The wheel of life (Bhavachakra or the wheel of existence)

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The wheel of life, also known as the Bhava Chakra or the wheel of existence, is a mandala (or intricate design) that symbolizes Buddhist teachings about the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation as well as the suffering that followers of the religion hope to escape. According to the wheel, the force that keeps beings in a cycle of existence is caused by the energy that a person creates by his or her past deeds, also known as karma. All beings are reborn after death into either a lesser or greater condition according on the deeds they committed while they were living (Karmic Retribution). Buddhist practitioners understand the cycle and can determine their rightful place within the concentric circles of the wheel that show the various realms or regions of being. The paper assesses the similarities and differences between the Chinese and Japanese Buddhist ideas and thoughts regarding the wheel of existence. The paper as well provides a detailed explanation of the realms of hell as well as the beliefs of the two societies regarding the same.


The wheel of existence is subdivided into five or six states or realms, and a soul can be reborn into each, as determined by their past actions. The wheel is held in position by a frightening figure, Yama, the Lord of Death or Monster of Impermanence which has three eyes and wears a crown of skulls. Around the rim of the wheel is a depiction of the twelve stages of dependent organization. Yama symbolizes that nothing in this world is permanent. The beings held by Yama are trapped in unending suffering due to their ignorance of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the belief of Japanese and Chinese Buddhist is that beings can avoid eternal suffering if they fully do away with ignorance of the fundamentals of the universe. All beings are trapped in what the Tibetans refer to as the wheel of life. Besides, all beings are within the six realms of existence are doomed to death and further rebirth in a recurring cycle over many and countless ages (Explore the Wheel of Existence, 2016). The only condition that can exclude a being from the death and rebirth is breaking free from desire and further seeking enlightenment. Buddhism teaches its believers that death is not the end; thus it should not be feared.

Before assessing the similarities and differences in Japanese and Chinese Buddhist understanding of the wheel of life, it is essential to master the explanation of the diagram. The center or hub of the wheel is a representation of the three poisons i.e. ignorance, anger, and desire represented by a pig, snake, and bird respectively. The second layer represents good and bad actions called karma. The third layer is in the six realms of samsura. The next layer is about the twelve links of interdependent origination. Yama or the monster holding the wheel represents impermanence. Next part of the wheel is the moon that is above the wheel, and it is a representation of liberation from the cycles of existence. Lastly, the Buddha is found in the top right corner, and he is believed to show the way. Buddha is outside the wheel, thus portraying that he has escaped the cycle of death and life. Pointing at the Yama and the wheel, he teaches his practitioners of the true nature of existence. Besides, he is pointing to the moon, a sign that liberation is possible for any being, as long as they avoid ignorance and seek enlightenment ((Explore the Wheel of Existence, 2016).

Comparison and Contrast between Japanese and Chinese Buddhist beliefs about the Wheel of Life

In both societies, the wheel of life has six classes of beings namely, God, asura, human, animal, ghost, and finally the hell being. Both Japanese and Chinese Buddhist hold the idea that the three poisons found in the hub of the circle are the three major mental poisons (fires), and individuals can only avoid suffering if they alienate themselves from the poisons (Lopez, 1999). Both societies hold similar ideas and thoughts regarding the traits of the animals representing the three poisons. The three animals present a representation of the three mental poisons that lead to suffering and are the hub of the wheel of life. The other similar belief is regarding the second layer that portrays both the positive and negative actions.

According to both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, karma (positive and negative actions) is real, and they are influenced by the three poisons (ignorance, desire, and anger). Those beings that do positive or virtuous actions in their past lives are found on the half-circle on the right, and such actions are the means to attain lives in the three higher realms (gods, demigods, and humans). However, the non-virtuous or adverse actions are found on the left half-circle. Beings that do such actions in their past lives attain lives in the three lower realms i.e. hell-beings, hungry ghosts, and animals. Both Buddhists consider being born as a human as the best realm or state to be born in (Explore the Wheel of Existence, 2016). There is also the belief that the gods (devas) live in a state of extreme happiness in the realm of heaven. Even though the gods live for a long time, they too will die, and only enlightenment is a complete release from suffering. According to both beliefs, Zen is a suitable way to attain enlightenment and thus avoid the worldly suffering (Kraft, 1988). At the bottom are the angry gods (Titans/asuras) who hate the devas. Another belief in both Japanese and Chinese Buddhists regards the realm of hungry ghosts, and as Buddha taught, over attachment to the world and unfulfilled desires crowd the hungry ghosts; and their tiny mouths can never satisfy their appetites (Explore the Wheel of Existence, 2016). Therefore, Buddhism teaches that abnormal appetite and being overly attached to the world is the great contributor to suffering.

Besides, Buddhists believe that being reborn in the realm of animals is not a good thing as the animals are not only used by humans but also lack the required awareness for enlightenment. Nonetheless, Both Japanese and Chinese Buddhists believe in treating the animals (all living thing) with loving kindness.

It is essential to note that since the religion of Buddhism was introduced in its original form in the two countries, there is no much difference in belief and ideas about the wheel of existence. The only difference is that the images tend to vary in different paintings of the wheel. However, the belief regarding the worldly suffering and enlightenment as the only way to avoid suffering is the same in Chinese and Japanese Buddhists. However, Japanese Buddhists believe that Zen is a positive way to maintain the security and prosperity of the country (Kraft, 1988).

The realm of Hell

The realm of hell is found at the bottom of the wheel of life. The realm is not only the lowest but also the worst state, and it is wracked by torture and is full of aggression. Both Chinese and Japanese Buddhists believe that in the hells, there are beings that exhausted the causes that had placed them in the upper realms. The energy that was put in those upper states was exhausted, and since the beings failed to liberate themselves from the wheel, they become drawn back down as a result of the negative actions that they have not yet paid (Bhavachakra: The Wheel of Becoming, 2013). Beings in hell are horribly tortured in many creative ways, but there is the need to know that the suffering in this realm is not forever. The beings are tortured until their negative past actions, or bad karma is worked off. Both Buddhist societies philosophy teaches that there are eighteen hells, but they are considered to be varied in other traditions with some having nine while others have hundreds. The fundamental aspect of the realm of hell in both Buddhist societies is that hells represent where the beings that did negative actions go, and they must pay their debts via suffering the repercussions of their actions (Bhavachakra: The Wheel of Becoming, 2013). The similarity in beliefs and thoughts regarding the realm of hell is that it is ruled by everything that is negative and horrifying to the worldly beings.


Bhavachakra: The Wheel of Becoming. (2013). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from Glorian Publishing:

Buddhist concept of heaven and hell. (2015). Retrieved April 18, 2017, from Chinese Buddhism:

Explore the Wheel of Existence. (2016). Retrieved April 18, 2017, from Rubin Museum of Art: Educational Interactive Library:

Kraft, K. (1988). Zen: Tradition and Transition. New York: Grove Press.

Lopez, D. S. (1999). Religions of China in Practice. New Jersey, United States: Princeton University Press.

April 13, 2023

Religion Philosophy

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