Awakening from the Daydream

1. A Brief Overview of the Wheel

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A Brief Overview of the Wheel

BEFORE WE DIVE into a detailed exploration of the six realms, let’s take a short tour of the whole Wheel to get oriented.


As you can see, in our updated representation, the “Grim Reaper” (here depicted as a skeleton) is holding the entire wheel in his hands. In the traditional diagram of the wheel, a wrathful, demonic figure who represents death and impermanence holds the wheel in his mouth. The Grim Reaper holding the wheel indicates that each ring of the wheel, in fact, every aspect of our lives, is governed by impermanence.

The fact that impermanence and change govern our lives might seem obvious. It is less obvious that much of the confusion and anxiety we experience in our everyday lives comes from resisting change. Resistance to change creates suffering.


Folk wisdom tells us that death of a loved one, moving away from home, and divorce are the three major traumas most commonly faced in life. We can fill out this picture with further details, like aging, sickness, injury, job loss, conflict, war, heartbreak, and financial collapse. We could all add in our own categories here, as we all surely have our own unique little set of annoyances that occur from day to day. All of these varieties of suffering revolve around being confronted with impermanence and change.

When we lose something we want, we suffer. When we gain something we don’t want, we suffer. When we vacillate between wanting to get something and wanting to get rid of something, we suffer. Underneath all of this is a vague feeling of uncertainty about the whole situation, which is another kind of suffering—the suffering of existential stress or anxiety. The relationship between impermanence and suffering is one of the broadest aspects of the Wheel and arguably of Buddhism altogether. When His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, one of the truly great Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, was asked what an enlightened person experienced, he simply answered, “Impermanence.”


The inner portions of the wheel are made up of concentric rings that contain various images representing different aspects of these teachings. In traditional diagrams of the wheel, the centermost ring—the hub—contains the image of three animals: a rooster, a snake, and a pig. Each animal holds the next one’s tail in its mouth to form a circle.


The rooster, snake, and pig represent passion, aggression, and ignorance. The rooster represents passion, grasping, or attachment, the snake represents aggression or aversion, and the pig represents ignorance or indifference. These three animal metaphors illustrate the ways we categorize and respond to others and our environment at the most basic level. These responses are called the three “root obscurations” or mulakleshas in traditional Buddhism, because they obscure our natural awareness and clarity about who we are, who others are, and what we are doing. The obscurations are dynamic rather than static feelings. Passion (grasping) is the desire to include, aggression (aggressing) is the desire to exclude, and ignorance (ignoring) happens when we don’t particularly notice or care one way or the other.

It is actually possible to categorize every thought we have, every attitude, as one or a combination of two or more of these three core responses. For example, if you fall in love with somebody, you might feel that you want to include them in every activity of your life (grasping), yet you might want to get rid of attitudes or habits that they have that annoy you (aggressing), and don’t really want to see other flaws and faults that might turn into big problems later on (ignoring).

In general our responses to what are essentially momentary experiences tend to solidify over time. For example, a friend at the office might criticize some aspect of my work. Taking offense at this, I begin to see that person as a competitor, or even my enemy. Once I feel that someone is an enemy, I actively try to avoid or discredit him or her. When others maliciously gossip about them, I relish it and add 16a few lines of my own to the chatter. In this way my basic response solidifies and begins to affect how I think and act.

Our compulsion to act on and solidify basic responses creates a mental residue called karma. It is the part of our interaction with the world that is left over and colors our future experience. Karma is created by lingering desire, lingering aggression, and ignored or repressed experiences that drift into the background of our consciousness, only to return to the foreground when causes and conditions are ripe. It is difficult to see other people and situations clearly with that kind of residue lingering in our mind. Our karmic residue also prevents us from feeling unbiased affection, interest, or appreciation. These three ingrained habits of grasping, aggressing, and ignoring work to shut down our hearts and minds.

On the other hand, each of the three obscurations has a flip side that is relatively more wise and discerning. According to the Buddhist teachings, we can distill enlightened aspects from these obscurations and transform our confusion into wisdom. The transformation of passion is what draws us closer to others, the transformation of aggression is what allows us to cut away that which is not healthy, and the transformation of ignorance is what allows us to be accommodating and spacious.


The next ring off center in the wheel portrays positive and negative actions. In the traditional diagram a line of people being led toward the upper part of the wheel by a monk symbolizes positive actions and a line of people being 17bound and dragged toward the lower part of the wheel by a demon symbolizes negative actions. In this updated version of the wheel, positive and negative actions are symbolized by a duo of boy scouts climbing toward the upper part of the wheel and a man being roped and dragged to the lower part of the wheel, respectively.

Very simply, the ten positive actions are based on acting with awareness, sympathy, clarity, and compassion. These actions create a relatively positive result in the form of benefit to oneself and others. The ten negative actions, generated by grasping, aggressing, and ignoring, create a relatively negative result in the form of causing harm to ourselves and others. Most of what it takes to understand the impact of our actions is common sense.


