Gem of Wisdom for Daily Reflection: 

Reflection On The Twelve Links of Dependent-Origination

Wheel of life thangka

From the Buddhist perspective, death is not the end of existence. Each death is followed by another round of rebirth in one of the six realms of existence as conditioned by the positive and negative karmic actions we have accumulated in our previous lives.

Every single tiny action of our present time, regardless how insignificant we might imagine, will without exception ripen into fruition in the future.

This continuous transmigration of rebirth through a recurring cycle of conditioned existence is known as samsara (khorwa).

Noble Mahayana Sutra On Dependent Origination

At one time, Shakyamuni Buddha with a retinue of bodhisattvas, arhats and deities were residing at the Celestial Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods. A question was put forward by Avalokitesvara to Lord Buddha - the Great Shramana - on how merits can be gained by the construction of a stupa. Shakyamuni Buddha responded by proclaiming the Essence of Dependent Origination Dharani.

He then explained whoever perceives dependent origination perceives the Buddha. He further added that whoever places this essence of dependent origination dharani inside a stupa will attain the merits of Brahma leading to rebirth in the pure abode of the gods.

This discourse of the Buddha is preserved in the Noble Mahayana Sutra On Dependent Origination:

In Sanskrit: Ārya­pratītya­samutpāda­nāma­-mahā­yāna­-sūtra
In Tibetan: pak pa ten ching drelwar jungwa zhé jawé tek pa chen pö do

Thus have I heard:

At one time, the Blessed One was seated upon the throne of Indra in the Celestial Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods at the peak of Mount Meru. He was accompanied by a retinue of noble hearers such as the venerable Asvajit; bodhisattva mahasattvas such as Maitreya, Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, who were all adorned with immeasurable noble qualities.

Also present were various celestial deities such as the Great Brahma - the lord of the Sahaloka, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra - the leader of the Thirty-Three Gods, and Pancasikha - the king of the gandharvas (smell-eaters).

At that time, bodhisattva-mahasattva Avalokitesvara got up from his seat, with his upper robe draped over his left shoulder, palms together, knelt down with his right knee and bowed before the Blessed One and said in these words:

Blessed One, the celestial deities who are presented here all wish to build a stupa. Please expound to us the Dharma that will increase the merit of Brahma, and the merits of the monks, nuns, upasaka (laymen), upasika (laywomen) that will surpass far more than that of all types of beings in the realm of gods, maras, Brahma, mendicants and brahmins.

In response to Avalokitesvara, the Blessed One proclaimed the following Essence of Dependent Origination Dharani:

“All phenomena arise from causes - ye dharma hetu prabhava
The Tathagata has taught these causes - hetun tai khen tathagato hy avadat
That which brings cessation to these causes - tekhen tsa yo nirodha
This too has been taught by the Great Shramana - evam vadi maha shramanah”

“Avalokitesvara, dependent origination is the dharmakaya - the Truth Body - of all the tathagatas. “

“One who has recognised dependent origination sees the Buddha.”

“Avalokitesvara, if a devout son or daughter of the noble family erects in a remote place a stupa - even one no bigger than the size of a gooseberry fruit, with a central life-tree pillar the size of a needle and a parasol no bigger than the flower of the bakula tree - and insert within the stupa, this essence of dependent origination dharani which is inseparable from the dharmadhatu (the sphere of absolute reality) he or she will generate the merit of Brahma and be reborn after passing with a store of great fortunes equal to that of the gods of the Pure Realms of Suddhavasa.”

After the Blessed One proclaimed in this way, the hearers, bodhisattvas, the whole assembly, and the universe of gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

This concluded the Noble Mahayana Sutra On Dependent Origination.

Dependent Origination - the arising of cause and effect

Dependent origination (tendrel du jungwa) is defined as the Buddha’s doctrine on the law of cause and effect.

It stated that both outer and inner phenomena can only arise in the presence of other phenomena.

Outer phenomena, the material forms of sentient and non-sentient compositions, and the inner phenomena of mental factors, both arise as the direct result of the assembling of different relevant factors in creating a chain of becoming that is referred to as samsara (khorwa).

Samsara is the recurrence of birth, aging and death in a cycle of transient existence due to the interdependent correlation between their respective causes and conditions coming together at a specific time and manner.

The characteristics of Samsara

Samsara is by nature characterised by five types of suffering (dukngal):

  1. the suffering of recurring transmigration through birth, aging and death;
  2. the suffering of experiencing the impermanency of mundane pleasure that never lasts;
  3. the suffering of experiencing dissatisfaction in mundane pursuit such as meeting with what is undesirable and parting from what is desirable;
  4. the suffering of experiencing the rising and falling of phenomena in mundane pursuit and yet unable to possess objects of desire;
  5. the suffering of experiencing the turmoil caused by the contaminated aggregates that are inseparable from the nature of suffering.


These sufferings can be grouped into three main types:

  1. suffering of suffering (duk ngel gyi duk ngel) ;
  2. suffering of change (gyur bé duk ngel);
  3. all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence (khyap pa du jé kyi duk ngal).

suffering of suffering

The suffering of suffering includes the misery of taking rebirth as one of the six classes of beings in samsara as dictated by the most dominating karmic imprint in one’s alaya consciousness.

The six classes of beings and the causes of their rebirths are:

  1. devas, the terrestrial and celestial gods (lha) due to pride;
  2. asuras, the demi-gods (lhamin) due to jealousy;
  3. human beings (mi) due to desire;
  4. animals (dündro) due to stupidity;
  5. hungry ghosts (yi dak) due to miserliness;
  6. hell beings (semchen nyalwa) due to anger.

All six classes of beings are subjected to the anguish of parting from what they hold dear, the anxiety of facing what is undesirable, and unable to achieve what they wish to attain.

suffering of change

The suffering of change means regardless of the realm we take rebirth; regardless of the sensory pleasure we experienced there, it is destined to change due to the universal law of impermanence that death always follows birth because all that is conditioned is impermanent.

all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence

The all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence is related to the continuity of contaminated experience of the six realms caused by the five aggregates (pungpo nga), interacting with delusions and karma to give rise to the emergence of self-grasping - the basic for the self-established ego and our experience of suffering in samsara.

Five aggregates - the basic of the ego


Forms (zug) are referring to our physical bodies, and the relationship of our bodies and their senses with our environment. These include:

  • the causal forms which are the five elements (jungwa nga) of earth (sa), water (chu), fire (me), wind (lung) and space (namkha);
  • the resultant form, composed also of these five elements, and include the five sense faculties (wangpo nga) of eye (mik gi wang po), ear (nawé wang po), nose (né wang po), tongue (ché wang po), body (lü kyi wang po) and their objects of focus;
  • the imperceptible form of particles, spatial, fruition, imagined and the absolute.



Feelings (tsorwa), the second of the five aggregates, are the mental impressions related to our five sensory faculties which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and which in turn give rise to eighteen types of sensations which are the basic for our attachment and aversion. These eighteen types of feelings are:

  • the six cognitive objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile, and recognisable phenomena;
  • the six cognitive sensory experiences of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind;
  • the six cognitive consciousnesses of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.



Attention (du shé), the third of the five aggregates, are the subjective experiences that can be as many types as there are phenomena.

  • It can be conceptual discernment of the five objects of senses and their selective features that distinguished itself from others. These include the recognition of labels such as designations, names and their identified characteristics.
  • It can also be non-conceptual discernment in the absence of sensory stimulus other than the more subtle stimulus of silence or darkness when we enter a state of meditative absorption.
  • It can also be discernment based on trust when we accept what we encounter in the manner it is presented, without having engaged in any discriminative labelling as in the case of children, who can learn a new language in a relatively short time by accepting the new experience as what it is, without fixating first on any pre-conceptual discursive reasoning.



Mental formations (du jed), the fourth of the five aggregates, are the six groups of mental activities (semjung) conditioned by consciousness comprising fifty-one mental factors (semjung ngabchu tsachik).

