The Wheel of Life – Samsara


The wheel of life (bhavachakra in sanskrit, or samsara for others) is often found on the exterior walls of the monasteries, on either side of the main entrance. It represents samsara which is a synonim of the word life. The “wheel” also happens to be a synonim of samsara, as it can also means “cycle” or “rotation”.

Samsara an Iconographic Concept

The Wheel of Life : The key to our existence

Meaning of Bhavachakra

By Samsara (bhavachakra) we are talking of all existences that are conditioned by: ignorance, suffering and the unexplainable flow of time, often represented by Yama holding the wheel of life. Nirvana, on the other hand, represents the world unaffected by negative emotions, which by definition is the nature of true happiness.

The notion of a rotation or cycle, is explained by the fact that humans or beings, as I will call them for the remainder of this article, do not occupy a stable place within Samsara, but depending on their Karma will pass from one type of existence to another.

The 3 Poisons – Fuel for Samsara

3 Poisons of The Wheel of Life

The 3 Posions of Samsara

The engine of the Wheel of Life

The three poisons or the three fundamental sufferings (by this I mean the three things from which we suffer every hour of every day until we reach nirvana) occupy the center of the Wheel of Life, as they act as “fuel” giving momentum to the “wheel”.

3 Poisons of Samsara

  1. Desire : represented by a cockerel.
  2. Hatred/Jealousy : represented by the snake.
  3. Ignorance : Represented by a pig.

Bardo : Between Death and Re-Birth..

The next circle out from the Wheel of Life is called Bardo and shows spirits pulled downwards by Demons (right), as they have forgotten Dharma and let the 3 Poisons overcome them. And disciples of dharma being lead upwards, having fought to overcome the 3 Poisons, and the negative karma that it brings.The term Bardo has no direct translation, as it roots itself in the concept of re-birth, something I consider to be relatively new to the “west”. It represents the state which our spirits find themselves in the moment between life and death – the Intermediate State.

Samsara begins at the subconscious state of Bardo, continues into birth and is completed at the moment of death, thus the imagery or literal translation : the Wheel of Life.

The 6 Worlds of the Wheel of Life

Samsara – Hand in hand with Karma

As our Karma matures, it will find itself in its corresponding “world”.
If individuals find themselves with similar Karmas, their conscious will experience, through common perceptions, an identical world. Humans for example, all have identical sense organs (the 5 senses) which grants them access to an identical world (ours). Buddhism however allows a multiplicity of possible manifestations, each functioning in a parallel “universe”.

There exists 6 worlds : Gods, Titans, Humans, Animals, Hungry Spirits and Hell. We as humans can only perceive 2 the Human world (ours) and the Animal world. From a Buddhist perspective , the fact we cannot perceive the other worlds does not condemn their existence, but further proves that we are blinded by what we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. The existence if the 6 worlds is demonstrated by the numerous enlightened beings that posses faculties that are far superior to ours.

The 2 main groups : The Essence of Samsara

The 6 worlds of the Wheel of Life can also be split into 2 groups:

  1. Three Upper Worlds : Which regroups Gods, Titans and Humans, in which happiness is greater than suffering.
  2. Three Lower Worlds : Which regroups Animals, Hungry Spirits and Hell, in which suffering is greater than happiness.

The 6 Worlds of Samsara :

Wheel of Life - Gods

World of the Gods

1 – Gods – Highest order within the Wheel of Life

The gods (déva), during the course of extremely long lives, enjoy the pleasure of all things. Their suffering comes at the end of their lives, where they are rejected by their community and glimpse into the world in which they will be re-born which, by definition, will be a lesser world, having drained their merits bathing for centuries in more luxuries than we may dream of.
Pride associated with large amounts of positive karma can lead you to be re-born in this part of the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life - Titans

World of the Titans

2 – The Titans – Samsara at work

The Titans (assoura) or demi-gods are very powerful beings whose main occupation and suffering is to be constantly engaged in conflicts and arguments.
Legend has it that the Tree of Life grows in this world, but the Fruit of Eternal Life which it bears, falls into the World of the Gods. Which is the nature behind their Jealousy and Constant conflict with the Gods.

Jealousy associated with some good karma leads to rebirth in this realm of the Wheel of Life.

the Wheel of Life - Human World

Human (our) World

3 – The Humans – Our part of the Wheel of Life

Humans (mansuya)suffer principally of : birth, ageing, sickness, and death, but also of many other sufferings and difficulties. Unlike the other worlds it is possible to get spiritual teaching in this world, which is not the case for the other worlds.

