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Wheel of Life

by Rev.Keisho Leary


Already well-established in India before the time of the Buddha was the psychological system known as The Wheel of Samsara, or The Cycle of Existence, or The Path of Transmigration. It is depicted as a circle divided like a pie into six realms, each having numerous subdivisions. Following Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, four more realms outside the bounds and bonds of samsara were recognized: those who hear the Dharma (sravakas); those who understand the Dharma (pratyekabuddhas); bodhisattvas; and Buddhas.

On Shakyamuni’s night of enlightenment, in the first watch of the night, he witnessed his own former lives, one by one far back into the past. Then in the second watch of the night, sitting in deep meditation, he turned his attention to other beings and saw them arising and passing away. And he saw that the place where each was reborn was the cause and result of the person’s previous actions, both good and bad. That is, birth in the higher realms was the result of a preponderance of virtuous actions, while the lower realms were the destiny of those who amassed harmful karma.


Though Dharma practitioners can witness people leading lives of pleasure, enjoying the stimulation of all the senses, they themselves do not crave that realm, aware of the bondage it entails. They practice for the purpose of ending the cycle of rebirths, getting off the Wheel of Samsara, being released from suffering, and leading others toward Nirvana and to insight into Buddha Nature.


If we are familiar with the features and processes of the Six Realms, how we move around the wheel, and the causes of bondage, then we can take actions to end that cycle. From any mode of existence, direct liberation is possible, without getting sidetracked into efforts to make life more pleasant. From where you stand now, just as you are, you can become the Buddha. The practice of contemplating the Wheel of Existence can be extremely worthwhile for anybody in spiritual life. It was the practice of the great 6th century Tendai patriarch Chi-I, as his preparation for entering into a long period of samatha-vipassana meditation.


In artistic renderings of the Wheel of Samsara, Heaven is placed at the top, flanked by the Asuras on one side and the Human Realm on the other. At the bottom are the Hells, with the Ghosts and Animals on either side. Let’s start with the HELL REALMS. Descriptions of the Hells, with their nearly endless types of tortures and pains, abound in the religious literature of all kinds, but is this really necessary? For a person living in Hell, his only thought is to get out of there. He is fully aware of the suffering and he yearns to escape. Any help from anybody is readily accepted, so there is no need to describe in detail all the kinds of suffering.


Next is the ANIMAL REALM, one aspect of which is living like a farm animal, providing others with their livelihood and happiness while oneself being tethered and penned in, without the freedom to, every now and then, make one’s own decisions about where to go and what to do, being like a slave, carrying out the master’s wishes. Temple life in Japan can be like this. All one’s time is devoted to maintenance work, so much so that conversing with visitors is not allowed, such conversation felt to be a waste of time when there is no time to waste, there is too much work to be done. No time for Dharma practice either: meditation or sutra recitation is only a token if at all, maybe 10 minutes for a morning service.


The Animal Realm also includes wild creatures of course, but as their numbers dwindle and as humans dwelling in cities are cut off from contact with nature, this aspect plays an increasingly minor role in human psychology.


If one accumulates virtues in the Animal Realm, he may transmigrate upward and be born in the HUMAN REALM. This is the social world involving education, a career, raising a family, keeping a home, and a variety of leisure activities, all woven together with social interaction, jabbering away and listening to jibber-jabber, time being frittered away with talk of “leaders, criminals, armies, dangers, wars, food & drink, clothes & bedding, jewelry & perfumes, relationships, cars, neighborhoods, cities, nations, women, heroes, streets, public utilities, dead people, trivia, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, whether something is true or not.” Such talk Shakyamuni described 2500 years ago, heard not only in the villages but among the various religious communities he encountered in his wanderings. Back then, as now, merely joining some religious group did not mean you had abandoned Samsara. Belonging to a spiritual group or religious community may serve a beneficial social role, while at the same time binding one to the cycle of suffering.


Nevertheless, the Human Realm is a fortunate one in that it can provide the freedom and support for one aspiring to Buddhahood. For example, by the simple expedient of turning off the boob tube, or of renouncing some entertainment time, one could then use that same time in contemplation of the worthiness and happiness of his existence. However, “happiness” for most means such things as increased wealth, delicious food, more frequent sex, good health, good friends, vacations and so forth. So even when using some time to contemplate Life, people usually don’t consider renunciation as an option, but rather dream of and strive for a “better” life, transmigration to a higher realm where never is heard a discouraging word and skies are not cloudy all day. And if in fact, they do amass sufficient good karma, they may indeed transmigrate and be born in the HEAVEN REALMS.


However, despite the widespread belief, Heaven is not such a fortunate realm for seekers of enlightenment because existence becomes so pleasant that gone is the urge to get off the Wheel, gone the urgency to rouse one’s energy, far away are the memories of the sufferings of the lower realms and the cries of the people in need. Dwelling in Heaven the accumulation of merit stops, they live from the stock of previous lives, and when that is eventually exhausted they fall. Or they begin to worry about losing their pleasant state, they worry about how to store the accouterments of Heaven, how to protect them from rain, thieves, the taxman, aging. The inhabitants of the next realm, the Asuras, the fighting spirits, are constantly looking for ways to attack the Heavens, to take away all that wealth, all those fine possessions, and beautiful objects. The heavenly inhabitants, in order to preserve and continue their happy life, will have to battle against the Asuras, thereby themselves entering the ASURA REALM.


Such things as wars, terrorism, crimes, oppression, destruction, and domination, all so much visible in the news reports nowadays, are hallmarks of the Asura Realm. Asuras habitually indulge in evil thoughts and intentions. However occasionally, after experiencing first-hand bloodshed and loss, an Asura will wake up to his evil ways and thereafter seek an end to suffering. Possessing great strength and the ability to make efforts, the Asura can succeed in the religious life when he turns those abilities inward to root out the causes of suffering.


On the other hand, he may become drunk with his power, may become mentally unbalanced or addicted to drugs, or suffer post-traumatic-stress syndrome and have trouble functioning in daily activities. Such are some of the signs in the next realm downward, the sixth realm, the HUNGRY GHOSTS. As in the other five realms, numerous types and sub-types exist, but the one which I see most commonly these days is due to the effects of long-term drug use, the person incapable of finding contentment. While he might quite clearly conceive of a better state of existence than his present one, his body loses the ability to achieve it. His desire increases but life gets worse. The mind reaches higher and higher but the body deteriorates lower and lower. This separation between the body and mind is why the realm is called hungry ghosts, or disembodied spirits. Iconography depicts it as a very thirsty person with a tiny throat the diameter of a needle. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot satisfy that thirst.


Very difficult to escape from this realm, most likely one will drift down into the hells, and so the wheel goes round and round, life after life, repeating this cycle. One’s habitual way of thinking is what keeps one bound in any realm, but in the ghost realm the habits are so strong as to become addictions. Yet even here bodhisattvas appear, sometimes in the form of a person who has himself overcome addiction and been inspired to show and encourage others how to break their addictions, how to escape the ghost realms, how to walk in the Buddhadharma, free and content. 



(Reprinted with permission of Rev. Dr. Douken Unkai, President of the former California Tendai Monastery)



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