The first group comprises the five ubiquitous mental factors (semjung kün dro nga) of:

  1. contact (rekpa) - interaction with phenomena through the functions of the sensory faculties and consciousness which give rise to feelings;
  2. discernment (yi jed) - the discriminative attentiveness to apprehend and distinguish the characteristics of phenomena;
  3. feeling (tsorwa) - the mental impressions linked to the five sensory faculties which give rise to the experiences of eighteen types of ripening effects of sensation;
  4. intention (sempa) - the volition which directs the primary mind with its mental factors toward a specific phenomenon of interest which gives rise to the potential of creating karma;
  5. attention (du shé) - the engagement of the primary mind with its mental factors focus solely on a specific phenomenon of interest which actualises the creating of karma.


The second group comprises five object-identifying mental factors (yül ngé nga) which support the ascertaining of objects are:

  1. yearning (dunpa) - the enthusiastic intention to own the desired object;
  2. resolve (mopa) - the firm determination not to lose the apprehension of the object;
  3. mindfulness (drenpa) - the heedful awareness to maintain complete focus on the object;
  4. concentration (tingdzin) - the single-pointed attention to support correct cognition of the object;
  5. wisdom (sherab) - the discriminative awareness to remove any uncertainty of the object.


The third group comprises the true causes of happiness - the eleven virtuous mental factors of:

  1. faith (dépa) - the heartfelt conviction in the infallible law of karma and the benefit of entrusting oneself to the guidance of the Three Jewels;
  2. conscience (ngotsa shepa) - the awareness that safeguards the integrity of moral discipline by the avoidance of non-virtuous activities and the embracing of virtuous conducts;
  3. decorum (trel yö pa) - the awareness that restrains oneself from getting involved in negative activities due to consideration for others;
  4. non-attachment (machakpa) - the remedy to subjugate compulsive obsession in grasping and clinging to the outer discernible phenomena and the inner mental phenomena;
  5. non-aggression (shyé dang mepa) - the absence of hatred and malevolence due to the arising of patience, loving-kindness and compassion;
  6. non-deludedness (ti muk mé pa) - clarity in awareness that is free from ignorance and confusion;
  7. diligence (tsöndrü) - the remedy to subjugate laziness through joyous, enthusiastic effort in the engagement of virtuous activities;
  8. flexibility (shintu jangwa) - penetrating insight that offers mental pliancy that is free from the confine of rigid fixation when engaging in wholesome endeavours;
  9. conscientiousness (bak yöpa) - the awareness that appreciates the accumulation of virtues which safeguards the mind from creating causes for the arising of afflictions;
  10. equanimity (tang nyom) - the awareness that safeguards the mind from anxiety and laxity through recognising the nature of sameness in all phenomena as they are;
  11. non-harmfulness (nampar mitsewa) - the awareness that prevents the arising of harmful intent to hurt others due to the compassionate wishes to free all beings from suffering.


The fourth group comprises the true causes of sufferings - the six destructive mental factors of:

  1. ignorance (ma rigpa) - the cause of delusion due to the unknowing of the four Noble Truths, the nature of samsara, the law of karma and the qualities of the Three Jewels;
  2. grasping (döchak) - the cause of craving which exaggerates the qualities of contaminated phenomena;
  3. anger (kong tro) - the cause of anguish in the present life and even more sufferings in future lives due to the creating of negative karma which destroys the merits of virtue that have been accumulated over countless lifetimes;
  4. arrogance (nga gyal) - the cause of ignorance due to the excessive dependence on the contaminated phenomena of worldly knowledge;
  5. doubt (tetsom) - the cause of rebirth in the lower realms and the barrier to attaining liberation from samsara due to the arising of conceit and inflated opinion of one’s understanding;
  6. wrong views (tawa nyönmong chen) - the cause of rebirth in samsara due to the afflictive intelligence of perceiving the transient nature of phenomena as real and the ignorance of reality as it is.


The fifth group comprises the accessory causes of sufferings - the twenty secondary destructive mental factors of:

  1. belligerence (trowa) - giving rise to animosity and aggressive behaviour due to indignation;
  2. resentment (khön du dzinpa) - holding on to the fixation of grievance and ill-will;
  3. contentiousness (tshig pa) - causing controversy and pain for others due to resentment;
  4. savagery (nam par tsewa) - causing harm to others due to lack of mindfulness and compassion;
  5. deceitfulness (yo) - concealing one’s wickedness and cunning agenda through deceiving others;
  6. envy (trakdok) - discontented longing for others’ good fortune due to feeling of rivalry and conceit;
  7. pretentiousness (gyu) - falsifying and exaggerating one’s ability due to ignorance and grasping;
  8. shamelessness (ngotsa mepa) - experiencing no regret in harming others due to delusion;
  9. disrespectfulness (trel mepa) - engaging in acts of non-virtue in the absence of decorum due to delusion and conceit;
  10. dissimulation (chabpa) - concealing one’s defilements due to failing in following Dharma instruction;
  11. miserliness (ser na) - stinginess in offering support to others due to avarice and attachment;
  12. self-obsession (gyak pa) - pre-occupying with one’s image and one’s clinging due to delusion and fabricated desire;
  13. faithlessness (madepa) - lacking of sincerity in applying Dharma instruction due to doubt and ignorance;
  14. indolence (lé lo) - laziness in performing acts of virtue due to clinging to worldly distractions;
  15. carelessness (bakmepa) - lack of mindfulness in avoiding non-virtuous activity due to laziness;
  16. mindlessness (jéd ngé) - inability to focus one’s mind due to propensity for distraction;
  17. inattentiveness (shé zhin min pa) - unaware of the perils of non-virtues due to grasping, aversion and obscuration;
  18. lethargy (muk pa) - a troubled unfocused mind due to ignorance which leads to delusion and confusion;
  19. infatuation (göpa) - pre-occupying with objects of grasping and fantasy due to fabricated longing;
  20. mental wandering (nam par yengwa) - easily distracted by both inner and outer phenomena due to grasping, aversion and obscuration.


The sixth group comprises the four changeable mental factors which can manifest into either virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral variables in accordance to our motivation and mental factors. These four mental variables are:

  1. sleep (nyi) - sleep can be restless and troubled due to self-absorpting in mundane thoughts, or can be restful due to abiding in wholesome activities during waking hours;
  2. regret (gyö pa) - displaying no remorse or exerting no effort to rectify one’s misdeeds will inevitably lead to more transgressions and more sufferings, while true repentance and diligent exertion to rectify one’s misdeeds protect one’s root of virtue and restore stability to the mind;
  3. conceptual thought (tok pa) - understanding of phenomena can vary in accordance to whether it is motivated by self-serving aspiration relying on conceptual knowledge, or noble aspiration motivated by the compassionate mind of bodhicitta relying on the guidance of the Three Jewels;
  4. scrutiny (chö pa) - detailed analysis in search of the most subtle aspect of phenomena can produce different results in accordance to whether it is carried out through the academic attitude of an ordinary being, or the wisdom-based diligence of an aspirating bodhisattva.



Consciousness (nam shé), the fifth of the five aggregates, is referring to the eight types of consciousness (namshé tsok gyé) comprising:

a. five non-conceptual outer consciousness of:

  1. seeing (mik gi nam shé),
  2. hearing (nawé nam shé),
  3. smelling (né nam shé),
  4. tasting (ché nam shé),
  5. touching (lü kyi nam shé).

b. three conceptual inner consciousness of:

  1. the active consciousness of the primary mind (tso sem) which thrives on intellectualising and labelling;
  2. the active afflicted discriminating consciousness (nyön yi) which thrives on making distinctions between all appearances arising to the first six consciousness and the composite of the self, and is the root of disturbing emotions which actualises the commitment of karmic action;
  3. the inactive alaya all-ground consciousness (kun shyi nampar shépa) in which the karmic imprints of all our habitual instincts and past actions are stored as seeds awaiting the right condition to ripen into emerging experiences.

All our conditioned samsaric experiences through the interaction of the five aggregates (skandhas) are directly contributing to the causes of our future suffering which we may not be aware of the consequence of our actions at the time, but is still the condition of suffering when it matures into being.

That is the reason why the four classes of arya (pakpa), the noble beings that include arhats (drachompa), pratyekabuddhas (rang sangyé), bodhisattvas (chang chub sempa), buddhas (sangyé) renounce all attachment to samsara which they perceive as food laced with poison because whatever is samsaric in nature gives rise to suffering.


