Buddhism: life, the universe and everything, in one picture

With all that is happening in the world right now it feels hard to know quite what to say.  So for today I am going to look at a Buddhist teaching on what drives living beings.

The Buddhist teachings on “life, the universe and everything” were given pictorial representation in what is known as the Tibetan Wheel of Life. When I first encountered Buddhism I went on a study course that explored the meaning of this diagram and I found it to be a fascinating way of understanding myself and others.

What is it depicting? In the middle are the three ‘poisons’ the root emotions that keep us in a place of suffering: greed (cock), hatred (snake) and delusion  (pig). It is taught that these are the root unwholesome emotions that keep us trapped in a place of suffering:

greed – the desire to acquire for ourselves rather than to share. The desire to consume, hoard, and posses. The feeling that we never have enough, that we have to acquire more in order to be happy – but never reaching a point where what we have seems to be sufficient.

hatred – the belief that we are in competition with others and have to define a person or group as an enemy against which we fight as an individual or a group.  We are consumed in thoughts of self-protection or revenge.

delusion – in the Buddhist teaching this is ignorance of how the world works and an inability to see that we are part of a whole. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of an interconnected and ever-changing process we believe in being a separate and unchanging self. As a result of this lack of experiencing ourselves as whole and perfect we come into conflict with others who are perceived as a threat to our own personal and individual ability to own, posses and accumulate.

Surrounding this is a white and black segment, representing a life of ever increasing happiness and joy as a result of ones actions or of descending into ever greater depths of fear and pain. The more we are motivated by the root poisons, the more we descend into pain.  We move between these paths as we are motivated by different emotions and intentions.

Buddhism does not say that this is all we are or that we need an external source to provide salvation.  We save ourselves thorough our actions. Each poison has an antidote.  From this perspective it is more that we are ill and can be cured and on being cured we come back to our true nature.  For Buddhism our essential nature is not that we are evil, but that we are pure, but have lost sight of this as a consequence of the poisons.

The antidote to greed is applied as we learn to cultivate generosity and contentment. Being happy with what we own, giving help to others through charity or generous actions, being willing to share what we have with others.

The antidote to hatred is applied as we learn to cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness.

The antidote to delusion is applied as we cultivate wisdom, insight, and right understanding. What is this? In the Buddhist approach it is learning to see that all things are interdependent and interconnected. That everything in existence is impermanent and insubstantial so there is nothing to hold on to as me or mine, and so nothing to fight over. We are energy, a flow of life that has come to identify with a temporary body that is itself only in existence for a few seconds in terms of cosmic time. It is said the ultimate objective of spiritual practice to is to realise that there is no permanent self and instead to be in the ever present Now – a state that is said to be both still and ever changing, full of bliss and a sense of being whole whilst also being fully present to being interconnected with all life. For us who are on the way to this realisation it can simply mean reflecting that all things are impermanent, that life is a process of change and from this cultivating a greater sense of equanimity.

The outer segments depict the different worlds that according to Buddhist teaching it is possible to take birth in as one passes from one life to another. I’ll talk about those next week.

Thus mindfulness and Loving Kindness are a means of applying the antidotes to the poisons that afflict us and of learning to contain impulses and instincts which may cause harm to others, of making amends when we have acted out of greed and hatred through a process of apology, reconciliation and forgiveness.

To read more about the Wheel of Life click here