For other uses, see Samsara (disambiguation).
A painting of the bhavacakra in Sera Monastery, Tibet
Translations of
English wheel of life,
wheel of cyclic existence,
Pali bhavacakka
(Dev: भभचक्क)
Sanskrit bhavacakra
(Dev: भवचक्र)
Tibetan སྲིད་པའི་འཁོར་ལོ་
(Wylie: srid pa'i 'khor lo;
THL: sipé khorlo
Glossary of Buddhism

The bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Pāli: bhavacakka; Tibetan: srid pa'i 'khor lo) is a symbolic representation of saṃsāra (or cyclic existence) found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the Indo-Tibetan region. In the Mahayana Buddhism, it is believed that the drawing was designed by the Buddha himself in order to help ordinary people understand Buddhist teachings.

The bhavacakra is popularly referred to as the wheel of life, and may also be glossed as wheel of cyclic existence or wheel of becoming.


Legend has it that the historical Buddha himself created the first depiction of the bhavacakra, and the story of how he gave the illustration to King Rudrāyaṇa appears in the anthology of Buddhist narratives called the Divyāvadāna.

The bhavacakra is painted on the outside walls of nearly every Tibetan Buddhist temple in Tibet and India.[1] Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche states:

One of the reasons why the Wheel of Life was painted outside the monasteries and on the walls (and was really encouraged even by the Buddha himself) was to teach this very profound Buddhist philosophy of life and perception to more simple-minded farmers or cowherds. So these images on the Wheel of Life are just to communicate to the general audience.[2]

Explanation of the diagram

A traditional Tibetan thangka showing the bhavacakra. This thangka was made in Eastern Tibet and is currently housed in the Birmingham Museum of Art.


The meanings of the main parts of the diagram are:

  1. The images in the hub of the wheel represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion.
  2. The second layer represents karma.
  3. The third layer represents the six realms of samsara.
  4. The fourth layer represents the twelve links of dependent origination.
  5. The fierce figure holding the wheel represents impermanence.[3]
  6. The moon above the wheel represents liberation from samsara or cyclic existence.
  7. The Buddha pointing to the white circle indicates that liberation is possible.

Symbolically, the three inner circles, moving from the center outward, show that the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion give rise to positive and negative actions; these actions and their results are called karma. Karma in turn gives rise to the six realms, which represent the different types of suffering within samsara.

The fourth and outer layer of the wheel symbolizes the twelve links of dependent origination; these links indicate how the sources of suffering—the three poisons and karma—produce lives within cyclic existence.

The fierce being holding the wheel represents impermanence; this symbolizes that the entire process of samsara or cyclic existence is impermanent, transient, constantly changing. The moon above the wheel indicates liberation. The Buddha is pointing to the moon, indicating that liberation from samsara is possible.[4][5]

Hub: the three poisons

In the hub of the wheel are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird. They represent the three poisons of ignorance, aversion, and attachment, respectively. The pig stands for ignorance; this comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals, since it sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. The snake represents aversion or anger; this is because it will be aroused and strike at the slightest touch. The bird represents attachment (also translated as desire or clinging). The particular bird used in this diagram represents an Indian bird that is very attached to its partner. These three animals represent the three poisons, which are the core of the bhavacakra. From these three poisons, the whole cycle of existence evolves.[6][7]

In many drawings of the wheel, the snake and bird are shown as coming out of the mouth of the pig, indicating that aversion and attachment arise from ignorance. The snake and bird are also shown grasping the tail of the pig, indicating that they in turn promote greater ignorance.[7]

Under the influence of the three poisons, beings create karma, as shown in the next layer of the circle.

Second layer: karma

The second layer of the wheel shows two-half circles:

These images represent karma, the law of cause and effect. The light half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of positive actions. The dark half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of negative actions.[7]

Ringu Tulku states:

We create karma in three different ways, through actions that are positive, negative, or neutral. When we feel kindness and love and with this attitude do good things, which are beneficial to both ourselves and others, this is positive action. When we commit harmful deeds out of equally harmful intentions, this is negative action. Finally, when our motivation is indifferent and our deeds are neither harmful or beneficial, this is neutral action. The results we experience will accord with the quality of our actions.[8]

Propelled by their karma, beings take rebirth in the six realms of samsara, as shown in the next layer of the circle.