Wheel of life thangka

bhavacakra - The wheel of life

At the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, King Udayana presented a gift of a jewelled robe to King Bimbisara who wished to offer a suitable gift in return and sought counsel from the Buddha on what he should do. Shakyamuni Buddha suggested he should commission a picture depicting the wheel of cyclic existence accompanied by the following verses:

“Knowing what to adopt and what to abandon,
In following the doctrine of the Buddha.
Annihilates the influences of the Lord of Death,
Like an elephant destroys a thatched hut.
Those who diligently apply the practice of this doctrine,
Will abandon the wheel of cyclic existence,
Bringing cessation to suffering.”

It is said that King Udayana studied this picture thoroughly and attained realisation.

Nowadays, as a reminder of the suffering related to samsara, mural painting of the wheel of life (sipé khorlo), depicting the recurring cycle of conditioned existence going through the transience of continuous rebirth and death in samsara is a common sight at Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries.

Centre hub of the Wheel of life

centre of the wheel : three poisons

In the centre of the wheel of life are three animals representing the destructive emotions (nyönmong) of grasping (döchak), aversion (kong tro), and ignorance (ma rigpa) collectively known as the three poisons (duk sum).

The three poisons are represented by the symbols of three animals:

  • grasping symbolised by a bird - the conceptual indulgence in fantasy, craving for gratification, and attachment towards what is perceived as desirable;
  • aversion symbolised by a snake - the experience of anger, hatred, anxiety, and resentment towards unpleasing objects and sensation;
  • ignorance symbolised by a pig - the unawareness of the karmic law of cause and effect, the four Noble Truths, the virtues of the three Jewels and true nature of existence.

The three animals are continuously chasing each other in a circle, indicating that grasping and aversion arise from ignorance, which in turn increases the severity of ignorance.

This cycle of incarnation in recurring conditioned existence as depicted by the wheel of life is the direct result of the incitement of the three poisons which give rise to innumerable obstructive illusions under the negative influences of the four mara (dü shyi) which are:

  1. Skandhamara, Mara of the contaminated aggregates (phungpo'i dü) - causes of clinging and attachment due to obscuration;
  2. Kleshamara, Mara of the disruptive emotions (nyön mong kyi dü) - causes of negative impulses and sufferings due to ignorance;
  3. Mrtyumara, Mara of the lord of death (chidak gi dü) - causes of losing precious human rebirth for the recurring rebirths in the lower realms ;
  4. Devaputramara, Mara of the Deva’s son (lhé pui dü) - causes for the craving of sensual pleasures in mundane pursuits.

Once the three poisons are eliminated, there is no cause for the surfacing of restless turmoil or afflictive negative actions.

In the absence of the three poisons, there is no cause for samsara. Where there is no samsara, there is no suffering.

second circular section of the wheel - karma

The second circular section represents the karma (lé) of virtuous and non-virtuous actions.

The half circle on the left illustrated the result of virtuous actions (sö nam kyi lé) leading to rebirth in the three higher realms of devas (lha), the luminous beings commonly known as gods; the asuras (lhamin), commonly known as demi-gods, jealous gods or titans and humans (mi).

The half circle on the right illustrated the result of non-virtuous actions (sö nam min pé lé) leading to rebirth in the three lower realms of animals (dundro); pretas (yi dak), the hungry spirits; and hell-beings (semchen nyalwa).

third circular section of the wheel : Six classes of sentient beings

The third circular section illustrates the six classes of sentient beings (rik druk) and their respective abode in the desire realm of kamadhatu (dö kham); the form realm of rupadhatu (zug kham); and the formless realm of arupyadhatu (zug med kham).

Our present lives are the direct result of the karma we have accumulated in our former lives. Likewise, our future rebirths are conditioned and generated by the thoughts we have in our present lives, and the way how we expressed such thought into speech and action.

The karmic action we generate in this present life will dictated the type of future rebirths we will experience as one of the six classes of beings in the realms of desire, form or formless.

top half of the third circular section : three higher realms

The top half of the circular section represents the three higher realms of the gods, the demi-gods and humans.

The Wheel of Life is sometimes depicted with only two higher realms - that of the gods and the humans.

According to the Surangama Sutra, demi-gods exist also in the desire realms of the gods, human, hungry spirits and animals due to the variation of merits they have accumulated.

Lower half of the third circular section : three lower realms

The lower half of the circular section represents the three lower realms of animals, hungry spirits and hell-beings.

sentient beings of The desire realms

According to the Supreme Dharma of the Application of Mindfulness (pak pa dam pé chö dren pa nyewar zhak pa), the desire realm is the abode of six types of gods; 4 types of demi-gods; 12 types of humans in four continents and eight sub-continents; 3.14 billion types of animals; 36 types of hungry spirits; and 18 types of hell beings in 136 classes of hell realms.

The inhabitants of the desire realm are dominated by the delusions of attachment to sensual gratification and by their respective emotional experiences that varied from the very intense in the lower realms of hell beings to the very subtle in the higher realms of the gods.

sentient beings of The form realms

The form realm is the abode of sixteen types of gods who enjoy the fruit of favourable karma through the meditative absorption of the four dhyanas (samten shyi) which free them from the attachment of corporeal desire while still in possession of a subtle tangible form.

sentient beings of The formless realms

The formless realm is the spatial abode of four classes of gods exist entirely in the sphere of formless mental absorption. Not having a tangible body and attach to neither existence nor non-existence, they are unaware of the presence of buddhadharma and are inevitably reborn in the lower realms once their merits of dhyana accomplishment are exhausted.

the Six munis of the samsaric world

In each of the six sentient abodes, there is one supreme nirmanakaya buddha to remind beings of each realm, the virtue of moral discipline.

The six munis (tubpa druk) for each of the six classes of beings are:

  1. Indra Kaushika (wangpo gyajin) for the deva realms;
  2. Vemachitra (taksangri) for the asura realms;
  3. Shakyamuni (shakya tubpa) for the human realms;
  4. Shravasingha (senge rabten) for the animal realms;
  5. Jvalamukhadeva (khabarovskdeva) for the preta realms;
  6. Dharmaraja (chokyi gyalpo) for the hell realms.

The six munis have been caring for the sentient beings of the six realms since time without beginning. This is feasible through the physical emanation of designated bodhisattvas in each realm to reflect the truth of samsara to those beings who have the merits and karmic conditions to benefit from their guidance.

The outer rim of the wheel : twelve links of dependent origination

The outer perimeter of the wheel of life has twelve sections depicting the symbolic representations of the sequential arising of samsara initiated by the interdependent dynamics of dependent origination (tendrel du jungwa).

The arising of samsara is the direct result of the assembling and the interaction of specific causes and conditions. No phenomena can appear without the preceding presence of relevant causes and conditions.

The outer phenomena (chi chö) of the world we come to experience, that which is composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air, can be comprehended through observing the interdependent dynamics of rice seedlings matured into a harvest of rice through the supporting conditions of soil, irrigation, sun, wind, space and time, and then ceased to be relevant in accordance to the four universal correlating stages of formation (chakpé kalpa), duration (nepé kalpa), destruction (jikpé kalpa), and voidness (tongpé kalpa).

The inner phenomena (nang gi chö) of the world we come to experience, through the aggregates of our body, speech and mind, gives rise to the six classes of sentient beings caused by the merging of delusion and karma, can be comprehended through observing the sequence of cause and effect in accordance to the twelve links of dependent origination.

The presence of the aggregates are the definitive causes of the origination of samsara - the continuous transmigration of rebirths in the six realms characterised by the recurring experiences of anguish, confusion and dissatisfaction due to the afflictive effects of delusion and karma.

The entire process of dependent origination is described by Shakyamuni Buddha as:

“When this exists, that exists,
From the appearance of this,
Comes the appearance of that.
When this does not exist,
That does not exist.
From the ceasing of this,
Comes the ceasing of that.”

