Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche The Wheel of Life and 12 Interdependent Links
Transcript of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche The Wheel of Life and 12 Interdependent Links
The Wheel of LifeDZONGSAR KHYENTSE R INPOCHEDZONGSAR KHYENTSE R INPOCHE
I’m sure many of you have seen the painting of theWheel of Life. It’s quite a popular painting that you cansee in front of almost every Buddhist monastery. In fact,some Buddhist scholars believe that the paintingexisted prior to Buddha’s statues. This is probably thefirst ever Buddhist symbol that existed.
The painting is, loosely, a depiction of life. I guesscuriosity about life is one big curiosity that we have. Butthe definition of life is quite a diverse thing so this issomething that we have to come to a mutual agreementabout. I know many refer to this as the ‘wheel of life’, sridpa •khor lo. But, actually, the Tibetan word srid pais notreally ‘life’. Srid pa actually means ‘possible existence’ –maybe it’s existing, maybe it’s not, but it’s possible that itexists. That’s an interpretation of life according toBuddhism. The interpretation itself is quite profound, Ithink. And then •khor lomeans ‘the wheel’, ‘the chakra’,‘the mandala’, which again in itself has some profoundsignificance because when we talk about ‘mandala’ weare talking about chaos; at the same time we are talkingabout order. So we are talking about a chaotic order aboutlife.
I was asking people about the definition of the word ‘life’in English. There are many, but one that struck me was‘coming to life’, ‘becoming animated’. I have a feeling thatwhen we talk about ‘animate’ we are talking aboutsomething like consciousness. So, basically, when we talkabout ‘life’ I think somehow we are talking aboutsomething to do with a mind, consciousness, awareness.Would you agree with that?
So, okay, there’s this question: What is the purpose of life?But before we even talk about the purpose of life, what islife? Now according to Buddhism, life is nothing but aperception, a continuous perception. This has become themajor, fundamental subject of Buddhist teachings, whichis taught in many different ways, and one way is throughpainting, I guess. So if you look at the picture, you willsee the Buddhist interpretation of life. If you ask aBuddhist, ‘What is life?’ they will say, ‘This is it, this islife.’ Anyway, as I said, life is a perception. A perceptionof what? Who is the perceiver? The black pig in thecentre. It’s very difficult to teach about this. It has beenthe major subject of Buddhist studies because you have todefine what is ignorance. In Buddhism when we judgewhat is ignorance and what is not ignorance, we don’tjudge something as ignorant or evil based on morality orethics. It has to be judged based on wisdom. So when wetalk about ignorance, we are talking about a mind that isat its height of abnormality. When the mind is at itsheight of normality, then that’s wisdom.
Briefly, how do you define what is normal or what is notnormal? Nagarjuna’s definition of what is normal is whensomething is not dependent. If an entity depends onanother entity, then we are never sure whether the colouror the quality of this present entity is actually the ultimatenature because it is dependent on the second entity. Thereis always a possibility that the second entity can corruptthe first entity. So, likewise, a mind that is dependent onan object, a mind that is dependent on all kinds ofeducation, influence, meditation, is an abnormal mindaccording to Nagarjuna. So what is a normal mind? Whenyou completely renounce all these objects, all theseentities that your mind is totally or partially dependenton.
So for now you can say the pig, which represents ourignorance, is the one that causes all this perception. Thisis not the best painting. Ideally, the cock and the snakeshould be vomited out of the pig’s mouth because the piggives birth to passion, the cock, and aggression, thesnake. Now please don’t bring that petty mentality aboutthis being such a politically incorrect thing for a pig torepresent ignorance and so on and so forth. This is auseless debate! Please, you have to understand that this isa symbolic teaching. And somehow, I don’t know why,pigs have always been unfortunate. The Buddhists havedepicted pigs as the symbol of ignorance and Muslimshave even refrained from eating them.
Anyway, the pig represents ignorance. From theignorance comes hope, which is actually like the motherof passion, and then from the ignorance comes fear,which is like the mother of aggression. So we have threekinds of mental factors. Of course, the original one is theignorance, which gives birth to aggression and passion.So you can say that these three are what perceives things.We were talking about perception. These three perceivethings in so many, many different ways.