Third layer: the six realms of samsara

The third layer of the wheel is divided into six sections that represent the six realms of samsara, or cyclic existence, the process of cycling through one rebirth after another. These six realms are divided into three higher realms and three lower realms. The wheel can also be represented as having five realms, combining the God realm and the Demi-god realm into a single realm.

The three higher realms are shown in the top half of the circle:

The three lower realms are shown in the bottom half of the circle:

Among the six realms, the human realm is considered to offer the best opportunity to practice the dharma.[12] In some representations of the wheel, there is a buddha or bodhisattva depicted within each realm, trying to help sentient beings find their way to nirvana.

Outer rim: the twelve links

The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the Twelve Nidānas. As previously stated, the three inner layers of the wheel show that the three poisons lead to karma, which leads to the suffering of the six realms. The twelve links of the outer rim show how this happens—by presenting the process of cause and effect in detail.[15][16]

These twelve links can be understood to operate on an outer or inner level.[17]

By contemplating on the twelve links, one gains greater insight into the workings of karma; this insight enables us to begin to unravel our habitual way of thinking and reacting.[17][19][20]

The twelve causal links, paired with their corresponding symbols, are:

  1. Avidyā lack of knowledge  a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out
  2. Saṃskāra constructive volitional activity  a potter shaping a vessel or vessels
  3. Vijñāna consciousness  a man or a monkey grasping a fruit
  4. Nāmarūpa name and form (constituent elements of mental and physical existence)  two men afloat in a boat
  5. Ṣaḍāyatana six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind)  a dwelling with six windows
  6. Sparśa contact  lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined
  7. Vedanā pain  an arrow to the eye
  8. Tṛṣṇa thirst  a drinker receiving drink
  9. Upādāna grasping  a man or a monkey picking fruit
  10. Bhava coming to be  a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person
  11. Jāti being born  woman giving birth
  12. Jarāmaraṇa old age and death  corpse being carried

The figure holding the wheel: impermanence

The wheel is being held by a fearsome figure who represents impermanence.[21]

This figure is most commonly depicted as Yama, the lord of death. Regardless of the figure depicted, the inner meaning remains the same–that the entire process of cyclic existence (samsara) is transient; everything within this wheel is constantly changing.[22]

Yama has the following attributes:

The moon: liberation

A painting of the bhavacakra in Thikse Monastery, Ladakh.

Above the wheel is an image of the moon; the moon represents liberation from the sufferings of samsara.[16][25][26]

Thubten Chodron states:

The moon is nirvana [i.e. liberation]. Nirvana is the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It's the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising. The Buddha is pointing us to that.[26]

Chögyam Trungpa states:

The truth of cessation is a personal discovery. It is not mystical and does not have any connotations of religion or psychology. It is simply your experience ... Likewise, cessation is not just a theoretical discovery, but an experience that is very real to you–a sudden gain. It is like experiencing instantaneous good health: you have no cold, no flu, no aches, and no pains in your body. You feel perfectly well, absolutely refreshed and wakeful! Such an experience is possible.[27]

Some drawings may show an image of a "pure land" to indicate liberation, rather than a moon.

The Buddha pointing to the white circle: the path to liberation

The upper part of the drawing also shows an image of the Buddha pointing toward the moon; this represents the path to liberation.[16][25][26]

Thubten Chodron states:

So the Buddha's gesture is like the path to enlightenment. It's not that the Buddha is the cause of nirvana. The Buddha is a cooperative condition of our nirvana. He indicates the path to us, he points out to us what to practice and what to abandon in order to be liberated. When we follow the path, we get the result, which is nirvana.[26]

Chögyam Trungpa states:

