The Tibetan Wheel of Life is an intricate example of Buddhist art, used for teaching purposes. The images can be understood on many levels and it would take a whole volume to explain them all in detail. So, this is just a brief overview of some of the meanings.
Yama, the Lord of Death, is holding up the Wheel of Life. It is a mirror in which we can see our own reflection. Although Yama looks fierce, he is in fact a benevolent being who is a protector of Buddhism. He is expressing the impermanence of all things. The five skulls on his crown can represent the five skandhas- form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness. His third eye symbolises the wisdom of understanding impermanence and his four limbs- birth, sickness, old age and death.
Starting from the centre we have a cock, a snake and a pig representing greed, anger or hate and ignorance respectively. These are known in Buddhism as the three poisons because they poison the soul and our clear vision of our true Self. In some interpretations the three poisons are said to be ignorance, attachment and aversion.
The next ring denotes, on the left side, Bodhisattvas or enlightened ones leading beings towards rebirth in higher realms and, on the left side, demons leading beings into hellish states of existence. Again, the battle between the lower and higher aspects of our nature.
Then we have the six realms of existence or states of mind we are born into or adopt. At the top there is the realm of the Gods or Devas. This represents a state of mind in which one is self-satisfied, living in comfort and generally not interested in Spiritual progress.
The second is the realm of Asuras, who are warring gods. This is the state of mind of those who are always at war with themselves and others. Who rely on violence and coercion to get on in life. This state of mind is not suitable to progress on the Spiritual Path.
Next we have the realm of Pretas or hungry ghosts, representing those who are ruled by their desires and never satisfied. They always want more in the material realms of existence.
Then we have the Hellish realms. Beings here are tormented and usually take it out on others with anger and violence.
The Animal realm is next, where the beings live purely animalistic lives; thinking only of providing for their temporary personalities.
Finally, we have the Human realm, the only one of the realms from which enlightenment is possible. Beings here have developed a curiosity as regards the meaning of life and desire to work on their Spirituality. Not many take the opportunity but it is open to all.
In each of the realms the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, or Kwan Yin, appears to show those in that particular state the way to enlightenment. However, as shown, it is only in the Human Realm that it is possible. So those in these various states of mind must develop the human aspect to progress.
The outer circle shows the twelve Nidanas or the Links of Dependent Origination. Starting from the top right and going clockwise we have a blind woman representing ignorance, then a potter depicting formation and then a monkey which is consciousness and perhaps the ‘monkey mind’. This leads to two men in a boat which portray name and form or mind and body. From name and form we move on to a house with six windows or the six senses. From the six senses we have a couple embracing, representing contact and then an eye pierced with an arrow which is sensation. Next a man drinking; for from sensation comes thirst. A man gathering fruit expresses grasping and a couple making love is ‘becoming’. Then a woman giving birth and finally a man carrying a corpse, portraying death. Each stage gives ‘birth’ to the next.
Then the process starts once more, because this is Samsara -the Wheel of Birth and Death which we go through time and time again until we gain enlightenment.
In the upper righthand corner there is the Buddha, who signifies the hope that we all have for liberation from the round of birth and death. He is often shown pointing at the full moon, a symbol of enlightenment.
He also appears in the left hand corner as well. Here he is seated in front of a temple, which symbolises the entrance to Nirvana. In some depictions a stream of beings from the Human Realm are seen to be rising up towards it.
As said earlier there are many levels to understanding the symbology. This has been a very basic one. Hopefully readers may go on to look into it themselves and perhaps find other, deeper meanings.