Sometimes, out of ignorance comes the hope of wantingto be good. Out of this wanting to be good, a personbehaves or manifests in a compassionate and non-violentway. In this case, such a person’s perceptions are morewholesome so you can say that this kind of personexperiences perceptions such as the god realm and theasura (or jealous god) realm. Sometimes out of ignorancecomes passion or aggression, which creates a lot of havoc– it kills, steals, destroys oneself or others and gives birthto unwholesome, painful, aggressive perceptions. That’sdepicted in what we call the ‘three lower realms’ - the hellrealm, the hungry ghost realm and the animal realm. Sothese are the six realms.
Here, there is quite an important message. WhenBuddhists talk about hell, they are not talking about aconcrete place somewhere underneath. And when we talk
about heaven we are not talking about somewhere whereeverything works. We are not talking about a place tomigrate to, basically. When we talk about going to hell,we are not talking about being punished. I think theconcept of punishment is quite a new thing for theBuddhists, actually. Although we may say: ‘If you dosuch and such bad karma, because of this badkarma you will go to hell’, we are not sayingthat there is a someone called ‘karma’which is going to then force you as apunishment to experience the lowerrealms. As we spoke about before, it’sa perception, depending on yourmind, depending on your mentalstate.
Let’s discuss the six realms. Sincethe hell realm is the worst, let’s talkabout it first so we can get it out ofthe way. This is really quite profound.In the hell realm all kinds of sufferingare depicted. In the centre of the hell realmsits Yamaraja, who is like the Lord of Hell. AHell’s Angel, I guess, not on a Harley Davidson,but sitting comfortably on the throne made outof skulls. The interesting question is, ‘Who is this guy?’From many Mahayana texts we know who this is. This isnone other than the bodhisattva Manjushri. And who isManjushri? Manjushri is the symbol of wisdom. So again,here, the Lord of Hell who decides who is to suffer what,so to speak, is actually your own ultimate nature ofwisdom sitting there. Then there are things like beingburned in the hot hell and being trapped in the ice andsnow mountains of the cold hell, and then there are allkinds of animals. There’s one thing I need to tell you. Oneof the reasons why the Wheel of Life was painted outsidethe monasteries and on the walls (and was reallyencouraged even by the Buddha himself) is to teach thisvery profound Buddhist philosophy of life andperception to more simple-minded farmers or cowherds.So these images on the Wheel of Life are just tocommunicate to the general audience. The Lord of Hell,Yamaraja, holds a mirror. Again, this is very symbolic - tobe free of hell you don’t look for an external source, youlook at yourself: meditation such as shamatha meditationor vipashyana meditation.
Now there’s something else quite interesting about thehell realm. Within it you can see a white light going up,which symbolises that hell is also impermanent. It’s notas if once you go to hell then that’s it, there’s no way out.It’s not like that. After all, it’s your perception. If you canchange your perception, you can also get out of hell. Sothere’s a person depicted leaving hell.
Then there’s the animal realm with all kinds of animals.Tibetans have not seen many animals. Australians woulddo better painting this realm. The animals in the oceansand the animals on the land - I guess they must haveforgotten the animals in the sky, like birds.
And then there’s the hungry ghost realm. Beings herehave a very big stomach, a very thin neck and a verysmall mouth and are always hungry and thirsty, looking
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for food everywhere. Quite interestingly, there are somehungry ghosts sitting there who have jewels, but they areso stingy they don’t give them to other people. Of coursenot! But they don’t use them for themselves either. Theyjust save them for the next day or the next year.
Then there’s the god realm – castles, dancing girls,beautiful trees that have all sorts of ornaments,
people spending life just listening to music,playing music, taking baths, everything is
so perfect. And there’s the asura realm.They are as rich as gods, but they haveone problem which is fights. They lovefighting because they are jealous allthe time. For instance, they fight a lotwith the gods. This tree is called thewish-fulfilling tree. It actually growsin the asura realm. The jealous gods
are busy taking care of this tree but it isso tall, when it bears flowers and fruit, it
usually does so up on the top level andonly the gods can reach them. So all the
jealous gods’ effort in taking care of the tree iswasted. That really triggers so much anger andjealousy, which then creates a lot of fighting
between the asura realm and the god realm. Sadly, thegods almost always win, but the jealous gods just don’tgive up. They feel that one day they can topple those inthe god realm.
