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What Turns the Wheel of Life

 FRANCESCA FREMANTLE, from her book Luminous Emptiness, discusses the wheel of life and how the Buddha decontructed it.

The Buddha described all worldly phenomena as having three characteristics: impermanence, suffering and nonself. We suffer because we imagine what is not self to be self, what is impermanent to be permanent, and what, from an ultimate viewpoint, is pain to be pleasure. Existence with these three characteristics is called samsara, which means we are continually flowing, moving on, from one moment to the next moment, and from one life to the next life. Samsara is not the actual external world or life itself, but the way we interpret them.

Samsara is life as we live it under the influence of ignorance, the subjective world each of us creates for ourselves. This world contains good and evil, joy and pain, but they are relative, not absolute; they can be defined only in relationship to each other and are continually changing into their opposites. Although samsara seems to be all-powerful and all-pervading, it is created by our own state of mind, like the world of a dream, and it can be dissolved into nothingness just like awakening from a dream. When someone awakens to reality, even for a moment, the world does not disappear but is experienced in its true nature: pure, brilliant, sacred and indestructible.

The key to the Buddha's realization and teaching is the understanding of causality, because it is only when we know the cause of something that we can truly bring it to an end and prevent it from arising again. In his search for the origin of suffering, he found that he had to go right back to the very beginning, to the very first flicker of individual self-awareness. In his spiritual practice, too, he always went further and further, never satisfied with the states of knowledge, peace and bliss that he attained under the guidance of his teachers. He always wanted to know their cause and to see what lay beyond. In this way, he surpassed his teachers and eventually attained his great awakening.

The Buddha awoke to a state of perfect enlightenment, which he described as deathless, unborn and unchanging. If it were not for that, he said, there could be no escape from birth and death, impermanence and suffering. There is indeed a condition of ultimate peace, bliss, knowledge and freedom, but to reach it, we must first understand the cycle of conditioned existence in which we are imprisoned. Samsara is like a sickness; the Buddha, who was called the Great Physician, offers a cure; but the patient must recognize the illness, with its causes, its symptoms, and its effects, before the cure can begin.

The Buddha discovered the whole causal process of samsara, the complete cycle of the stages of cause and effect. According to tradition, he once described this process in a series of images, so that it could be sent in pictorial form to the king of a neighboring country who had inquired about his teaching. An artist drew the images according to the Buddha's instructions, illustrating the whole realm of samsaric existence from which we seek liberation. This picture is known as the wheel of life and is familiar throughout the Buddhist world. It springs from the same tradition of imagery that flowers so dramatically in vajrayana, but goes back to the beginnings of Buddhism.

The outer rim of the wheel of life is divided into twelve sections, each containing a small picture. These represent the twelve links in the chain of cause and effect, known as dependent arising or, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, the samsaric chain reaction. The twelve links can be seen as stages in the evolution of the individual human being (or any other living being), but at the same time they can be applied to one's states of mind, which are continuously arising, developing, and passing away.

We can trace back the causes of suffering to their root by means of the twelve links in this chain. They should all also be understood as taking place within us from moment to moment, so that as we go through this whole series of images, we are also observing the birth, life and death of mental states.

1. Decay and Death
The iconography may vary slightly in different paintings, but somewhere on the rim, generally at the top left, we find a picture of a corpse being carried to the cremation ground: this is called decay and death. It is often translated as old age and death, but since many people die young and do not reach old age, here "age" really refers to the whole process of aging and decay, which actually begins as soon as we are born. All pain, whether it is physical or mental, arises from some aspect of loss, destruction or decay, so this image represents all the sufferings of existence.

2. Birth
The real cause of decay and death is not our physical condition, not illness or accident, but life itself, the simple fact of having been born. Moving counterclockwise around the circle, we come to the second picture, a mother giving birth to a child. Although this link in the chain is known as birth, it does not mean just the event of being born, but the life that has come into being; it encompasses the whole lifetime of that particular embodiment. It can refer to the birth of a living being, or the physical appearance of something in the external world, or it may be interpreted as the arising of a thought or a mood in the mind.

3. Existence
The next picture, illustrating the cause leading to birth, is sometimes of a pregnant woman and sometimes of a man and woman in sexual union. Both these images suggest conception, the beginning of a new life. This link is called existence, life, or becoming—coming into existence. Existence means being in the state of samsara: outwardly subject to birth and death, inwardly under the influence of ignorance and confusion.

4. Grasping
Why do states of mind arise? Why do we continuously create our version of the world from moment to moment? Why does a living being enter a womb to be born? When we search for the cause of becoming, we find it in grasping. The word for this link in the chain literally means appropriation or taking to oneself, and it is symbolized by a figure picking fruit from a tree. Grasping is the opposite of giving and letting go. We hold on tight to our opinions, our views of life, and our ideas about ourselves; again and again we grasp at the next thought, the next emotion, the next experience; at the moment of death, we grasp at the next life.

5. Thirst
Grasping is based, in turn, on the fundamental instinct of needing, wanting and longing called thirst. It is depicted by a person drinking or being offered a drink. That's the thirst for existence that makes us cling to life at all costs, and it is also the basic drive to experience pleasure and to be free from pain. Thirst can never be satisfied; even if we drink as much as we can, it will return sooner or later. It is inherent in our sense of self. This thirst, also translated as desire or craving, is often said to be the cause of suffering. It's not the ultimate cause, but it is the immediate and most obvious cause.

6. Sensation
Thirst for experience depends upon the possibility of feeling or sensation, symbolized by a man pierced in the eye by an arrow. This brutal image reminds us sharply that the whole series is intended to express the inescapable suffering of samsara. It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit word for “feeling” can specifically mean pain, as well as sensation in general. This points to the truth that in samsara, from the absolute point of view, all feeling of any kind is essentially painful because it is related to our false idea of self. But in the awakened state, where there is no self-centered attachment or aversion, all feeling is experienced as “great bliss." Great bliss is not just increased pleasure, but a transcendent experience of sensitivity that can be aroused by means of any sensation whatsoever, not only through pleasure, but also through what we ordinarily think of as pain.

7. Contact
Sensation arises from contact or touch, illustrated by a man and woman embracing. This represents the contact between the senses and their objects. In the tantras, this powerful imagery is transformed into a passionate embrace of love, a magical dance of the awakened mind with the world perceived in its true, sacred nature. But here, while we are still concerned with very basic principles, it simply illustrates what happens whenever there is the experience of duality and a relationship exists between subject and object.

8. Six Senses
The embrace can only take place because of the existence of the six senses, depicted by a house with six windows. In Indian Buddhist tradition, the mind is considered to be a sense organ that has as its objects all the perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and so on that arise within it. So in addition to the usual five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, the mental function is counted as the sixth.

9. Name and Form
If the six senses exist, there must be a particular living being to whom they belong. The next picture is of a boat filled with passengers, which is called name and form. Name and form together constitute the individual person. Form is the material aspect, the boat of the body, that carries us along the river of life, while name includes all the nonphysical aspects of our being (the passengers could be regarded as the different “personalities" within us). In many parts of the world, a person's name is considered to have magical significance. When we are given a name, we receive an identity; our name defines who we are. If we think of someone’s name, we automatically remember his or her physical appearance and vice versa. Body cannot be separated from mind; the physical and nonphysical aspects of existence both arise from the same cause, and they reflect each other.

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