The twelve links and their meanings

The outer rim of the wheel of life which depicts the symbolic representations of the twelve links of dependent origination are as follows:

  1. Ignorance (ma rigpa) - symbolised by a blind person walking with a cane. Ignorance is the root of delusions and the cause of mistaken view of inherent existence. It means not knowing the true nature of existence; of not seeing the true purpose of human birth, of where he is going in this life, of where he will be reborn in future; of misconceiving the suffering of samsara as happiness and impermanence as permanence; and has no awareness of any means to attain liberation from samsara.
  2. Karmic formation (duje) - symbolised by a man using clay to make pots. The karmic action of our body, speech and mind is represented by the clay which can be fashioned into objects and thus set into motion the creation of different karmic imprints leading to our future rebirths in various realms.
  3. Consciousness (nampar shepa) - symbolised by a monkey swinging from a tree. Consciousness is represented here by a restless monkey under the influences of grasping, aversion and ignorance. It is at the urging of this compositional consciousness that karmic actions are acted upon to create casual karmic imprints in our alaya consciousness awaiting to be ripen into fully developed karma in due course when the resultant consciousness come together with the relevant supporting conditions. Hence, consciousness is the propelling force which links one existence to the next in samsara.
  4. Name and form (ming dang zuk) - symbolised by one or up to five passengers in a boat trying to reach another shore. The physical aggregate in the form of a fertilised egg inside the womb is represented by the boat while the mental aggregates of feelings, attention, mental formations and consciousness inside the fertilised egg are represented by the passengers.
  5. Six sense bases (kyemche druk) - symbolised by a empty house with five windows and a door. The dormant sensory organs of the embryo are represented by the windows and door waiting to arise and develop inside the fetus represented here by a empty house to provide the future link of perception to the outside world.
  6. Contact (rekpa) - symbolised by the embracing of a man and woman. As the fetus’s sensory organs develop, the three factors of object, faculty and consciousness come into contact to offer the link of connection to the outside world.
  7. Feeling (tsorwa) - symbolised by a man with an arrow piercing the eye. Sensation, whether pleasing, unpleasing or neutral, cause the arising in the mind of corresponding attachment, aversion or nonchalance. Feeling is represented here by the arrow while the eye represented the mind.
  8. Craving (sepa) - symbolised by a woman offering alcohol to a man. The desire to cling on to the experience of desirable sensation is represented by this graphic scenario as depicted. Craving also includes desire to reject unpleasant experience, and indifference towards experience due to lack of interest.
  9. Grasping (lenpa) - symbolised by a man or a monkey plucking fruits from a tree. Grasping is created by the craving of not wanting to become separate from what one deemed as desirable and to avoid what is displeasing, leading to the procreation of more afflictive illusion.
  10. Becoming (sipa) - symbolised by a pregnant woman who is about to give birth. Grasping, the previous link is a heightened mental intent, but becoming is to actualise the desire to produce a fully potentialised karma, creating karmic imprints in the alaya consciousness awaiting to ripen into the fruition of a conditioned phenomenon at a later time.
  11. Rebirth (kyewa) - symbolised by a woman giving birth. By the power of karmic imprints reaching full maturity in the alaya consciousness, one is compelled to be reborn in a particular realm in accordance to the assembled karmic conditions and thus, has to endure the full spectrum of samsaric experiences during that lifespan.
  12. Aging and death (ga shi) - symbolised by a corpse being carried to the burial ground. This graphic scenario reflects the unsatisfactory experiences of rebirth, aging and death. It sums up the recurring sufferings of samsara is always accompanied by the relentless deterioration of the aggregates leading inevitably to death, and hence reborn again in an endless cycle of conditioned existences.
Wheel of life -  Dazu Rock Carvings at Baodingshan Sichuan, China

Yama holding the wheel - impermanence and death

The wheel of life is held in the clutches of the mouth and hands of Yama - the Lord of Death, which signifies impermanence and death as the all-pervasive characteristics of samsara. It also reflects the sufferings of sentient beings in the six realms are due to the presence of delusion and karma. Only when delusion and karma are thoroughly exhausted will samsara cease to exist.

Finger pointing to the moon and the pure land - Liberation

Wheel of life thangka

The Buddha at the top right of the painting pointing his finger at the moon, and to the western pure land of Sukhavati (Dewachen) of Amitabha Buddha (Öpamé), flanked on either sides by bodhisattva-mahasattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) and Vajrapani (Chakna Dorje), represent liberation from samsara.

Sukhavati - the pure land of liberation from samsara

According to the Sutra of Infinite Longevity, sufferings associated with samsara do not exist in the western pure land of Sukhavati.

Infinite beyond measure, unsurpassed in pure magnificence, subject to neither decay nor change, this buddha-field borne out of the aspirations of Amitabha Buddha, is the pristine dwelling of Dharma activities for those fortunate beings who have accumulated great store of virtues and merits in their former lives.

Causes for rebirth in Sukhavati

There are three main traditions of practices to attain rebirth in the western pure land of Sukhavati:

  1. In accordance to the Sutra of Infinite Longevity, one who has firm faith and devotion in Amitabha Buddha - the Buddha of Infinite Luminosity - can attain rebirth in the western pure land of Sukhavati by focusing on the chanting of Namo Amituofo, which means I take refuge in Amitabha. By relying on our devotion to the outer Buddha will lead us to the awakening of our inner Buddha, the buddha nature that is already existing within all sentient beings.
  2. In accordance to Karma Chakme's Dechen Monlam - Aspiration to be Reborn in the Pure Realm of Sukhavati, there are four causes for rebirth in Sukhavati:
  • Visualising repeatedly the outer aspect of dewachen to consolidate the support of an immovable mind.
  • Accumulating great store of merits and relentlessly eliminating delusions.
  • Giving rise to the compassionate aspiration of bodhicitta to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
  • Dedicating all sources of merits as causes of rebirth in dewachen.
  1. In accordance to the Vajrayana practice of phowa - the transference of consciousness at the moment of death by the effort of oneself or through the support of others to the pure land of dewachen.

Causes for rebirth In samsara

Formed and bound by delusion and karma, the twelve links of dependent origination are the sequence of causes leading to rebirth in samsara. These twelve links are grouped into three categories:

  1. Klesha (nyön mong) - the mental afflictions of ignorance, grasping and clinging are the propelling links.
  2. Karma (lé) - the actions of mental formation and becoming are the connecting links.
  3. Dhukka (dukngal) - consciousness, name and form, six sense bases, contact, feeling, birth, aging and death are the bases of suffering.

The twelve links depict the process by which all outer and inner phenomena come into being through the sequence of initial causal presence of ignorance, which then gives rise to the subsequent fruition of karmic creation, and in turn produces the corresponding sufferings of the six realms.

dependent origination In relation to the four truths

  • The three links of klesha and the two links of karma are grouped under the first truth of the origin of suffering.
  • The seven links of dhukka are grouped under the second truth of suffering.
  • The reversing sequence of bringing cessation to the three links of klesha and the two links of karma are grouped under the third truth of the path.
  • The ceasing of the seven links of dhukka are grouped under the fourth truth of cessation.

The Myriad diversity of samsara

In a discourse given by Shakyamuni Buddha at Jetavana as detailed in the Sutra of Karmic Retribution, the World Honoured One explained to an assembly of countless beings from different worlds that it is chiefly due to the diversity of mental states and karma among the beings of the different worlds that each being is reborn in accordance to fruition of the karma they have generated in their previous lives.

The following are some of the examples given by the Buddha:

  • A person born with handsome feature is due to the display of patience in past lives.
  • A person born with ungainly feature is due to the display of anger in past lives.
  • A person born with noble feature is due to the wholesome activities in past lives.
  • A person born into lowly circumstances is due to propensity for arrogance in past lives.
  • A person born into wealthy circumstances is due to the practice of generosity in past lives.
  • A person born into measly circumstances is due to the practice of miserliness in past lives.
  • A person born with good faculties is due to study of buddhadharma in past lives.
  • A person born with incomplete faculties is due to breakage of precepts in past lives.