In the human realm we see suffering and pain – birth,death, old age, sickness. At the same time we also seepeople having fun, for instance. We also see peoplethinking, contemplating and discovering. So we have sixrealms. Loosely, you can say when the perception comesmore from aggression you experience things in a hellishway. When your perception is filtered throughattachment, grasping or miserliness, you experience thehungry ghost realm. When your perception is filteredthrough ignorance, then you experience the animal realm.When you have a lot of pride you are reborn in the godrealm. When you have jealousy you are reborn in theasura realm. When you have a lot of passion you arereborn in the human realm.
But the word ‘born’ or ‘reborn’ means a lot. It does notnecessarily mean that right now we are all in the humanrealm and we are not in the other five realms. Dependingon what kind of karma we create, we can go to otherrealms. If the karma to experience the hell realm is thestrongest then you will, I guess, change this form andthen with another form you will experience a hellish kindof perception. But according to Mahayana Buddhism, thesix realms are something that can happen during thecourse of a day!
(Photo Stuart MacFarlane)
Gentle Voice : April 2005
The previous issue of the Gentle Voice featured a teaching
by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the Wheel of Life, a
Buddhist depiction of life painted on the walls of many
monasteries. Here is the second half of that talk.
So we have six realms. Loosely, you can say when the
perception comes more from aggression, you experience
things in a hellish way. When your perception is filtered
through attachment, grasping or miserliness, you
experience the hungry ghost realm. When your
perception is filtered through ignorance, then you
experience the animal realm. When you have a lot of
pride, you are reborn in the god realm. When you have
jealousy, you are reborn in the asura realm. When you
have a lot of passion, you are reborn in the human realm.
But the word ‘born’ or ‘reborn’ means a lot. It does not
necessarily mean that right now we are all in the human
realm and we are not in the other five realms. Depending
on what kind of karma we create, we will go to other
realms. If the karma to be reborn or to experience the
hell realm is the strongest, then you will, I guess, change
this form and then with another form you will experience
a hellish kind of perception. But according to Mahayana
Buddhism the six realms are something that can happen
during the course of a day!
For instance, when you wake up in the morning you may
be quite dull and kind of stupid or still drowsy. Maybe
you are going through the animal realm — a late night
out or a sleepless or depressed night. Perhaps after you
wake up, someone you dislike calls you and your day is
ruined first thing in the morning. Then you really get
angry and that’s the hell realm. In order to get out of that
hellish situation you watch television. Maybe you happen
to watch Baywatch. (I’m talking about a man, by the
way, a straight man.) You feel a little turned on with all
these sights on Baywatch. And so, maybe at that time,
you go through the human realm. Once you finish
watching that, you go for a walk and your next-door
neighbour, who is actually quite old and geeky-looking,
happens to be walking towards you with a most beautiful
girl on his arm. Then you have a little bit of envy or
jealousy, ‘My God, of all people — him?’ That’s the
After that you go to an anti-war demonstration, but not
necessarily with a good intention. It’s more with the
intention of, ‘This is the politically correct thing to do,’
and that’s arrogance, isn’t it? And I guess when you go
through that anti-war demonstration, shouting at some of
the scapegoats that we have elected with our own choice,
that’s what I call the god realm — self-righteousness, a
politically correct kind of compassion, a ‘do the right
thing’ attitude. That’s so godly, so very, very arrogant.
And probably, at some time during the day, you go
through a nice time and this nice time you don’t want to
share with others. Maybe that is the hungry ghost realm.
So when we talk about six realms, actually we are
talking about experiences that can come within the
course of a day. It’s not a different place.
Now the most important aspect of this wheel of life is
this: wherever you are — it doesn’t matter whether you
are in hell, heaven, the hungry ghost realm or wherever
— you are under one law, under one authority, under one
dictator. Who is this? It’s this hideous man; you’re under
his claws, under his fangs. Who is this? Time. This
monster represents time. And what is so bad about it?
