One of the most often asked question of spiritual teachers by students is “what is my purpose”? Students who study spiritual concepts want to have some idea of why the universe operates in the manner it is experienced. They want to understand so that they can stop suffering. An understanding of the “big picture” is helpful to reduce anxiety and give us something to feel more comfortable. The Wheel of Karma created by the Tibetan Buddhists gives us that bigger picture along with clues of what we can expect. The Wheel is a symbolic representation of the nature of life.
A great way to use the Wheel of Karma in a practical way is to be familiar with the symbols on the wheel. These symbols represent the issues that we face over and over again through out our lives. Everything is in circles just as life operates in circles. We always hear about life operating in cycles and circles. Nothing in nature is a straight line, and the symbols on the Wheel of Karma recognize this fact. For someone looking at the Wheel of Karma for the first time, it is a confusing montage of symbols, colors and shapes. When students contemplate on the symbols and the place they occupy on the Wheel, life starts to make more sense. Just like life, it is impossible to focus on the whole thing at once, we must take it step by step.
On the central circle, we see the symbols of the pig (ignorance), the snake (anger and aversion), and the rooster (vanity and greed). We can spend an entire lifetime simply contemplating how these concepts control our lives. If we could control just these three concepts in our life, we would be enlightened. Concentrating on one of these concepts each day would bring us closer to self-realization, that elusive state of consciousness for which we strive. Being aware of how we live our lives in ignorance is not to be a source of concern, simply acceptance. We could spend all day recognizing the actions that are reactions to the events of our lives. If we could simply be thoughtful about how we react to the events of our lives, everything would be effortless. It is when we react out of ignorance to the events of our lives that things spin out of control.
Similarly, when we focus on anger and aversion or vanity and greed, we can change what happens in our lives. When we feel anger arising, if we can be conscious enough to ask the question, “what desires are being threatened,” then we can understand where the anger is coming from. If we understand the source of anger, we can release it and not have to suffer it any further. It takes total focus to be able to trace the source of the anger, and it is a great reminder to have that in the circle in the center of the Wheel of Karma.
The third concept represented on the center of the circle is vanity and greed. We all can see the results of world greed and vanity being played out in stock markets and global collapses. In our own worlds, we may be experiencing much the same effects with jobs, or our health. When we focus on how we are being vain or greedy in our lives, we can start to see where we may need to be more compassionate and giving.
When we look further out from the center, we see a circle of figures, on the right unhappy and on the left happy. This is the familiar cycling up and down that characterizes our habitual thinking. At any given time we go into cyclical thinking that either lifts us out of our depression (positive thoughts) or plunges us into the depths of despair (negative thoughts). The ancients recognized thousands of years ago that we have some control over our habitual thinking. If we are fearful and stressed, it feels like we are in Hell. Many of the depictions of the Wheel of Karma shows the unhappy people falling out of the circle into a hell-like scenario. That is where our negative thoughts take us. Conversely, positive thinking lifts us out of the top of the circle into heavenly realms.
The purpose of these images is to impress upon the student the necessity of being aware of the habitual thinking that controls our mind. Are we in victim mode and thinking life is hell? Or are we empowered and recognize that we create our reality that brings us to heaven? Anyone that is aware that they are spiraling down in negative thinking can stop it at any given moment, and start spiraling up, at will. By looking at the Wheel of Karma, we are reminded of this aspect of our life and that we control it.
The next ring of images is made up of the six aspects of consciousness. We assume that we are in the human portion of the ring. However, this is all a matter of consciousness. Some people believe they live in Hell (the bottom of the images) while others believe they live in Heaven (the top). It is interesting to note that the belief that hell is below heaven is illustrated in the ring, but that may not be necessarily so. It is the way we think of things, and so it is illustrated that way on the ring of consciousness. The six segments are the God realm, the Demi God realm, the Hungry Ghost realm, the Hell realm, the animal realm and the human realm, as you go from the top, clockwise. There are two layers to this ring. On one level, it represents the types of lives one can be born into based upon your behaviors in past lives. On a deeper level, these are the levels of consciousness that we can experience in this lifetime, depending on our mastery of our mind.
As we are looking at the Wheel of Karma from the “human realm” (it is assumed that anyone reading this is human), one has to accept the fact that there are other states of existence other than what we are experiencing at the moment. When we accept that, we can move freely to the aspect of consciousness that we wish to experience. Native shamans who can shape shift are adept at this. They can go from the human realm to the animal realm at will. So the lines between all of these realms are not walled in concrete, they are fluid. So it is important that we compare our lives to the images on this ring and if we find that we are living in a way that causes suffering, we have to change the way we live.
The next ring is the ring of twelve aspects of human experience. It begins at the top and goes clockwise around the ring. Each aspect is unique and like a board game, must be experienced before you can get off the board (unless you can master the inner rings and get a “get out of jail card free”). For many people, why events happen in their lives is a total mystery and a source of suffering. If they understand that we have to experience all of the aspects of life on the ring (unless we can jump out), then they can pick which image they are experiencing.
The twelve aspects are excellently summarized elsewhere in this page. Everyone can find themselves somewhere on this ring, as when we spend our time in the human realm. So we are simply playing the game as we invented it. We are born, become aware on some level, grasp, label, drink, have sex,
When we contemplate the Wheel of Karma, we come to realize that this is the blueprint for a human life. It is in our genetic structure to experience all of the experiences symbolized in the Wheel. We can either experience the Wheel as set in stone or as a fluid experience that can change at will. Simply being aware of the fact that this is the basic nature of human existence can be the foundation for experiencing whatever kind of life you want.
One of the subtle symbols of the Wheel is that the Buddha (you) who is above and to the right of the Wheel, has transcended all of the suffering and drama of the Wheel. This is because the Buddha understood that he created the Wheel and could transcend it anytime he wanted. Buddha, like Christ, understood that he was in the world, not of it. This means that he and Christ and all ascended beings who have left the Wheel knew that we are not trapped on the Wheel at all. We choose to be here. The ironic play here is that if you are reading this, you are on the Wheel. If you had worked your way off the wheel, none of this would matter to you, including whether you had a life purpose or not.
We do not come to this life with a purpose other than that illustrated on the Wheel of Karma. When we ask ourselves “what is the purpose of my life?” we jump back on the Wheel. We must understand that we are simply playing a game that we invented to have fun. We are like people who play cyber-games and forget we created the game for our amusement. If we can remember that we created the game, and we can get off anytime we want, then we stop suffering.