  • A person who slandered buddhadharma in past lives is born dumb.
  • A person who turned away from buddhadharma in past lives is born deaf.
  • A person who displayed compassion in past lives is born with a long life.
  • A person who enjoyed harming living beings in past lives is born with a short life.

sequence of rebirths for the ten unwholesome transgressions

In the Sutra of Karmic Retribution, Shakyamuni Buddha also explained the sequence of rebirths for the ten unwholesome transgressions:

  1. Firstly, continuous rebirths in the hell realms until the karma for misdeeds caused by anger are exhausted.
  2. Then, continuous rebirths in the realms of hungry spirits until the karma for misdeeds caused by clinging are exhausted.
  3. Thirdly, continuous rebirths in the animals realms until the karma for misdeeds caused by ignorance are exhausted.
  4. Finally, continuous rebirths in the human realms with incomplete faculties paired with lowly circumstances until the karma for the misdeeds caused by the karmic residues of remaining transgressions are exhausted.

Retribution for negative karma when reborn as human

The retributions for each of the ten unwholesome transgressions when reborn as human, as described by Shakyamuni Buddha, are as follows:

  1. For killing - a short lifespan with poor physical constitution.
  2. For theft - born into a poor family with countless obstacles the entire life.
  3. For illicit desire - entanglement with a difficult partner and a quarrelsome household.
  4. For lying - a life subject to defamation, loss and constant injury caused by the lies of others.
  5. For deceit - a life of discord with relatives who like to torment and irritate.
  6. For abusive speech - a life subject to verbal attacks, unpleasant sounds, and constant disputes.
  7. For gossip - regard as untrustworthy and incapable of gaining support from others.
  8. For covetousness - insatiable greed for possession and unable to fulfill one’s desire.
  9. For anger - a life subject to others constantly seeking faults and inflicting suffering.
  10. For wrong views - a life subject to other’s deception and self-induced delusion.

A reminder on the sequence of rebirths for misdeeds

In the Aryadhyasayasamcodana Sutra, there is an account of sixty bodhisattvas who have lost their faith in the practice of Dharma, due to the misdeeds they committed aeons before. They were led by bodhisattva mahasattva Maitreya to request counsel from Shakyamuni Buddha, who made the following revelations to the sixty bodhisattvas:

“Children of the noble family, in the distant past during the time of Buddha Krakucchanda, all of you took ordination and became obsessed with pride about monk-hood, intoxicated with conceit about your learning, fixated to the self-induced lofty image of ascetic practice and lack of possession. Subsequently, you all became jealous, indignant and resentful of two monks who were widely respected and received offerings from their patrons for their propagation of Dharma. Together as a group, you spread disinformation about them everywhere and accused these two monks of non-virtuous conducts. This created a schism between these two monks and those who followed their teaching, causing many to lose their faith. By continually directing your resentment and attack to these two monks, and spreading fabricated falsehood about them, you created obscuration of karma and severed the root of virtues of those who fell for your lies.”

“Due to these non-virtuous acts, you were all reborn in the Avici Hell for sixty thousands years, followed by forty thousand years in the Reviving Hell, twenty thousand years in the Black Line Hell, eight thousand years in the Hell of Heat. Thereafter, you managed to obtain human rebirths, but for five hundred lifetimes, you were born blinded and feeble-minded. Since your obscurations rooted in non-virtues, you were often maltreated, insulted, cursed and ridiculed by others. All your human births were in the lands of uncivilised savages; into poverty-stricken low-casted households and were treated as outcasts by everyone.”

“When you finally depart from this current life, throughout the span of the final five hundred years in the period of decrease during an intermediate aeon, in which the five degenerations are at their peak and the Buddha’s teachings have nearly disappeared, you will be reborn repeatedly in the lands of uncivilised savages; into poverty-stricken low-casted households. You will be criticised for being dim-witted, and you will abandon all connection to virtues. Even when you attempt to exert yourself, you will come upon obstacles; and although a moment of insight may appear, this clarity will not last.”

“During the final five hundred years in the period of decrease during an intermediate aeon, all your obscurations of karma will finally be exhausted. You will then reborn in Sukhavati, the Pure Land of the Tathagata Amitabha who will grant you the prophecy of your unsurpassed perfect awakening.”

The teachings of Aryadhyasayasamcodana Sutra confirm the indisputable law of cause and effect that we reap what we sowed. Whatever actions we have involved will ripen in no one else but in ourselves. This process of cause and effect is not reversible nor can we transfer our karma to others.

mayadevi’s question on the retribution induced by negative karma

Shakyamuni Buddha, for the purpose to repay the kindness of his mother Mayadevi and to liberate her, who was reborn in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods, spent three months teaching there before returning to the human realm.

Lha Bab Duchen is one of the four main buddhist festivals to commemorate this event which occurs annually on the 22nd day of the ninth Tibetan month. One of the teaching given in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods was the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra.

In this sutra, Mayadevi addressed bodhisattva-mahasattva Ksitigarbha to express her interest to hear about the retributions of negative karma in the human realm. The resulting dialogue is as follows:

“Noble Mother, I shall speak briefly on this subject.”

“If someone should fail to fulfil his duty of filial piety towards his or her parents or cause harm or death to them, he or she will reborn repeatedly in the Avici Hell for thousands of millions of kalpas with no date of release.”

“If someone should shed the blood of a Buddha, criticise the Three Jewels, or show disrespect to Dharma texts, he or she will reborn repeatedly in the Avici Hell for thousands of millions of kalpas with no date of release.”

“If someone should impinge upon or steal the property of the sangha, slander the sangha, indulge in licentious desire in a property of the sangha, cause harm or death to a member of the sangha, he or she will reborn repeatedly in the Avici Hell for thousands of millions of kalpas with no date of release.”

“If someone should pretend to be a Dharma practitioner, yet not be committed at heart, moreover, abuses the support of the sangha, deceives the sangha, violates the precepts and commits all kinds of negative activities, he or she will reborn repeatedly in the Avici Hell for thousands of millions of kalpas with no date of release.”

“If someone should steal from the sangha and take any items without permission, he or she will reborn repeatedly in the Avici Hell for thousands of millions of kalpas with no date of release.”

Ksitigarbha concluded by saying, “Noble Mother, anyone committing such transgressions will for certain be reborn in the Avici Hell where he or she will suffer without any possibility of interruption nor even a brief instant of respite.”

Mayadevi addressed Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva again to enquire, “What is Avici Hell?”

Ksitigarbha replied, “Noble Mother, the worlds of various hells are situated inside the iron-cladded mountain ranges of the Cakravada.”

“There are eighteen major hells, five hundred secondary hells and hundreds of thousands of lesser hells, all with different names. One of these is the Avici Hell.”

“The mountain ranges of the Cakravada that circle the Avici Hell, measure eighty thousands miles in circumference and ten thousand miles in height, are made of iron, ablaze in fire, with flame-spitting iron serpents and iron hounds chasing about the enclosure.”

“In this hell are torture-racks upon which countless number of beings lying prone with bodies stretched as they suffer from the infliction of tortures, while others are dragged around by the yaksas and the hell-guards with blade-like fangs, lightning-flashing eyes, and copper-claws to all sorts of other maltreatment.”

“Huge iron halberds are used by the yaksas to pierce the faces and bodies of these unfortunate beings, while others are tossed into the air and skewed by the halberds as they fall. Iron eagles peck at their eyes, while iron serpents strangulate them.”

“Others have long nails driven into their limbs, their tongues are pulled out and ploughed by plowshare, their intestines are grouped out and torn to pieces.”

“Some others have molten copper poured into their mouths while their bodies are bound with white-hot iron.”

“They die repeatedly from these endless tortures and are revived repeatedly to receive more of the same with no date for acquittal or releases for aeons after aeons.”

“When this hell-realm reaches the kalpa of destruction, these unfortunate beings will get moved to another hell-realm in a continuous process of transmigration until their karma are exhausted.”

“This world is known as Avici Hell because its characteristic of relentless retributions is conditioned by five factors.”

“Firstly, it is known as Avici Hell because tortures are meted out relentlessly day and night, kalpa after kalpa without a single instant of interruption.”

“Secondly, it is known as Avici Hell because one person can fill this realm completely in the same manner as many beings can fill it.”