The next ring outward in the wheel is divided into six sections, like a pie. Each section depicts life in one of the six realms. The realms are portraits of six different styles of interacting with the world; they are six different settings in which we hang out for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years. On the one hand the realms really take shape in our minds as a set of moods, attitudes, and emotional landscapes. On the other hand they are reflected in our external environment as dwellings, contexts, clothing, transportation, companions, neighborhoods, etc. Once we are in a realm, that particular quality of life begins to feel very familiar, very normal.


So, again—the six realms are

1.The God Realm

2.The Jealous God Realm

3.The Human Realm

4.The Animal Realm

5.The Hungry Ghost Realm

6.The Hell Realm

In general the realms are characterized by our relationship to pleasure and pain. When we are able to experience an extremely pleasurable quality of life for stable, sustained periods of time, this is known as the god realm, and in some sense it is considered the pinnacle of life within samsara. The jealous gods experience a less stable yet still pleasurable environment so there is lots of insecurity, competition, and envy. The humans have passion, longing, and curiosity and fluctuate between pleasure and pain. The animals stubbornly try to recreate familiar patterns of pleasurable circumstances while avoiding suffering. The hungry ghosts seek pleasurable circumstances but experience mostly craving and dissatisfaction. Finally, the hell realm beings experience almost continuous stress, anxiety, aggression, and depression.


The outermost ring of the wheel is called in Sanskrit the nidanas, the chain of interdependent origination, or dependent arising. This ring describes how we move from ignorance to birth, old age, sickness, and death, over and over 19again. It is yet another way of describing how karma develops through particular causes creating particular effects, and how each of those effects becomes a cause of the next link in the cycle.


In the original Wheel, there is a Buddha teaching the inhabitants of each realm, speaking a language they can understand based on the quality of their experience. The Buddhas represent the possibility for us to develop insight, wisdom, and compassion, regardless of our circumstances.

In the traditional iconography, each realm has a Buddha in a different guise, teaching the beings of that realm how to transform their circumstances. The Buddha represents the qualities of enlightenment, expressed in a way that will be accessible to the beings within that particular mindset. For example, the Buddha in the jealous god realm is holding a sword of wisdom. Even when we are caught up in competitiveness and aggression, we might still be able to access a feeling of sharpness and power in terms of dealing with people and situations, enabling us to sometimes move beyond purely selfish motivation, and leading us toward developing qualities that can bring out the best in ourselves and others.

The Buddha in the hungry ghost realm is holding sustenance in a vial and is presenting the virtue of generosity. When we are in the hungry ghost realm we are completely stuck in a cycle based on our own sense of impoverishment and low self-esteem, so the ideas of having even moderate 20satisfaction and of being generous to others can be liberating for us.

In the human realm, as mentioned, there is enough openness to actually allow us to hear new ideas, develop insight, and change old patterns. The Buddha in the human realm is sometimes depicted as holding a begging bowl, representing the wandering mendicant who takes the teachings to heart and develops renunciation from the purely materialistic lifestyle, in order to develop greater spiritual realization.

There is also usually a Buddha standing outside of the wheel, representing transcending the six realms altogether. Such people are said to be free from imprisonment in the six realms—free of karma—and only appear in the six realms in order to teach and liberate the beings within the realms out of compassion. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to meet people who remind us of this kind of possibility.

The role of the Buddhas in the Wheel is to point to the possibility of transforming our experience within each realm, which we revisit throughout the book. We can either see our karma and our life in the realms as imprisonment or we can see them as the opportunity for liberation: it is completely up to us.


The Wheel portrays the different ways we get trapped in repetitive patterns and imprison ourselves emotionally, intellectually, and in relation to our external 21life circumstances. In addition to describing the form of our imprisonment, the Wheel also points to a pathway out, to freedom, liberation, true peace, and real happiness.

The root cause of our experience in the realms is none other than our own state of mind, our own consciousness. For example, we can be in luxurious circumstances and still be in a hellish state of mind. Perhaps we can think of someone who has tremendously fortunate circumstances in his or her life who is nonetheless unhappy, dissatisfied, maybe even depressed or suicidal. On the other hand we might know someone who has had tremendously challenging circumstances, all kinds of obstacles, financial hardships, and yet is fundamentally peaceful, wise, and compassionate. By these examples we can see clearly that our environment influences our consciousness, but it also seems to have its own independent basis. Working with our mind is possible in any situation, and that is the very powerful redemptive message of the Wheel teachings. The notion of transforming confusion into wisdom, obstacles into opportunities, and changing our world in the process is the central message here.

Each realm holds a key to understanding the “issues” of that particular setting and a way to move beyond the obstacles and obscurations that confine us there.

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