The nature of the path is more like an exploration or an expedition than following a path that has already been built. When people hear that they should follow the path, they might think that a ready-make system exists, and that individual expressions are not required. They may think that one does not have to surrender or give or open. But when you actually begin to tread on the path, you realize that you have to clear out the jungle and all the trees, underbrush, and obstacles growing in front of you. You have to bypass tigers and elephants and poisonous snakes.[28]

Mark Epstein states:

The entire Wheel of Life is but a representation of the possibility of transforming suffering by changing the way we relate to it. As the Buddha taught in his final exhortation to his faithful attendant Ananda, it is only through becoming a "lamp unto yourself" that enlightenment can be won. Liberation from the Wheel of Life does not mean escape, the Buddha implied. It means clear perception of oneself, of the entire range of the human experience ...[29]

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha told his followers:

I have shown you the path that leads to liberation
But you should know that liberation depends upon yourself.


Drawings of the Bhavacakra usually contain an inscription consisting of a few lines of text that explain the process that keeps us in samara and how to reverse that process.[16]

Psychological interpretation

From a psychological point of view, different karmic actions contribute to one's metaphorical existence in different realms, or rather, different actions reinforce personal characteristics described by the realms.

Mark Epstein states:

The core question of Buddhist practice, after all, is the psychological one of "Who am I?" Investigating this question requires exploration of the entire wheel. Each realm becomes not so much a specific place but rather a metaphor for a different psychological state, with the entire wheel becoming a representation of neurotic suffering.[30]

Within the Theravada tradition

T. B. Karunaratne states:

Though in Theravāda literature there is no mention of an actual pictorial execution of a "Wheel of Life," yet the concept of comparing Dependent Origination to a wheel is not unknown. In the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), the famous commentator Buddhaghosa Acariya says:
"It is the beginningless round of rebirths that is called the 'Wheel of the round of rebirths' (saṃsāracakka). Ignorance (avijjā) is its hub (or nave) because it is its root. Ageing-and-death (jarā-maraṇa) is its rim (or felly) because it terminates it. The remaining ten links (of the Dependent Origination) are its spokes (i.e. karma formations [saṅkhāra] up to process of becoming [bhava])."[31]

English translations of the term bhavacakra

The term bhavacakra has been translated into English as:


See also



    1. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 1
    2. Dzongsar Khyentse (2004), p. 3.
    3. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 42–43.
    4. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 41-43.
    5. Sonam Rinchen (2006), p. 8-9.
    6. Ringu Tulku (2005), p. 30.
    7. 1 2 3 Dalai Lama (1992), p. 4, 42.
    8. Ringu Tulku (2005), p. 31.
    9. Khandro Rinpoche (2003), p. 65-90.
    10. Chögyam Trungpa (1999), p. 25-50.
    11. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 5-8.
    12. 1 2 Dzongsar Khyentse (2005), p. 2-3.
    13. Patrul Rinpoche (1998), p. 61-99.
    14. Gampopa (1998), p. 95-108
    15. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 8 (from the Introduction by Jeffrey Hopkins)
    16. 1 2 3 4 Sonam Rinchen (2006), p. 9.
    17. 1 2 3 4 Thrangu Rinpoche (2001), pp. 3, 32
    18. Simmer-Brown (1987), p. 24
    19. Goodman, Location 1492 (Kindel edition)
    20. Simmer-Brown (1987), p. 28
    21. Dalai Lama (1992), p. 42–43.
    22. Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Birmingham Museum of Art: Guide to the Collection. London, UK: GILES. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5. Retrieved 2011-07-12.
    23. 1 2 3 Khantipalo (1995-2011)
    24. Thubten Chodron (1993), Part 1 of 5, p. 1
    25. 1 2 Dalai Lama (1992), p. 43.
    26. 1 2 3 4 Thubten Chodron (1993), Part 2 of 5, p. 5
    27. Chögyam Trungpa (2009), p. 64
    28. Chögyam Trungpa (2009), p. 91
    29. Epstein, Mark (2004), p. 40.
    30. Epstein, Mark (2004), p. 17.
    31. Karunaratne, T. B. (2008), p. 14.
    32. Gethin (1998), pp. 158-9.


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