“Thirdly, it is known as Avici Hell because tortures are meted out relentlessly without ease, that stretch into an endless aeons after aeons, while all the beings of this realm suffer hideous infliction of tortures to their bodies caused by tridents and clubs; or by the attacks of eagles, snakes, wolves and hounds; or by pounding, grinding, sawing, drilling, chiselling, chopping; or by boiling in cauldrons, bound by iron nets and iron ropes; or by the attack of iron mules, iron horses; or by strips of their own flayed skin tighten around their heads; or by molten iron pour over their bodies; or by feeding on iron pellets to ease hunger; or by drinking liquid iron to ease thirst.”

“Fourthly, it is known as Avici Hell because all beings irrespective of whether they are male or female, barbarian or civilised, old or young, aristocratic or lowly, nagas or deities, devas or ghosts, will experience without exception the full karmic retribution in accordance to their transgression.”

“Fifthly, it is known as Avici Hell because all the beings in this realm have to go through day and night, kalpa after kalpa, the relentless process of death and being revived myriads of times, without respite from the moment they descend into this realm until their karma is totally exhausted, leading to the next sequence of rebirths elsewhere.”

Retribution in the hell realms

Depiction of the hell realms

During the transmission of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra in the heaven of the thirty-three, bodhisattva-mahasattva Samantabhadra requested bodhisattva-mahasattva Ksitigarbha to give an account of the classification of the different hells and various types of retributions in the hell realms. The resulting dialogue is as follows:

At that time, bodhisattva-mahasattva Samantabhadra addressed bodhisattva-mahasattva Ksitgarbha, saying, “For the benefit of the devas, nagas, the four heavenly kings, and all the sentient beings in the future and the present time, I beseech the benevolent one to give a discourse on the place in the Saha World of Jambudvipa, where retributions are dispensed to the violators who commit acts of evils, and by what designation of these hell realms are known, and by what types of karmic purgatory they receive there, so that the sentient beings of the degenerate age in the future will learn about these karmic retributions.”

Ksitgarbha replied, “By the blessings of the Buddhas, I will give a brief account of the different types hells and the various types of karmic retributions.”

“To the east of the human realms of the southern continent Jambudvipa is the iron-cladded mountain ranges of the Cakravada, - the netherworld that is shrouded in total darkness, with no sign of any light from the sun or the moon.”

“Within the interior of Cakravada are the major hells of Avici, Maha-Avici and countless other hells.”

“There are hells known as Four-Cornered; Flying-Daggers; Flaming-Arrows; Clamping-Mountains; Piercing-Spears; Iron-Cart; Iron-Bed; Iron-Ox; Iron Robe; Thousand-Blades; Iron-Mule; Molten-Copper; Embracing-Pillar; Flowing-Flame; Tongue-Ploughing; Head-Grinding; Feet-Scorching; Eye-Pecking; Iron-Pellets; Ferocious-Altercation; Iron-Axe; and Soaring-Rage.”

“Many such hells, infinite in number, exist inside the Cakravada. Hells known by the designation of Shrieking-Holler; Tongue-Extracting; Infinite-Excrement; Copper-Shackle; Flaming-Elephant; Flaming-Hound; Flaming-Horse; Flaming-Ox; Flaming-Mountain; Flaming-Rock; Flaming-Bed; Flaming-Joist; Flaming-Hawk; Tooth-Sawing; Skin-Flaying; Blood-Drinking; Hand-Scorching; Foot-Scorching; Inverted-Thorn; Incinerated-Abode; Iron-Abode; and Flaming Wolf.”

“Karmic forces are exceedingly powerful. Their far-reaching impact can devastate the mighty Mount Meru, the fathomless ocean, and can create obstacles to impede the propagating of the Noble Dharma. Hence, sentient beings should not dismiss even the most minor acts of evils as harmless, for karmic retributions correspond to their every single act of transgressions will manifest after their death. Those with whom they are closely related, such as fathers and sons, will depart after death for different destinations, and no one can take over the karma of another, even if they happened to chance upon each other.”

“By the blessings of the Buddhas, I will give a brief account of the various types of retributions for transgression in different hells. I invoke you to pay attention to what I am about to say.”

Samantabhadra replied, “I have long been aware of the different types of karmic retributions for the three paths of evils. Will the benevolent one expound further on this subject so that sentient beings of the future degenerate age, who are bent on committing evils will henceforth have the opportunity to come upon this teaching and take refuge in the Buddha.

Ksitgarbha then continued, “In some hells, the tongues of the violators are pulled out and get ploughed over by oxen; or their hearts are ripped out and get devoured by the yaksas; or their bodies are boiled in sizzling cauldrons.”

“In others, they are forced to embrace red-hot scorching copper pillars; or are incinerated by roaring fire.”

“In others, they are incapacitated by icy cold; or they are floundering amidst boiling excrement.”

“In others, darts and pellets, or flaming spears are whizzing about.”

“In others, their chest and back are repeatedly pounded; or their limbs are scorched by fire.”

“In others, iron serpents twisted around them; or they are chased by iron hounds.”

“And still in others, iron mules riding them around.”

“Instruments to inflict torture, as numerous as hundreds of thousands, made of either copper, iron, rock or fire, are manifested spontaneously in accordance to what type of retribution is appropriate for each individual karma.”

“By the blessings of the Buddha, I have delivered a brief account of the different types of retributions in the hell realms. It would however not be feasible to give a comprehensive description of every type of retribution, for every individual transgression, and for every type of hells, even if I were to continue expound for incalculable aeons.”

five evils of the degenerate age

During the degenerate age, sentient beings are prone to fall for the enchantment of delusions and bent for misdeeds which cause them to lose their precious human births and be reborn, lifetime after lifetime, kalpa after kalpa, in the lower realms of the hell-beings, animals and hungry spirit until their negative karma are exhausted.

Shakyamuni Buddha explained to Maitreya that this is chiefly due to the karmic causes of the five evils as revealed in a discourse given by the Buddha in the Sutra of Infinite Longevity:

“I have become a Buddha in this world to cause the mind of sentient beings to abandon the five evils, to remove the five sufferings, to depart from the five conflagrations, and to turn their mind to the adopting of the five virtues so that they may accumulate merits and attain emancipation.”

“What are these five?”

“The first evil is that sentient beings of the world have the propensity to commit evils.”

“The strong like to subdue the weak, to inflict harm, to slaughter each other, to devour their prey, unaware of virtues, and suffer consequently the retribution for their misdeeds, experiencing the suffering of poverty, isolation, loss of hearing, loss of sight, loss of speech, stupidity, and derangement.”

“Other beings through their practice of compassionate activities, filial piety, and accumulation of merit over aeons, are blessed with honour, nobility, wealth, benevolence, longevity, intelligence, courage, and talent.”

“The variables of these conditions are visible right now in the world. Propelled by their karmic propensity, sentient beings transmigrate after death to be reborn in different realms of hells and animals, having their consciousness torn asunder as they take on a different life form, not dissimilar to receiving the most severe, unimaginable tortures while incarcerated.”

“Their lifespan may be long or short, they may be bound together, lifetime after lifetime, with those they own karmic debts until all compensations are settled.”

“They flounder in the recurring cycle of samsara without the tiniest glimpse of freedom even after aeons of suffering the same indescribable anguish.”

“Since the law of karma is applicable everywhere between heaven and earth, the reward for virtues and the retribution for evils, while may not materialise immediately, will always manifest fully in the rightness of time.”

“The second evil is that sentient beings of the world are incapable of respecting the law of righteousness.”

“They are bewitched by extravagance, licentious desire, arrogance and act without restraint. Those who are entrusted to lead, abuse their position, causing harm to others. What they say contradicts what they think. They use flattery to deceive others and behave inappropriately toward their seniors.”

“Influenced by their clinging to grasping, aversion and ignorance, they constantly crave for more possession, and are drawn toward engaging in reckless rivalry for control, incurring the enmity of others, and in the process, create a disquieting state of calamity for their family.”

“Those who are obsessed with wealth are unwilling to offer help to others. Having toiled with body and mind in worldly pursuit, they die alone, accompanied by none of their acquisitions, except the karma they have accumulated, which directs them to be reborn in either the higher realms of good fortune or the lower realms of misfortune.”

“They are envious of the virtuous. Instead of admiring and learn from them, they become indignant and bent on spreading disinformation to discredit them.”

