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For a person to exist, individual consciousness is necessary. Consciousness functions through the six senses. It is what makes us aware of ourselves and divides the world into subject and object; it gives us the sense of being "I" as opposed to everything else that is not "I." Consciousness is appropriately pictured as a restless, inquisitive monkey leaping from object to object, never staying still. Sometimes the monkey is shown picking fruit from a tree, and sometimes peering out through the windows of a house—the house of the six senses.
Consciousness is not pure, direct awareness, but is produced and conditioned by the way the mind functions, so the next link in the chain is called conditioning (or formations). It refers to certain characteristic mental forces or patterns that motivate our thoughts, words, and deeds. It is here that the law of karma begins to operate. The word karma literally means "action," but generally when we speak of the law of karma, it refers to both action and its result: the universal law of cause and effect on a personal level. Everything we think, speak and do has an inevitable consequence. The Buddha taught that karma really refers to intentions, not just to actions in the literal sense. Our lives are shaped by our innermost thoughts and deepest motivations, including those on the most subtle and hidden level, which can only be discovered by profound meditation techniques. This link in the chain is symbolized by a potter making pots. In theistic religions, the image of the potter is sometimes used for God the creator, while in Buddhism the force of karma is continually creating the world anew for each living being at every moment.
But why does conditioning arise in the first place? How did the whole process ever start? The Buddha traced the root cause back to ignorance, the mind's ignorance of its own awakened nature—the final and original link in the chain. This is the farthest back we can go within the circle of samsara; this is where everything begins. Indeed, we can say that this whole cycle really has no beginning and no end, because our very notions of past, present and future are part of samsara. Ignorance is symbolized by an old blind woman, tottering about with the aid of a stick. Trungpa Rinpoche referred to her as a blind grandmother. She has given birth to generations of samsaric existence, endlessly proliferating and reproducing. Ignorance means ignoring the truth of reality, shutting one's eyes to the awakened state. Although the light of reality is ever-present, ignorance chooses to remain blind. The nature of this blindness is to believe in the existence of a separate, independent self. Trungpa Rinpoche also used to say that ignorance is very intelligent. It is actually the intelligence of samsara, which is fighting a continual battle for survival and constantly looking for ways of keeping up its own illusion, its own self-deception.
Here we have traced each link in the chain backward to its cause, from the suffering of mortal life, culminating in death, all the way back to its ultimate origin, ignorance. The whole series of pictures can also be read in reverse order, from ignorance to death. If we do this, we can clearly see the inevitable development of the twelve stages: ignorance, conditioning, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, sensation, thirst, grasping, existence, birth, and decay and death. The twelve links form an unending circle. At death we fall into a state of ignorance once more, and the cycle starts all over again. Samsara means going on and on, round and round, without beginning or end.
Now we turn to the rest of the wheel of life. Inside the outer rim, occupying the main part of the wheel, are illustrations of the six realms of existence in samsara: the worlds of the gods, jealous gods, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings. Very often only five divisions are shown, because the gods and the jealous gods are basically the same and can be classified together.
In the outer sense, the realms depict all the possible varieties of sentient life classified into these five or six main groups. They are all conditions of life into which we could be reborn. Except for those of animals and humans, the other realms are invisible to us, but they all coexist with us in an inconceivably vast, multidimensional universe.
In the inner sense, all these realms are found within our own minds. Although we have the form and psychology of human beings, we are continually going through states of mind that correspond to the other realms. In exactly the same way, gods, jealous gods, animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings all experience the states of mind of the other realms colored by their own dominant states. Also, within each of the six realms, every living being goes through the entire cycle of the twelve links of the samsaric chain reaction.
The human realm is the most balanced and least extreme of the six, so it is easier for us to encompass the full spectrum of conditions within our experience, from the hells to the heavens. Of course, the entire wheel of life is necessarily described from the human point of view; nevertheless all life fundamentally shares the same buddhanature and is conditioned by the same forces arising from ignorance.
In some depictions of the wheel of life, the figure of a Buddha is shown in each realm. In the human realm, this is the human Buddha Shakyamuni, in each of the other realms, he appears in the form of one of its inhabitants. This indicates that the compassion of the awakened nature extends infinitely without obstructions and can manifest in any form in order to communicate with all the different types of existence, even in the extreme suffering of hell.
Moving further in toward the center of the wheel, the next section is divided into two parts: a light half in which human figures are climbing upward, and a dark half in which they are falling downward, This represents the last stage of the period between death and rebirth, during which the results of our previous actions draw us toward a higher or lower condition. The figures moving up, in the light semicircle, are on their way to taking rebirth as human beings, gods or jealous gods; those moving down, in the dark semicircle, will be reborn among animals or hungry ghosts or in one of the hells.
At the center of the wheel lie the three roots of suffering: passion, aggression and delusion, symbolized by a cock, a snake and a pig, respectively, The Buddha called them the three fires with which the whole of samsara is ablaze. Nirvana is the blowing out of their flames, a blissful state of coolness and peace after the suffering they cause (the translation of nirvana into Tibetan literally means "passed beyond suffering"). They are also known as the three afflictions, defilements, or poisons. They pervade and influence the mechanism of samsaric existence from beginning to end; they keep the whole process of dualistic experience going. They are the three basic reactions that the “I” can have when it perceives something outside itself as “other.” We can be attracted to that other, wishing to possess it, control it, or take it over and make it part of ourselves: this is passion. We can reject it, push it away, or try to destroy it: this is aggression. Or we can ignore it and pretend it does not exist: this is delusion. At heart, all three reactions are attempts to overcome duality by making “I” the only thing that exists in the world, but instead they actually reinforce and perpetuate the split between “I” and “other.”
The entire wheel is held in the clutches of a terrifying figure; this is Yama, the Lord of Death. His name literally means “restraint,” since he is the ultimate restraint on the freedom of all living beings. He does not simply represent death in the ordinary sense, the end of life, but the very principle of mortality, which includes within itself birth and death, rebirth and re-death. Immortality, the birthless and deathless state of nirvana, lies beyond this cycle of the wheel of life.
Francesca Fremantle, Ph D., collaborated with Chögyam Trungpa on their ground-breaking 1975 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. She is a Buddhist teacher and translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan works of Buddhist and Hindu tantra. She lives in London. This excerpt from Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Francesca Fremantle. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications. © 2001 by Francesca Fremantle.