The Buddhist Wheel of Life

Be a good person and you too can become a demigod

Trekkers and mountaineers who spend a lot of time travelling in the Himalayas often experience the feeling of being gompered out, ie. having visited so many Buddhist monasteries (or gompas) that they all seem to merge into one. It’s true that many of the same paintings and artefacts can be seen, and there have certainly been times when I’ve felt the most interesting thing about a gompa is the scenery around it, but travelling is always more satisfying if you take an interest in the culture, and the more I’ve travelled in the Himalayas the more I’ve read about Buddhism, and I probably get more satisfaction from a monastery visit than the average mountaineer.

The Buddhist Wheel of Life, as depicted in Paro Dzong, Bhutan
The Buddhist Wheel of Life, as depicted in Paro Dzong, Bhutan

One of the characteristic paintings that can be seen in many monasteries is the Buddhist Wheel of Life, and last year I was able to film our liaison officer Tashi explaining it as we visited the hilltop monastery of Shegar in Tibet.

The wheel is divided into six sectors denoting the six realms of existence: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. Buddhists believe your behaviour in each life generates karma which determines which realm you will be born to in the next life. It’s therefore possible to move between realms from life to life depending on your good (or bad) behaviour.

At the centre of the wheel are three animals: a peacock, a pig, and a snake. Each of these three animals represents one of the three causes of suffering: attachment, ignorance, and anger. It’s possible for anyone born as a human to put an end to suffering and achieve enlightenment (nirvana or buddhahood) by throwing off each of these causes.

Around the edge of the wheel are the twelve links of interdependence, which one after another lead from birth to death and rebirth once again. Only by attaining enlightenment can this cycle be broken.

I think I can confidently say that I have far too much attachment to climbing mountains to have any chance of becoming enlightened in this life. 😉

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