Oh, it is, because time means uncertainty,
Of course, it has its positives, but usually we don’t realise
them so much. For example, you could be experiencing
the god realm, but it’s changeable. If it doesn’t change
today, it will change tomorrow. You could be experiencing
the hell realm — changeable! In this case it’s good news.
Wherever you are, including experiencing the three
poisons (ignorance, passion and aggression), it is
impermanent and that’s time.So what is the purpose of our
life? To get out of this wheel of life. Liberation is when
you get out of this existence.
Q: What is it that is liberated?
R: Good question — this pig. So therefore the snake and
the bird also get liberated. Liberated from what? From
these six perceptions. Working with perception is
actually the main path of Buddhism. It’s all to do with
that. And it’s rightfully so, because it’s all your
perception that’s dictating your life, isn’t it? For instance,
when you love someone it is your perception that is
dictating your romance, your relationship. If that
perception gets disturbed even slightly, your outlook
towards this person is definitely changed. Maybe
someone at last tells you that a person you have been
dating for twenty years has a tail growing on a certain
Gentle Voice : page 2
The Wheel Of Lifeby Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Gentle Voice : April 2005
Gentle Voice : page 3
full-moon day. And if you can be convinced of that, then
your perception of this person who you have been dating
for twenty years changes. Next time he calls you, you
have to think twice!
These perceptions are very roughly divided into six.
That’s all it is. Actually, Buddhists themselves say that
these are not the only perceptions that we have, but this
is the generalisation of the perceptions that we have.
Working with perception is really the fundamental
foundation of the Buddhist path, especially in the
Vajrayana. For instance, in the Sakyapas’ teachings on
path and fruit, there is a whole segment called Triple
Vision and there this is taught so much.
It’s very strange, even some cultures are more animal-
oriented, some are more god-oriented and some are more
human-oriented. Now, although for the sake of
communication, we have to divide perceptions into the
three lower realms and the three upper realms, we are not
necessarily saying that one is better than the other.
Buddhists are not judging. Do you know why? Because
according to Buddhism, anyone who is in this man’s
clutches is useless, be it in the god realm or the hell
realm. Hierarchy doesn’t have much importance here.
They are all equally useless, equally unimportant.
One can easily say that the war that has been going on in
Palestine and Israel shows the asura realm, the demigod
realm. And if you see the hunger and starvation of
Ethiopia, India or Bangladesh, you can almost say this is
the hungry ghost realm. And if you see the endless,
insatiable mind that requires all kinds of hideous toys to
arouse it, like leather and chains and stuff like that,
I think we are experiencing a bit of the animal realm,
If we talk about hierarchy or if we need to judge the
value of these six realms, the Buddhists would say the
best realm is the human realm. Why is this the best
realm? Because you have a choice. Where does this
choice come from? The gods don’t have a choice. Why?
They’re too happy. When you are too happy you have no
choice. You become arrogant. The hell realm: no choice,
too painful. The human realm: not too happy and also
not too painful. When you are not so happy and not in so
much pain, what does that mean? A step closer to the
normality of mind, remember? When you are really,
really excited and in ecstasy, there is no normality of
mind. And when you are totally in pain, you don’t
experience normality of mind either. So someone in the
human realm has the best chance of acquiring that
normality of mind. And this is why in Buddhist prayers
you will always read: ideally may we get out of this
place, but if we can’t do it within this life, may we be
reborn in the human realm, not the others. The human
realm is preferable to the god realm.
Q: Mr. Time seems pretty imposing. Is the whole point
of this to escape Mr Time, to get out of his grip?
R: Yes, that’s liberation. We have to go beyond time. If
we liberate ourselves from time and space, then that’s it.
Then we have done our job. There is no past, there is no
present, there is no future. Then there is no Mr Sigmund
Freud. We can’t brood about our past childhood and all
Gentle Voice : October 2005
Since some of you are new to Buddhist ideas, this may
be the first time you are encountering the tantric path or
Vajrayana. So I would like to say a little bit based on
this, the Vajrayana path. There are figures such as Tilopa,
Virupa and Kukkuraja, and broadly speaking, from the
mundane world’s point of view, some of the things that
they did weren’t acceptable in society. This tradition has
existed for a long time in Buddhist history — Tilopa
eating live fish! A Buddhist eating live fish? While he
was eating the head, the tail was moving in his mouth.
