Story of the image of the five-sectioned wheel of rebirth
Many teachers use images of the bhavacakra (wheel of rebirth, also referred to sometimes as samsāra-cakra) in class as way to prompt discussion. Here is a story of how these images came to exist. Note that it refers to a fivefold wheel, excluding the realm of the asuras (antigods, demons, demigods) that is sometimes added as a sixth, and usually depicted in Tibetan images.
This is a summary/abbreviated translation for educational use, made by Naomi Appleton from the opening section of the story of Sahasodgata in the Divyāvadāna, a Sanskrit text allied with the Mūlasarvāstivāda School of Buddhism. For a full translation see Andy Rotman, Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna Part 2, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2017, chapter 21. Further explanations are provided in session 3 of the Introduction to Key Concepts series for RMPS teachers, a recording of which will form the next post.
Venerable Mahāmaudgalyāyana, one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha, used to often travel through the realms of rebirth, journeying through the hell realms, the animal realm, the realms of ghosts, gods and humans. There he saw lots of different kinds of suffering, such as hell beings getting cut and pierced and so on, animals eating one another, ghosts tormented by hunger and thirst, gods passing away and falling into destruction, and humans tormented by longing and affliction. Having seen all this, he would return and teach the four assemblies (monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen) about it all. He was always surrounded by people who benefitted greatly from his instruction.
Realising that Mahāmaudgalyāyana could not always be available to teach, the Buddha decided that a five-sectioned wheel should be created in the entrance hall to the monastery. When asked what should be depicted, he replied that it should show the five realms of existence, namely the realms of hell beings, animals, ghosts, gods and humans. The hell beings should be down below, along with the animals and ghosts, with the humans and gods above, including a depiction of the four continents. In the centre, greed, hatred and delusion should be shown: greed as a pigeon, hatred as a snake, and delusion as a pig. A likeness of the Buddha should be shown, pointing at a shining circle of nirvana. Beings that spontaneously arise should be shown rising up and falling away like the buckets of a waterwheel. The twelve links of dependent arising should be depicted both forwards and backwards. Everything should be in the grasp of impermanence, and these two verses should be inscribed:
Exert yourselves! Go forth!
Take up the Buddha’s teaching!
Shake the army of death
like an elephant shakes a reed-hut!
Whoever diligently follows
this dharma [Pali: dhamma] and discipline,
will abandon the cycle of rebirths
and make an end to suffering.
The wheel was made according to his instruction, but when householders came visiting and asked, “What is it that is depicted here?” nobody could answer. So then the Buddha instructed that a monk should be appointed to explain the five-sectioned wheel to visitors. After some of the appointed monks turned out to be unsuitable (lacking in virtue, ignorant, and unable to explain the wheel), the Buddha stipulated that the guide must be a competent monk.
One day a young man came to visit and asked the monk what was shown in the image The monk replied, “It is the five realms of existence – the realms of hell beings, animals, ghosts, gods and humans.”
“And what did the hell beings do in order to experience such suffering?”
“They killed, stole or engaged in sexual misconduct. They told lies and spoke harshly or maliciously or idly. They were covetous, had malicious thoughts and improper views. They pursued these ten unskilful actions to a high degree, and as a result of that they experience the suffering of being cut up and so on.”
“And what did these animals do in order to experience such suffering?”
“They also practised the ten unskillful actions, and as a result they experience of being eaten by one another and so on.”
“And the ghosts?”
“They were stingy, miserly and mean. Because of this, they suffer in hunger and thirst.”
“What did the gods do in order to experience such pleasure and happiness?”
“They abstained from the ten unvirtous actions and cultivated the path of ten virtuous actions. As a result, they experience divine pleasures of various kinds.”
“And what did these humans do to experience such pleasures?”
“They also cultivated the ten virtuous actions, though in weaker form.”
As a result of seeing the image of the five realms, and hearing the monk’s explanation of how beings ended up in the different realms, the visitor resolved to cultivate the ten skillful actions.
Some possible discussion questions:
- Compare this description with a bhavacakra image from contemporary Tibetan tradition. Can you identify the different elements? What is different? What is missing?
- What does this story tell us about the capabilities of liberated disciples of the Buddha?
- What does it tell us about what sort of actions are good and bad? What do you think of the idea that actions (karma) can be of body, speech or mind? Are there any benefits of this idea, or any problems with it?
- Why do you think the realm of the ghosts is associated with miserliness? Note that these beings (Sanskrit: preta, Pali: peta) are sometimes called “hungry ghosts” because they are unable to eat or drink.
- On the one hand, this story shows us that all realms of rebirth involve suffering. On the other hand, the audience can be inspired to do good deeds and aim for a good rebirth. Is this tension a problem, or an opportunity?
- What do we learn from this story about the use of images in teaching? What does it tell us about the importance of having a competent teacher? Why might images need proper explanation?