drawn, but what follows describes the traditional symbols.

Central Symbols: The Three Poisons

At the Wheel’s center, three creatures symbolize the three poisons or the three primary afflictions that keep us bound to samsara. The pig signifies ignorance. The snake symbolizes anger or hatred. The rooster represents greed. These three afflictions keep the Wheel turning. The animals usually are drawn chasing each other in a circle, sometimes biting the tail of the animal before. 

The Second Layer: Karma

The second layer represents the fruits of karma. Here, the Wheel presents two half-circles: a bright one portrays individuals ascending to a fortunate rebirth or possibly liberation from the Wheel. The people in the dark half-circle are heading for one of the less pleasant of the Six Realms. 

The Third Layer: The Six Realms

The third layer of the Wheel is the largest one. It illustrates six realms of samsara, which may be understood as physical places or as mental or psychological states. Usually, in each realm, the artist adds a buddha or bodhisattva, offering compassion and the dharma.

  1. The Deva Realm. This is at the top of the standard Wheel. The devas are gods or celestial beings. They enjoy wealth and power and live very long lives. However, their privileges blind them to the suffering of others, and they do not develop wisdom and compassion. Even the devas eventually die and are subject to another rebirth.
  2. The Asura or Jealous God Realm. Moving clockwise from the Deva Realm is the Asura Realm. Asuras also are powerful and privileged, but they are also envious. They hunger for power, for status, for everything the devas have. Some Wheels show the asuras attacking the devas.
  3. The Preta or Hungry Ghost Realm is usually right beneath the Asura Realm. Hungry ghosts are pitiful beings with huge, empty stomachs. But they have tiny mouths, and their necks are so thin they cannot swallow. They are characterized by insatiable hunger and craving and are also associated with addiction, obsession, and compulsion.
  4. Naraka or the Hell Realm. This usually is the realm at the bottom of the Wheel. This is the most terrible of the Six Realms. Unchecked anger and aggression lead to the Hell Realm.
  5. The Animal Realm. Animal beings are marked by prejudice and distrust of anything unfamiliar. They constantly fear becoming prey to other animals.
  6. The Human Realm. On the upper left, between the Animal and Deva realms, is the Human Realm. It is only from this realm that one may escape the Wheel and enter Nirvana.

Outer Layer

The outer rim of the wheel has twelve sections, each representing one of the twelve links of dependent origination. The twelve links show a progression from birth to death to rebirth. The links of the chain are represented in many ways, but usually, the first, ignorance, is illustrated by someone blind. Next is volition, illustrated by a potter making pots. The chain continues through the formation of the skandhas and several types of consciousness to birth, which is the eleventh link. And then old age and death is the twelfth. 

The Creature Holding the Wheel

A frightening creature holds the Wheel, and his face appears above it. This is Yama, who represents impermanence. The original Yama was a deity of Hinduism. In the Vedas, he was the first mortal who died, and thereafter, he became the lord of death and the underworld. In Buddhism, Yama became a dharmapala, a dharma protector. In spite of his frightening visage, he is not an evil being. 

Outside the Wheel

Other symbols can appear outside the Wheel. Traditionally, there is a Buddha in the upper right corner of the painting. He points or gestures toward a moon, usually in the upper left corner. The moon represents enlightenment and liberation from the Wheel, and the Buddha is telling us that liberation is possible. The artist may also add a temple or open gate in the left corner, representing Nirvana. There may be a path between Nirvana and the Human Realm.

Related Reading

What Turns the Wheel of Samsara

Francesca Fremantle, from her book Luminous Emptiness, discusses the wheel of life and how the Buddha decontructed it.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.