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Tibetan Bhavacakra in Sera, Lhasa.

The Bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Devanagari: भवचक्र; Pali: भभचक्क bhavacakka) or Wheel of Becoming (Tibetan སྲིད་པའི་འཁོར་ལོ་ srid pa'i 'khor lo) is a complex symbolic representation of saṃsāra in the form of a circle. Sanskrit: mandala; Tibetan: 'khor.lo), used primarily in Tibetan Buddhism. Saṃsāra is the continuous cycle of birth, life, and death from which one liberates oneself through enlightenment.

Legend has it that the Buddha himself created the first depiction of the bhavacakra, and the story of how he gave the illustration to King Rudrāyaṇa appears in the anthology of Buddhist narratives called the Divyavadana.

In the Buddhist depiction, different karmic actions contribute to one's metaphorical existence in different realms, or rather, different actions reinforce personal characteristics described by the realms. Leading from the human realm to the outside of the wheel depicts the Buddhist path. (Epstein 1995, p.15-16)

The Bhavacakra is sometimes displayed with five sections, but the more recent and more common form has six sections.

The areas between the six spokes represent the six forms of unenlightened existence.[1]


Names of the Bhavacakra

The Bhavacakra is also called:

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  • Wheel of life
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The Six-section Bhavacakra

The diagram of the Bhavacakra has six sections (or sometimes five, as described in more detail below).


The Bhavacakra is represented as being held by the jaws, hands, and feet of a fearsome figure who turns the wheel. The exact identity of the figure varies. A common choice for the figure is Yama, the god of death or Kala the lord of time. This figure is also known as the "Face of Glory" or Kirtimukha.

There is always a figure or symbol in the upper left and the upper right. The exact figure or symbol varies; common examples include the moon, a buddha, or a bodhisattva. In the picture of the Tibetan Bhavacakra in Sera, Lhasa the clouds take the shapes of certain Buddhist symbols, eg. svastika.

Outer rim

The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections and given such names as the Twelve Interdependent Causes and Effects or the Twelve Links of Causality.

Ignorance is the first of the 12 causes and conditions, both of our rebirth and of maturing any karma within our dependent existence. Different causes can overlap in different stages and even mature in next existences - lives. Yet the turning of the wheel goes onward.

The twelve causal links are: (1) ignorance; (2) volitional action or conditioning; (3) consciousness; (4) name and form; (5) six sensory organs (i.e. eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind); (6) contact or touch; (7) sensation; (8) desire, craving, thirst; (9) grasping; (10) becoming or existence; (11) birth; (12) decay and death.

Six Worlds

The wheel is divided into six sections which represent the Six realms (or Worlds) of Existence. These Six Worlds are:

  1. The World of Devas or Gods
  2. The World of Asuras (Tibetan: lha ma yin; Sanskrit: asura) (Demigods, Titans, Fighting Demons)
  3. The World of Humans
  4. The World of Animals
  5. The World of Pretas (hungry ghosts)
  6. The World of Hell
(ibid, with different order)

The World of Devas is always at the very top of the wheel. The World of Asuras and the World of Humans are always in the top half of the wheel, bordering the World of Devas on opposite sides, but which of the two is on the left and which is on the right varies (leading to two different arrangements of the wheel). The World of Animals and the World of Hungry Ghosts is always in the bottom half of the wheel, with the World of Animals bordering the World of Humans and the World of Hungry Ghosts bordering the World of Asuras. Between the World of Animals and the World of Hungry Ghosts, at the very bottom of the wheel, is the World of Hell.

Sometimes, the wheel is represented as only having five sections because the World of the Devas and the World of the Asuras are combined into a single world.

In Buddhist representations of the wheel, within each of the Six Realms, there is always at least one buddha or bodhisattva depicted, trying to help sentient beings find their way to nirvana (ibid).


The rim of the hub has a clear binary demarcation of black and white. An exoteric exegesis holds that one side is the White Path or Path of Bliss and represents how sentient beings may move upward to the Godly Realms; the other side is the Dark Path which represents how sentient beings may move downward to the Hellish Realms. A more esoteric exegesis is that it represents the Right-handed Path and the Left-handed Path of Tantra, not in opposition but as complements in unity.

In the hub, the center of the wheel, the Three Poisons (Sanskrit: mula-kleśa) are sometimes personified as the boar, serpent and fowl or iconographically by the gankyil; delusion, hatred and greed respectively. The Three Poisons are turning in a 'Wheel of Woe', each consuming and energised by the poison affronting them and being consumed by that which they affront in turn (each of the Poisons has one of the other Poisons in its mouth). Alternatively, they are the 'evils' which are responsible for the trapping of sentient beings within the Six Realms.

See also


  1. ^ cf. D.Donath, "Buddhism for the West", pp.59-60.
  2. ^ Gethin (1998), pp. 158-9.


  • Donath, Dorothy C. (1971). Buddhism for the West: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna; a comprehensive review of Buddhist history, philosophy, and teachings from the time of the Buddha to the present day. Julian Press. ISBN 0-07-017533-0.  
  • Epstein, Mark (1995). Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. BasicBooks. ISBN 0-465-03931-6.
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.

External links

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