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The Wheel of Life

Our lives begin with the suffering of birth and end with the suffering of death; between these two, there are many different consequences of aging and many unfortunate events. This is suffering, the first of the four noble truths, which we do not want—the problem we want to overcome. It is important to investigate whether there is any way to surmount such suffering or not. To understand this, it is necessary to investigate what the causes of our situation are.

These questions about the meaning of life are addressed in a famous Buddhist painting of a wheel with twenty-one parts that outline the process of rebirth. The diagram, said to be designed by Buddha himself, depicts an inner psychological cosmology that has had great influence throughout Asia. It is much like a map of the world or the periodic table of chemical elements, but it is a map of an internal process and its external effects.

In Tibet, the painting is at the doorway of practically every temple. Its vivid description of how we become trapped in a counter-productive maelstrom of suffering and how this process can be reversed shows how Buddhists place themselves in an ever-changing universe of cause and effect. By illuminating the causes behind our situation of limitation and pain, the wheel of cyclic existence reveals how, through practicing antidotes to these causes, we can overcome the painful and limiting situations that are their effects. It shows the altruistic purpose that can make life meaningful. The unsettling description of the steps of entrapment is a call to action, for it shows how the prison of selfishness can be turned into a source of help and happiness for both oneself and others.