Venerable Lama Losang Samten walks us through the symbolism and meaning in The Wheel of Life, an ancient Buddhist sand mandala. Samten is a Tibetan-American scholar, sand mandala artist, former Buddhist monk, and Spiritual Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia. He is the author of Ancient Teachings in Modern Times: Buddhism in the 21st Century.
Transcript: My name is Losang Samten. I’m from Tibet, born in Tibet and then fled Tibet in 1959 at the age of 5. I came to Nepal first and then eventually came to India. And so I grew up in India and then eventually came to the United States in 1988. Ever since then I’ve been creating a lot of ancient Tibetan sand mandalas. Of course all the mandalas are tradition but some of the mandalas are such – all are so beautiful but sometimes it’s hard to explain to the general public who do not have that much background of Buddhists and Buddhist philosophy.
What I’m showing to you here this image is called Wheel of Life. In our language. It’s called grid pa’i ‘khor lo. The wheel of life which in many ways is fascinating and also me as an artist to display this art in the schools, especially the schools and kids can understand a lot better and not only just intellectually understand better but something to relate to in their life. So what is the Wheel of Life in the mandala or in design, the middle there are three animals? And the three animals are a snake, a rooster and pig. Three animals are there. They’re also chasing to each other, connecting to each other which means what is their causes of suffering? What makes us so difficult? What makes our wheel so stressful? So each animal means something. Not the animal itself but represents something what we’re going through on a day to day basis.
So the pig represents the ignorance, lots are due to our emotions, special negative emotions and the difficulties and frustrations and even killing each other are due to the ignorance – not seeing the true nature of the reality. And unfortunately sometimes we as a pure teaching either Buddhism or Christianity and Judaism and Islam and all of this, even though due to how to peace – due to how to create human peace and happiness but some individuals due to the ignorance use as a killing tool in the name of the religion. So it’s the pig, the animal, which in the middle symbolizes ignorance.
Two other animals are there too and the snake represents the anger. Hatred is such a big problem in my life or anybody’s life in today and the past due to our relationships, due to anything – anger is really damaging. When Buddha designed this what was original was a pig and a snake. In the rooster case we really don’t know if the original was a rooster or a pigeon. There’s a little different – scholars have a different interpretations. So that’s why when I draw sand mandalas sometimes I draw it as a rooster, sometimes I draw it as a pigeon to both will be happy. No too much conflicts. And so the pigeon represents – either the pigeon or the rooster represents the greed, the greed, the greed. We see that today in the twenty-first century and so much greed and all these problems in the modern society.
Damaging for the environment, damaging for many different things is truly greed. So which I said earlier in the beginning of my conversation these are the three – the ignorance and the greed and the anger are the difficult ones. So these are the causes of the suffering. Suffering rises from nothingness. Suffering rises from due to something there previously, something happened and because of that and rises. So that’s why the wheel of life is so famous in the Buddhist field and especially in Tibet or Mongolia and Bhutan or some of the ancient Buddhist temples, wheel of life is on the campus.
In a way the monastery or nunnery is like your university. So big campus. In Tibet one monastery is like a 20,000 or 30,000 monks who are living there and study there, debate there and that’s they’re home. So either in the library or meditation room, somewhere wheel of life is always they paint it on the big wall. So that’s the middle of the design of the wheel of life. And the second design there and now I’m talking about the middle. And the second circle of the wheel of life there is black and white or day and night sort of it symbolizes. More of these three animals, there’s more difficulties, less of those – there’s more joy. So sometimes we call it as good karma and bad karma.