“Constantly searching for the opportunity to enrich their greed at the expense of others. Whatever ill-gotten gains they have, are squandered as speedily they are acquired. The karmic imprints thus produced will cause them to be reborn repeatedly for aeons in the lower realms to experience the relentless anguish of indescribable sufferings with no end in sight.”

“The third evil is that the lifespan of sentient beings are short in duration and their existence is dependent upon the support of others who are degenerate with perverted views for licentious indulgence, who wallow in the turmoil of wanton desire and behave likewise toward others.”

“Having heedlessly squandered their resources, they engage in unruly activities to fund their reckless pursuit for self-gratification, disregard their duty to care for their own kindred, causing anguish to all concerned; or they join force with like-minded misfits in lawless activities, instigate conflicts against others to satiate their subversive ambition. The karmic imprints thus produced will cause them to reborn repeatedly for aeons in the lower realms to experience the relentless anguish of indescribable sufferings with no end in sight.”

“The fourth evil is that sentient beings of the world harbour no thought for virtue but prefer engaging in slander to incite discord; in harsh speech to cause hurt; in telling lies to deceive; and in uttering gossip to promote contention.”

“They resent those who are virtuous, rejoice in attacking those who are wise. They disrespect their parents, are derisive to their teachers, dishonest to their friends, alien to sincerity, disruptive to others, thoroughly shameless, unabashedly haughty and dismissive of karmic retribution.”

“Unable to reform due to conceit, they rely solely on the merit they have attained in past lives to sustain themselves. Once their store of merit is exhausted with no attempt, none whatsoever, on their part to engage in any act of virtue, their lifespan soon reaches the end, and what awaits them will be the karmic retribution for their transgressions.”

“They will be reborn in the hell realms where they are boiled in sizzling cauldrons. Even if they decide to repent by then, it will not lessen the severe anguish they are experiencing nor will it stop the unfolding of their karmic retribution.”

“The fifth evil is that sentient beings of the world are lethargic and devoid of purpose in life, reluctant to perform acts of virtue, unwilling to apply themselves, regarding their parents’ advice with contempt, offering no gesture of concern nor gratitude toward their kindred’s well-being, feeling no obligation nor loyalty to their teachers or friends.”

“They indulge in excess, wayward in their bearing with no regard for proprietary, and imperious to counsel. Their body, speech and mind express nothing of value except malice.”

“They reject buddhadharma as the path of emancipation and rebuke the karmic law of reward and retribution. They plot to harm the practitioners of buddhadharma and cause discord in the sangha, in the mistaken view they are clever and smart.”

“Clueless of the origin of life and what happens after death, they seek long lives, yet are oblivious to the cause of longevity being benevolence. Their obscurations block all avenues of compassionate counsel.”

“When their lives are finally about to end, their minds are consumed with regret and fear. Not having cultivated any virtue, their belated repentance will be to no avail.”

“Between heaven and earth, all the realms are clearly discernible for review. In return for virtuous or evil deeds, blessing of good fortune or misery of misfortune naturally follow. The fruition of one’s karma can only be borne by oneself alone and no one else can substitute another’s place.”

“Those who perform deeds of virtue in their current lives are turning the blessings of their good fortune to even more blessings of good fortune in their future lives.”

“Those who perform deeds of non-virtue in their current lives are turning the sufferings of their delusion to even more sufferings in their future lives.”

“Only the Buddha can comprehend this thoroughly.”

“Scarcely anyone in the degenerate age believe the truths as revealed by the Buddha but even fewer in number apply the teachings as instructed, and so the recurrent cycle of birth and death never cease, and the acts of evil continue unabated.”

“The karmic repercussions for the sentient beings of the world are so interwoven and inter-dependently afflictive, that the resulting consequences are utterly beyond description, other than the karma thus generated gives rise to the three lower realms into which the non-virtuous beings are reborn repeatedly to experience the relentless anguish of indescribable sufferings, kalpas after kalpas, with no end in sight.”

“These five evils, five sufferings, five conflagrations, are of such destructiveness, that the devastation they produced, are comparable to having human beings burn alive in a ferocious inferno.”

“Whoever, in the midst of this, abides their thought solely upon the precepts of body, speech and mind, remains sincere in all their undertaking, perseveres in their own acts of virtue, unaffected by the non-virtuous activities around them, and from having attained one’s emancipation, obtains the blessings of good fortune and longevity equal to that of the buddhas by reaching the western pure land of Sukhavati.”

“These are the five virtues.”

Praying dog at Okinawa temple Cat at a temple in Kyoto NPig prostrating before a Chinese temple

loss of human rebirths

Reversal of fortunes in samsara are common when desire merges with obscuration as illustrated in the Jakata Sutra about how Queen Upari came to be reborn as a cow-dung-beetle due to her habitual vanity of adorning her appearance with jewellery when she was alive.

Well-pampered household pets of the present times are the testimony of these animals having practiced generosity in giving alms during their former human lives, but heedless of the importance to cultivate wisdom while they were alive.

Others, though they harbour no ill-intent to cause harm but failed to apply the Dharma instruction of their masters are often reborn as animals near their former sangha due to their ignorance in previous lives.

Even gods are not safe from the prospect of taking rebirth as animals as detailed in the Noble Sutra of Jnanaka. This sutra is about a god, from the heaven of the thirty-three gods, who foresees his rebirth as a pig after death and seeks guidance from the Buddha who advises him to seek refuge in the Three Jewels, and as a result, is reborn into the human realm as a child named Jnanaka. He later came upon Shakyamuni Buddha and invites Blessed One to his house for an offering of food. The Buddha prophesies that the offering made by Jnanaka on that day will in due course lead him to attain enlightenment as a buddha.

Then, there was a cousin of Shakyamuni Buddha, the monk Sunaksatra (Lekpé Karma). He was a personal attendant of the Buddha for twenty-five years and learnt the entire Tripitaka of Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma by heart. Yet he could not discern any unique quality in Lord Buddha and arrogantly perceived himself as his equal. He became increasingly emboldened by conceit and spoke openly against the teaching of the Buddha. For his haughty display of insubordination, defamation and subversive propaganda to obstruct the spreading of buddhadharma, he was reborn five hundreds lifetimes as a hungry spirit for his violation of grasping before finally reborn in the Avici Hell for his violation of precepts.

One instant of mindless misdeed - aeons of endless repercussions

Karma is extremely powerful in shaping the fortune and misfortune of life. One should not underestimate the potency of even the most minor misdeed, for retribution will arise in due course of time for every single negative intention or violation.

Those who transgress previously with malicious-intent often suffer from incurable illness in this life. The ensuing resentment to their misfortune will create more causes for them to continue reborn in the lower realms for countless aeons.

When they are reborn once again as human, the resentment they fomented previously will arise from their mental continuum and turn into animosity against those who are closely related to them due to the karmic debts they own to each other, hence creating more causes for future suffering.

At first, the resentment is imperceptible, but when left unchecked, it will evolve into a major concern at the incitement of one’s grasping and desires for self-gratification.

As one’s wayward mind is continuously stimulated by desires born of delusion, one’s portfolio of negative karma becomes increasingly substantial, and hence produces more dividends of heart-rending afflictions which are bound to increase in the future.

Reflection - the path leading to emancipation

Having heard Dharma teaching is not sufficient to cause real change in one’s life. Shakyamuni Buddha proposed we should begin with the accumulating of merits through acts of virtues to create the foundation of support, followed by the cultivating of pure conduct through reflection and meditation, with the ultimate objective to extend our meditative acumen into all aspects of our daily life, whether we are practicing, performing rituals, working, doing household chores, standing, sitting, walking or lying down.

To be successful in Dharma practice, we must first become familiar with the teaching through the process of repeated listening and repeated studying. An even more essential part of that is to apply sincerity into the practice of reflection.

Traditionally, the morning practice is for the purpose to consolidate the right mindfulness for the rest of the day. The evening practice is to reflect on our experience of the day whether we have managed to apply the teaching in all of our interactions or not.

To repeatedly proclaim life is unpredictable or impermanent is not real reflection. You are merely making a statement based on the teaching you have heard and does not reflect the true picture of your own personal experience in life.