Desire, coupled with a superior capacity for good karma than bad karma, leads to rebirth in this realm of the wheel of life.

Wheel of Life - Animal World

Animal World

4 – Animals – Everyday Samsara

Animals (tiryanca) suffer from cold, hunger, sickness, cannibalism, enslavement and exploitation by humans. They also suffer from very limited intelligence.

The negative karma that is associated to ignorance leads to rebirth in the animal world of Samsara.


Wheel of Life - Hungry Spirits

World of the Hungry Spirits

5 – Hungry Spirits – The beginning of the wheel of Life’s “hell”

The hungry spirits suffer from a hunger and thirst that can never be quenched or satisfied by the seldom occasions they find food or water.

Greed and the negative karma associated with it will lead to rebirth in this realm of the Wheel of Life.


Wheel of Life - Hell


6 – The Damned – Hell in the Wheel of Life

The damned (naraka) are those who live in Buddhist hell, worlds of intense suffering in which life is extremely long. The being that find themselves there are subject to torture with fire and ice and numerous other sufferings.

Negative karma associated to hatred, will lead to rebirth in Samsara hell.


A Buddha for each world : Samsara

The understanding of the wheel of life or Samsara as some prefer to call it, would not be complete without this vital piece of information: The human world, due to a balance between good and evil, makes spiritual practice easier to accomplish, and hence is favoured by the Buddhas. But it is not because they favour our (human) world that they do not intervene in all the worlds to lessen the burdens of suffering that all beings carry and if possible lead them the to the path of liberation (enlightenment). There are 6 groups of Buddhas that act in each world :

  1. INDRA “Offerings a Hundredfold” – white in colour, for the Gods
  2. VEMACITRA “Spendid Robe” – green in colour, for the Titans.
  3. SHAKYASIMHA “Lion of the Shakyas” – yellow in colour, for the Human World.
  4. DHRUVASIMHA “Unmovable Lion” – green in colour, for the Animal World.
  5. JVALAMUKHA “Flamboyant Mouth” – red in colour, for the world of the Hungry Spirits.
  6. DHARMARAJA “King of Dharma” – black in colour, for Hell.

As you can see from the list above, no world is forgotten and enlightenment is possible from any of the worlds, yet as explained above the balance between good and evil found in our world, allows us a larger capacity to perhaps after many hours of meditation, multiple Siddhis, endless generosity and happiness we will finally escape the grips of Yama.

Yama - the Keeper of Time

Yama – Ruler of all Beings in Samsara


The remaining elements will be posted soon :

Yama – God of Death and The 12 Interdependant Factors.


Comments 13

  1. Thank you for visiting my site –! You’ve got an interesting blog here. It will be visited by me often!


  2. Bonjour Satcheen, là encore voici une présentation très intéressante et très bien documentée sur La Roue de La Vie. Sans parler de la thangka que nous présente, elle est superbe!!!

    Vraiment passionnant! merci Satcheen de partager avec nous ta connaissance sur l’Art de la Thangka, véritable joyau de l’Art Bouddhiste!!

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  5. Hello,
    Where is the best place at home where to put the picture of Weel of life? Can it be living room, southwest wall? Thank you!

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    The living room is a lovely place to put a Wheel of Life. Generally North and East are considered to be the directions associated with the divine. Yet this rule is relative to a place of worship, therefore if you are interested in using this Thangka for meditation, I would recommend choosing either North or East (North-East will do).
    The only place that is considered “wrong” is the kitchen or a wall at the foot of a bed, as the Thangka would then be facing to soles of your feet which is highly inauspicious.
    We live in a world of constraints, so if the southwest wall is the only place, the Buddhas with all their compassion will not hold it against you!

  7. I am preparing teaching material and a PHD proposal which will later form the bases of the PhD. Can I use material from this article, pictures and text? I will include a link to your blog.

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  9. Hello, This has been a very interesting read for me as i was given a Thangka a few years ago while living in Japan. I sort of knew what it was but really understood the meaning behind it. How would i go about finding out what story my Thangka tells?
    Thank you

  10. Your explanation of the wheel of samsara was most beneficial this evening. I was trying to explain to gf that most people who say “karma” don’t really know what they’re talking about. It is very similar, not the same as what Jesus said in Mathew: “Do unto others…”

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