Home Bodhicitta Teachings Buddhist Teachings Meditation World Religions About this site

 The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

The Wheel of Life

Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The teaching of Guru Shakyamuni that the six samsaric realms and their suffering are only internally caused by delusion and karma, was believed and realized by a great number of ancient Indian and Tibetan masters. As Guru Shakyamuni did, they gave up princely lives and kingdoms to fully investigate the absolute truth, because they realized the internal nature of samsara.

A person walking in thorns that pierce his flesh realizes that the resultant suffering derives only from his internal state of ignorance. He could wear shoes and prevent his suffering. The suffering of samsara is also internally caused by ignorance. But if the nature of the thorns was the cause of suffering (external) and the cause was not in the nature of the sufferer, then even shoes would not prevent the suffering. And if the cause of samsaric suffering were external, then there would be no means for controlling samsara. Nor would there be any method of attaining final peace, of completing the state of perfect happiness by extinguishing samsara. Even medicine could not cure sickness. There would be neither perfect happiness nor people’s suffering.

But people do suffer, as shown by the world’s thirst for peace. Yet as we can experience greater and greater suffering, we can experience higher and higher happiness.

If the Buddha were a creator being and he alone created the samsaric realms and their suffering, then there would be no reason to follow the teachings to be released, or to have him show us the teachings. All attempts would be in vain since every living being would have a samsaric nature rooted in suffering by him. If the Buddha were the cause of samsara he would be the creator of ignorance and suffering, and would be our worst enemy instead of a perfect guide. So the only way to final peace would be to extinguish the Buddha—the cause of all suffering.

There is no logical reason to say that the compassionate Buddha created everything, for his teachings were shown only to help us achieve happiness. For if he were the creator of all, he would have already created enlightenment for each living being and we would already have received it. To say otherwise sounds like the imagination of a little baby.

Universal evolution is created by the universal law of karma, created by the beings which inhabit the universe. That’s why there is a logical reason for both the universe and its inhabitants.

Shantideva said:

The weapons of the hell beings,
By whom and for whom were they created?
Who laid the foundation of the burning iron?
How did the limitless blaze happen?
All the suffering stages, even such as that one,
Arose from the veiled mind.

A beautiful girl appears differently to different people with varying levels of thought. Food tastes differently to different people. It depends on karma, and nothing is created by itself but by the individual mind.

World peace will not come about through external development. It does not depend upon reducing noise in the city or hiding in a cave. The only cause that can bring peace to universal beings is to exchange ourselves with others, to be attached to the comfort of others instead of our own, which we would renounce. The negative thought that cherishes ourselves and not others is the cause of all suffering and problems.

The Actual Practice

Meditation on the Wheel of Life

One way to understand the suffering nature of samsara is to meditate on the gradual evolution of the twelve links of dependent origination, (Skt: pratitya samutpada; Tib: ten-drel. chu-nyi) as Guru Shakyamuni showed. This is represented by the symbolic drawing of the wheel of life, (Skt: samsaracakra; Tib: sib-pe-k’or-lo) also called the circle of the twelve dependent originations. It is held in the mouth of the Lord of Death, showing how all beings who live in the six realms of samsara are controlled by impermanence and death. The wheel is also supported by his hands and feet, symbolizing how these beings are trapped by true suffering and the true cause of suffering—delusion and karma.

I and most other sentient beings are suffering in this circle of interdependent origination. Its root is ignorance, which is the complete opposite of the Dharma wisdom that perceives the absolute reality.

1 Ignorance (ma-rig-pa)

The blind man shown on the wheel of life symbolizes the ignorant person, who does not see where he is going, where he will be reborn, what he has suffered or what he will suffer in rebirth. Ignorance is the cause of the 84,000 delusions.

There are two kinds of ignorance:

  1. Ignorance of absolute truth, which binds me more strongly to samsara. The main purpose of all the teachings of Guru Shakyamuni is to remove ignorance by the realization of absolute truth, just as the main purpose of medicine is to remove sickness.
  2. Ignorance of karma arises from ignorance of absolute truth; it causes rebirth in the three lower realms.

2 Karmic formation

Ignorance generates karmic formation. This is symbolized by a man producing clay pots. Just as a clay pot can be fashioned into many sizes and shapes, so does the creation of different karmas bring different results.

Karma may be meritorious, unmeritorious or indifferent.

3 Consciousness (nam-she)

Karmic formation generates consciousness. This is symbolized by a monkey with fruit in its hand, swinging from tree to tree, to show that consciousness, bearing karmic impressions, joins past to present and present to future. The monkey is uncontrolled, impure, because its outlook depends on its position in the tree, just as my consciousness depends on karma. Consciousness is the mind, which perceives the different aspects of objects.

