Bhutans religion | Buddha Shakyamuni | The Buddhas life | The wheel of life

The wheel of life

While meditating, Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have seen the ever-lasting cycle of life (samsara*) shortly before his enlightenment. In the moment of enlightenment he identified the conditions and the way of attaining release.

This visionary insight is represented pictorially by the »wheel of life« (bhavacakra).

These days, drawings and paintings of the wheel of life are mainly used for didactic purposes, to relate the basics of the Buddhist doctrine in a clear way also to the simple, less educated believers. The representations of the wheel of life always follow the same schema.


In the hub of the wheel of life a pig, a snake and a rooster symbolise the »three fundamental poisons« that cause the cycle of existences: ignorance, hatred and greed. As long as a human being is controlled by them, he will, after death, return into one of the six worlds of rebirth, which are represented between the spokes of the wheel. Which of these worlds he will be born into will be decided by the relation between good and bad deeds in his previous life.

In the wheel rim there is a twelve-part allegory of the chain of conditions which leads to the ever-lasting cycle of rebirths.

A demon keeps a firm grip on the wheel of rebirths: an allegory of time as all consuming and eternal.

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The wheel of life is held down by a demon, which symbolises the eternity of time. The hub of the wheel allegorically shows the three fundamental evils of our mortal existence: ignorance, hatred and envy.
Original privately owned

Mural next to the entrance to a hall of prayers in the Paro Dzong
The main purpose of the »Wheel of Life « is to explain Buddhist teaching in an image and can usually be found next to entrances of monasteries.
Photo by Martin Brauen