Virupa was a drunk man, that’s what they say. He drank
anyway, he drank constantly. Kukkuraja was sleeping
with his own pet dog, the bitch.
The tantric path is shocking. I’m telling you these things
because when I say that Buddhism emphasises more the
appreciation of wisdom, I want you to know how we do
it. Yet, with all their almost inhuman, unacceptable
behaviour — eating live fish, becoming alcoholic and all
that — these are the people who left behind some of the
most incredible paths of wisdom that today we find are
the only source of solace, the path of the practice lineage
that we can walk, the steps of the staircase we tread.
I’m telling you this because we are beginning to talk
about the Twelve Interdependent Links of Origination
and the first thing we are going to talk about is
ignorance. We have already talked about ignorance that
is symbolised by the pig in the centre of the Wheel of
Life. What is ignorance? Very simply, I can say,
ignorance is actually distraction. When the mind is
distracted by something, then that is ignorance. The
whole act of getting distracted is ignorance.
Based on Buddhist theory, the evolution of ignorance is
an idea. Let’s take an abstract idea like a table. First we
create a label like ‘a table’, but that label is actually an
abstract entity. For instance, when we look at a table, you
will not really see an entity that is ‘tableness’. There are
legs, there is wood, there are nails, all of that. If you take
the table apart, each of them is a different phenomenon:
wood is wood, nail is nail. Within the phenomenon of
table there are many, many parts that are not necessarily
referred to as ‘a table’. But when they are all together,
then there's the idea or the label ‘a table’, and we created
that table, we created that label. That is still fine, that is
still not a big failure. The failure comes next when you
think that abstract idea is not abstract but concrete, when
you think there is actually a table existing, really
existing. You got it?
Actually, to put it very simply, it is attachment to a label.
Ignorance is attachment to a label. Out of all this
labelling — flowers, table, chairs, earth, water, fire —
there is one label that is probably the most dangerous.
It's not only dangerous; it has the most potential, is the
most destructive, constructive and, at the same time, the
most elusive. Basically, the root of all the other labels is
the label of self, myself, I.
Again, like the table we were referring to earlier, when
we say ‘I’, we are referring to something abstract. That is
fine; but what is not fine is strong attachment to this self
that is represented by a picture of a blind person (1)
right under the fangs of Time, the wrathful monster.
What does this ignorance do? The self is such a strong
notion that it can destroy the whole world if it is given
the authority, the equipment, the money, the power.
We all have the potential to be, and we are in our own
way, a little bit of Saddam Hussein, a little bit of Osama
bin Laden, a little bit of George Bush, a little bit of
Donald Rumsefeld. We all have that potential. Why? The
cling-ing to the self is so strong. Why is it that clinging
to the self is so strong? Because, ironically, it still hasn’t
con-firmed that it exists, that is why. It is very ironic,
isn’t it? It is like when something is not sure, you have
this obsessive impulse to confirm it. You have to get
confirmation. That’s why. And that has been going on
forever. This uncertainty whether the self exists or not
constantly needs to be confirmed and you need to
And what do you do? You take action — you make
friends, go shopping, have sex, use whips and chains or
melted wax, which makes you really feel that you exist.
This is the second link, action, which is depicted by a
person making a pot (2). In classic Buddhist terms,
karma is action. You know how when we are insecure we
have to do something, from taking Prozac to meditating
or chanting mantras, whatever — all these are actions to
prove that you exist. And when we talk about these links,
they are sort of in order. But don’t think that these things
take time — like first there's ignorance and then there's a
little bit of a pause and then there's action. It is not like
that. It is really, really speedy. It is very fast, it is almost
at the same time.