There are six kinds of consciousness: those of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.

4 Name and form (ming-zug)

Consciousness generates name (mind) and form (body). This is symbolized by a man rowing a boat, and shows that to do so, many conditions such as the boat, the oarsman, the ocean, etc., are necessary. Similarly, name and form could not exist without the five skandhas (aggregates).

The skandha of form (zug-kyi p’ung-po) is the fertilized egg, and the skandhas of feeling (tsor-wä p’ung-po), of cognition (du-she kyi p’ung-po), of compounded phenomena (volition) (du-j’e kyi p’ung-po) and of consciousness (nam-she p’ung-po), inhabiting the fertilized egg, are the name.

5 Six sense organs (kye-ch’e-dr’ug)

Name and form generate the six sense organs. This is symbolized by an empty house. From the distance the house looks full and lived in, but it is empty. Similarly, the six sense organs are empty because they are meaningless without an object.

For the six sense organs there are also six outer objects and six inner sense bases.

6 Contact (reg-pa)

Six sense organs generate contact. This is symbolized by the contact of a man and a woman, the meeting of sense organs with their objects. There are six contacts.

7 Feeling (tsor-wa)

Contact generates feeling. This is symbolized by a man with an arrow in his eye, who is suffering because of his contact with an object. Without contact there is no feeling; therefore, if my mind is uncontrolled, I am better off to avoid contact with objects that lead to more greed and further suffering. This is why Guru Shakyamuni, with great compassion, made the rule that one should be well contained and have few possessions.

There are three kinds of feeling: suffering, happiness, and indifference.

8 Craving (se.pa)

Contact and feeling generate craving. This is symbolized by a man drinking wine. Just as this man’s thirst is never satisfied, so the person deluded by greed is never satisfied and craves more things. This greed ruins the present and many future lives.

There are three kinds of craving, and all cause suffering: desiring release from fear and ugly objects, desiring no release from beautiful objects to which I am attached, and attachment to the body, fearing loss of the "I" at death.

9 Grasping (len-pa)

Craving generates grasping. This is symbolized by a monkey picking fruit from a tree. Having tasted one fruit, he clings to the tree for more and more. Grasping is created by craving and procreates becoming, just as human beings grasp at and cling to their physical bodies. This grasping causes greed, hatred and ignorance, bringing much suffering.

There are four kinds of grasping, all of which cause suffering: attachment to beauty, attachment to wrong beliefs or doctrines—such as the belief that karma, and past and future lives are non-existent—clinging to the wrong conception of the self-existent "I," and holding the belief that non-virtues, such as sacrificing living beings or using sexual happiness, are pure methods of receiving liberation.

10 Becoming (si-pa)

Grasping at the body generates becoming. This is symbolized by a pregnant woman. The greater my attachment to the physical body, the sooner will rebirth come. The becoming caused by ignorance is strengthened because craving and grasping conditioned it.

There are four kinds of becoming, all under the control of delusion and karma: the becoming of rebirth, the becoming of death, the becoming of the intermediate state, and the becoming of lifetime.

11 Rebirth (kye-wa)

Becoming generates rebirth. This is symbolized by a woman giving birth. The skandhas are determined by delusion and karma, and determine the form of the present rebirth.

There are four kinds of rebirth: in the womb, from an egg, by heat, and intuitive, i.e., not needing the bodies of parents.

12 Old age (ga-wa) and death (ch’i-wa)

Birth usually generates old age. This is symbolized by an old man walking with a cane. Becoming old is the result of delusion and karma.

Birth or old age generate death. This is symbolized by a corpse. Death ends the life, and the round of existence circles again.

I do not desire suffering, so I must stop circling in samsara. To do so I must overcome delusion and karma. Ignorance leads to action, which leaves impressions on the consciousness. The results of those may appear in this lifetime, the next, or in subsequent lives.

The complete round of the twelve links of dependent origination may be completed in two or three lifetimes. An example follows:

In this lifetime I ignorantly create the karma for rebirth as a rat, this impression being left on my consciousness. But for the rest of my life I give up attachment to the samsaric life, become celibate and keep the precepts purely. So the craving, grasping and becoming of the rat rebirth are interrupted by those of the desired perfect human rebirth.

I am reborn human, living in perfect chance, and the seven results from the dependence of a perfect human rebirth finish with this second life. But as this life is not spent in pure practice, rebirth as a rat occurs because its craving, grasping and becoming are now the strongest. In this life the dependence of the rat finishes.

Nagarjuna said: