Understanding the Wheel of Life


In this season of the lunar new year, the study of the Wheel of Life and the 12 Links of Interdependent Origination have been a central focus in the Sukhasiddhi Sundays study and practice sessions. The Wheel of Life is a visual representation of samsara (cyclic existence) and its causes and components.

At the hub of the wheel of life are a pig, a snake, and a rooster. They represent the three poisons of unawareness, aggression, and desire respectively. The snake and rooster arise out of the mouth of the pig as aggression and desire arises from unawareness. Unawareness is non-recognition of our true nature and thus perceiving ourselves to exist independently. When we experience ourselves as separate from others, the need to defend and protect the self arises and these actions are typically based in aggression and desire. In the image of the Wheel of Life, the three animals at the hub bite each other’s tail and chase one after the other. This continuous cycle of unawareness, aggression and desire is the fuel that powers the wheel of cyclic existence.

Just as the pig (unawareness) is the source of the snake and rooster (aggression and desire), unawareness, which is often translated as ignorance, is the first link in the 12 links of interdependent origination. Non-recognition of our true nature and thus seeing oneself as separate and independently existent from others and phenomena is what sets cyclic existence in motion. As soon as we do not recognize our true nature, karmic seeds from countless previous lives begin the process of ripening in the form of a unique psycho-physical system comprised of the five aggregates and the five elements. This takes place in links two through five. Once this mind-body system is fully functional, its sense faculties and sense consciousnesses meet with a sense object, contact is made. This is the sixth link. Based on this contact, the seventh link of feeling arises, and one categorizes the experience of the contact as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

With this seventh link of defining experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, the eighth, ninth, and tenth links: craving, clinging and becoming are activated. These links are crucial in that these are the links that ultimately produce karma. The feeling tone that arose in the seventh link gives rise to the eighth link of craving. This is the desire to grasp at pleasurable experiences, the desire to push away unpleasant experiences, and the desire to remain indifferent to neutral experiences or the desire for neutral experiences not to dissipate.

Based on this craving, the ninth link of clinging arises. Clinging is the stage in which one formulates thoughts about acting on the desire. We plan, envision, gather narcissistic supplies and strengthen our opinions as we prepare to engage in action that will serve to protect or bolster our sense of self. This internal process that takes place gives rise to the tenth link of becoming (bhava). This is when we enact our craving and clinging.

These actions of body, speech, and mind are what create karma which give rise to the eleventh link of birth and the twelfth link of aging and death. The eleventh link can be understood as the birth and lifespan of another lifetime, a state of mind, or even a new moment. In the twelfth link, aging refers to the aging and suffering that occurs from the moment of birth until the death of our current physical body or the passing of a mind state or moment.

–Lama Döndrup


Recordings of Lama Dondrup’s teachings on the 12 Links are now available. 

Learn more about how you can consciously influence the way karma unfolds in the next Sukhasiddhi Sunday series.