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The Twelve InterdependentLinks of Origination by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Gentle Voice : October 2005
The moment you have action it is accompanied by
consciousness that is depicted by a monkey (3) —
clever, very clever, jumping all the time, going
everywhere. Here, there, you think he’s here and the next
minute he’s there. But, you know, those tame monkeys
are chained with all kinds of ropes. It doesn’t matter how
clever they are, they still don’t know how to undo these
chains and run away from their abuser. Basically, the
consciousness emerges from ignorance. The monkeys are
cleverly stupid, that’s all. They are clever idiots. (It’s sort
of unfair on the monkeys!)
So what has happened? You need to confirm this
ignorance, this insecurity. You create an action; action
is accompanied by this consciousness, like eye
consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness,
tongue and touch consciousness. This then develops
nama and rupa, which is depicted in the fourth image
on the Wheel of Life, name and form. It could be John,
Paul, democracy, a trend or a fashion. But strictly
speaking, here there is a boat that symbolises identity
and inside the boat there are the five aggregates that are
represented by the five travellers (4). Wherever this
label, this identity, this trend goes, somehow the five
aggregates, without much choice, tag along. Where do
they go? They don’t reach anywhere. They just go round
and round in this ocean of samsara. Basically, what we
are talking about is constructing identity, self- identity,
yourself. You have now successfully constructed an
identity — myself, me, Buddhist, Hindu.
So once you construct that, then what do you need?
This me, this self, without all the rest is useless. Again, it
will become very lonely. It needs a place to get distract-
ed, to get occupied, like a job or entertainment, which is
represented by an empty house with five doors (5) —
sense objects such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
With this identity, this notion of ‘I’, we go through or
enter this house of sense objects. It is an empty house;
there is nothing inside but we think there is something
very valuable inside. Or if you happen to be inside, you
think that there must be something very valuable outside
and then you go outside. We go in and out; basically we
create more phenomena. Then what does this give birth
to? Contact (6). Tibetans are just hopeless when they
paint. This is supposedly a man and a woman kissing.
Basically, we meet, we have contact between the sense
and the sense object, consciousness and the object.
There is contact and what does this contact lead to?
It leads to feeling, which is represented by being
blinded by an arrow in one eye (7).
Let’s go back to the self. We have the self, ignorance —
insecure and at the same time very, very, very proud.
Very egoistic, but at the same time very insecure and
because of that we have to do something. As we do, we
create consciousness, form, we create a certain kind of
identity, a trend or some kind of fashion that we belong
to. With the help of the form, the trend, this feeling, we
go out to the sense objects and when we go out, we meet
the object. The moment we meet, we then feel — not
necessarily good feelings, sometimes bad feelings.
A feeling is created. Feeling leads to craving, which is
depicted by a person drinking alcohol (8). This
insecure self is going through this form and feeling and
all this identity and then we meet a very good feeling. Of
course, we crave for more.
But sometimes we even encounter bad contact, bad
feeling, and then crave to dispel it, to outdo it, to gain
some kind of victory. You know how we are so attached
to fixing the problem, aren't we?
Continnued from page 3
In both ways basically what’s happening, whether you
are just enjoying the experience or maybe not necessarily
enjoying it, there is some kind of a sense of addiction to
get rid of the problem, to fix the problem. In both ways
you have gained craving, craving for more.
Craving leads to taking, which is depicted by a person
picking some fruit (9). So we then take — information,
possessions, food, drink. Once you take, taking leads to
grasping which is symbolised by the pregnant woman.
Then you hold on to what you crave and what you have
just obtained by taking. That holding on is what we call
existence and that’s depicted by the pregnant woman
(10), which then leads to birth (11). Birth automatically
leads to old age; old age leads to death (12). These are,
briefly, the Twelve Interdependent Links of Origination.
What I have been explaining to you is only really, really
the basics. This is a very big subject; it is taught in the
Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmakosha-karika really
We are not only talking about a gradual human evolution
— first ignorance, then action and so on. It is definitely
that; but we are also talking about what happens within
one instant. When we go to a coffee shop and order a
cappuccino, there is ignorance, which leads to action,
which leads to everything… until you finish your
cappuccino, which is death, which then leads to an
appetiser or a headache or something else. In every
action, in every aspect of our life, there are the Twelve
Interdependent Links of Origination.