Posted by: mkl325 | October 20, 2013

Tibetan Wheel of Life

On October 8, Akong Tulku Rinpoche (pictured below with his brother) from Samye Ling was murdered in Chengdu China along with his nephew and another monk.

Akong Rinpoche (left) and Lama Yeshe (right). Photo courtesy of Samye Ling.

Akong Rinpoche (left) and Lama Yeshe (right). Photo courtesy of Samye Ling.

It has been a little strange how hard this hit me, as I only met Akong Rinpoche this past May. He was the man who conducted my Refuge Ceremony and gave me my name, so he was an instrumental part of my conversion, and it breaks my heart that his life ended in such a violent way. If you want to read more about the details and reactions to the case, check out Kagyu Samye Ling‘s website (

As I have not posted in a while, and in honor of Akong Rinpoche, I thought I would breakdown some Tibetan art –  namely how to read the Tibetan Wheel of Life.  I am still learning so I can say that this information is correct to the best of my knowledge but there are probably some symbols and nuances that I have missed.

Here is one version of the Tibetan Wheel of Life

Tibetan Wheel of Life 1

It is also known as the Wheel of Samsara. Samsara is a Sanskrit word that translates as “continuous flow” and is used to describe the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. When one reaches enlightenment, they no longer have to take part in this cycle, however some return to the cycle to help others obtain enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Karmapa are such beings, called bodhisattvas. Akong Rinpoche was a recognized Tulku, and the reincarnation of the first Akong, Abbot of the Dolma Lhakang – where Akong Rinpoche’s body has been taken for cremation this week.

In the center of the wheel are a rooster (representing greed), a snake (representing anger), and a boar (representing ignorance). These are the forces that keep beings spinning in samsara. They are called the three poisons, as they poison the journey of anyone who harbors these emotions.


Surrounding the three poisons is a circle called the Sidpa Bardo.  On the left side the bodhisattvas are guiding beings to rebirths of higher realms, and on the right side  demons lead the beings to the lower realms of rebirth.

There are six different realms possible for rebirth. The highest realm (literally- as it is always depicted at the top) is the Realm of the Devas, or Gods.


Those born in the realm of the Devas live long lives, full of wealth, power, and happiness. While this sounds ideal, those born into this realm have no motivation to try and reach enlightenment as they are unable to recognize the suffering inherent in samsara.

On one side of the realm of the Devas, is the realm of the Asuras (the jealous gods). In the picture above it is to the right of the Devas.


Asuras are paranoid and highly competitive. Their main goal is to beat the competition (who consists of everyone they encounter) and do so through belittlement and through their ability to hide behind moral stances (a lot like politicians). While they sometimes accomplish good, it is always first and foremost for their own benefit.

They are constantly waring with the Devas, as the Asuras feel that they belong in the realm of the Devas. They constantly fight to gain entrance. Sometimes the realms are combined into one depiction on the wheel.

The next realm is that of the Pretas, or Hungry Ghosts.


This is the first of the lower realms. The ghosts have huge, empty stomachs, and thin necks. The size of their necks make it impossible for them to receive any nourishment. They are usually associated with addictions, compulsions, and obsessions. This realm is sometimes found between the realms of the Asuras and Hell but can sometime be found between the realms of Humans and Hell.

At the bottom of the wheel is the Hell Realm.


The Hell realm is on fire and frozen in ice. The beings, known as Narakas, are frozen or subjected to pain and torment. The beings in the fiery part of hell are angry, abusive, and drive away anyone who care for them. Those frozen become self destructive through isolation and their need to unfeelingly push others away.

The third, and final, of the lower realms is the Animal Realm.


Barbara O’Brien refers to the beings in this realm as having “no sense of humor”. The goal of animals, called Tiryakas, is to seek comfort and avoid the unfamiliar. The realm is therefore bound by ignorance and complacency.

The final realm is the Human Realm.


O’Brien describes it as such “The human realm is marked by questioning and curiosity. It is also a realm of passion; human beings (Manushyas) want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore. Here the Dharma is openly available, yet only a few seek it. The rest become caught up in striving, consuming, and acquiring, and miss the opportunity.”

The outer circle of the wheel is called the Paticca Samuppada, and represents the twelve links of dependent origination. These are chains of causes which lead to other causes. there is no beginning link, for everything is interconnected.

O’Brien describes the representation of these links as such: “Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pieced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death)”

On the outside of the wheel, holding it in place is the Yama, who is a wrathful deity and lord of the Hell Realm.


He represents death but is not evil, despite his gruesome appearance. Although he is meant to invoke fear, he is actually a protector of Buddhism and Buddhists. This is to show that death, while feared and inevitable, is not evil.

Outside of the wheel, in the upper right hand corner, is the Buddha.


He represents the hope of liberation of enlightenment.

This representation of the wheel shows beings traveling from the wheel to Nirvana in the upper left corner. Normally, there is a moon representing enlightenment, such as in the depiction below.

Tibetan Wheel of Life 2


There is a belief that everything is connected and meant to be. I feel very honored to have not only had the chance to meet Akong Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe, but that Akong Rinpoche was meant to conduct my ceremony. He will be greatly missed.


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