Real reflection requires detailed examination of our interactions with others such as the state of our mind and what we have gleaned from the experiences whether it has been influenced by our emotional interpretation of the event or whether it has been adhered to the guidance of the teaching.

Without applying sincerity in reflection, there is no possibility of identifying what to abandon and what to adopt.

As we repeat this process of identifying and improving to become increasingly familiar with the difference between pure and impure conduct, we are then ready to meditate on the resulting insight so that its presence is consolidated in our ground consciousness, ready to serve us in all hours whether you are awake or asleep.

By this time-proven process, we transform our mind to attain the equanimity that is essential for the overcoming of afflictions, and prepare us for our journey into the bardo of interminate state between death and rebirth, in the event that we are yet able to attain the deathless state of perfect enlightenment in this life.

dependent origination for Reflection

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that in order to achieve realisation, we must go through the process of repeated listening to the teaching, repeated reflection on our experience in accordance to the teaching, and repeated meditation on the resulting insight until it become a real experience.

All phenomena arise from the presence of the primary causes accompanied by supporting conditions. Rice seedlings cannot ripen into a crop of rice without the contribution of the right type of soil, humidity, light and warmth.

Ignorance, the first of the twelve links, cannot arise unless it is accompanied by our senses, our mind and other incidental factors. What then happens in our mind will determine the level of ignorance we will experience, and whether we will act on its persuasion to create the second link of karmic creation which are likewise dependent on other supporting factors to produce a result.

Whether we wish to attain liberation from samsara, or to attain lasting happiness in the future, requires an understanding of dependent origination on how phenomena function at the relative and ultimate level so that we can create the necessary conditions to support the realisation of such endeavour.

By the analysis of reflection, we come to understand our present experience is shaped by our past actions as stated in the Sutra of the Cause and Effect of the Three Times:

“If you wish to know about your previous life,
Look at what you are experiencing in your present life.
If you wish to know about your future life,
Look at what you are doing now.”

At the relative level we come to understand no phenomenon can arise by itself. At the ultimate level, we come to realise that all phenomena are void of any permanent existence and their appearance is ultimately transient and depends upon the relative presence of other factors.

Hence, the understanding of dependent origination enable us to examine and realise both relative and ultimate truths.

dependent origination for meditation

Meditation enables us to transcend the relative level of reflection which deals with the experience of how we interact with the world, and look directly into the nature of what is happening in the mind.

Through calm abiding observation of the mind, we will come to the conclusion that nothing possesses any self-established nature that remains permanent, nor do they possess any ultimate essence of lasting property.

It is through the understanding of suffering associated with the twelve links of dependent origination, that we give rise to the bodhicitta of compassion and loving-kindness for all beings, striving to facilitate the right condition for them to attain their own liberation from samsara.

Rice crop

A discourse on The dependent origination of rice seedling

In the Noble Mahayana Sutra Of Rice Seedling, Shariputra requested Maitreya to explain the meaning of the aphorism used by the Buddha while observing a rice seedling:

“Whoever perceives dependent origination perceives the Dharma.
Whoever perceives the Dharma perceives the Buddha.”

Maitreya replied by saying:

“Dependent origination is a phrase referring to the arising of phenomena
Due to the existence of other phenomena.”

“Ignorance causes the arising of karmic formation.
Karmic formation causes the arising of consciousness.
Consciousness causes the arising of name and form.
Name and form causes the arising of the six sense sources.
Six sense sources causes the arising of contact
Contact causes the arising of feeling.
Feeling causes the arising of craving.
Craving causes the arising of grasping.
Grasping causes the arising of becoming.
Becoming causes the arising of birth.
Birth causes the arising of aging and death, sorrow, grief, suffering, anguish, anxiety.
Hence is how this entire heap of sufferings arise.”

“When ignorance ceases, karmic formations cease.
When karmic formations cease, consciousness ceases.
When consciousness ceases, name and form cease.
When name and form cease, six sense sources cease.
When six sense sources cease, contact ceases.
When contact ceases, feeling ceases.
When feeling ceases, craving ceases.
When craving ceases, grasping ceases.
When grasping ceases, becoming ceases.
When becoming ceases, birth ceases.
When birth ceases, aging and death, sorrow, grief, suffering, anguish, anxiety cease.”
“Hence is how this entire heap of suffering cease.
Thus is what the Bhagavan referred to as dependent origination.”

“What is the Dharma?”

“The Dharma is the noble eightfold path of
Right view, right intention, right speech,
Right action, right livelihood, right effort,
Right mindfulness, and right concentration.
This noble eightfold path,
When apply with the attainment
Of its results and nirvana,
Is what the Bhagavan referred to as the Dharma.”

“Who is the Bhagavan?”

“A Buddha is thus called because of
His comprehensive insight of all phenomena,
Endowed with the enlightened visions of the aryan beings,
And the body of Dharma - the pristine wisdom of suchness.”

“Hence be aware of the practices and attainments
Of those on the path,
And those who are beyond practise.”

Whoever sees the lama as the Buddha sees dharma

In the discourse of the Noble Mahayana Sutra On Dependent Origination, Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed the following verse on the Essence of Dependent Origination Dharani:

All phenomena arise from causes - ye dharma hetu prabhava
The Tathagata has taught these causes - hetun tai khen tathagato hy avadat
That which brings cessation to these causes - tekhen tsa yo nirodha
This too has been taught by the Great Shramana - evam vadi maha shramanah

In the Noble Mahayana Sutra Of Rice Seedling, the Buddha declared:

Whoever perceives dependent origination perceives the Dharma.
Whoever perceives the Dharma perceives the Buddha.

These two statements confirm the pith instructions of all the tantras that, whoever sees the guru as the embodiment of the Three Jewels sees the Buddha, as stated in the Vajra Tent Tantra:

“The guru is equal to all the Buddhas.”

In the Cakrasamvara Tantra, it says:

“The guru is the Buddha,
the guru is the Dharma,
the guru is the Sangha.”

A living guru who is inseparable from the lineage blessings of the Three Jewels and displays the sublime qualities of the seven noble treasures is regarded in the tantra as the emanation of all the Tathagatas of the three times and as such is revered and supported by all the deities of the desire realms to protect them from any probability of harm or misadventure.

Such a lama may appear lowly, unremarkable and is easily disregarded by mundane beings suffered from lack of merits. In actuality, a living guru is no different to a precious stupa capable of dispensing the blessings of the Three Jewels, due to their great store of merits and wisdom accumulated from aeons of bodhisattva activities for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Any devotional practices such as reading, copying or translating the teachings of such a lama provide an exceedingly effective means in the purification of karma, producing merits equal to that of constructing, renovating, circumambulating or worshipping a stupa that has been sanctified and consecrated by the holy relics of the Buddhas, for such a lama is the representation of the Essence of Dependent Origination Dharani and a noble vessel empowered with the sublime qualities of the Buddhas.

It is crucial to pay homage to the guru before the commencement of any activities to ensure obstacles that may impede a successful outcome are removed. Whoever has firm faith and devotion, and visualises the guru in the mind and supplicates the presence of his compassionate energy and wisdom to express through them, will receive as requested the guru’s blessings if they have the humility and sincerity to act accordingly, and to express themselves in a manner inseparable from the guru.

It is equally effective to invoke the presence of the guru to settle your mind, to offer you direction on what to do, whenever you experience fear or concern in your life. This is how you can introduce the positive aspects of dependent origination into your daily activities - the key to bring cessation to the sufferings of samsara.

Summary on the twelve links of dependent origination

There are much to be grateful for those who are reborn at a time when the Buddha has already provided us with the Noble Dharma, and authentic lamas are still existing in the world to provide us with the guidance to verify whether our reflection and meditation is based on delusion or on the understanding of the relative or the ultimate truth as summed up by the observation of Drakpa Kunley:

“Whoever is unaware of the truth is confused.”

Woe betide anyone who ignores the karmic law of cause and effect which dictates that for every action we created will cause the return of a multiplying bounty of the same, just like a handful of rice seedling will produce in due course a crop of rice.

Precious human rebirth is extremely rare and incredibly difficult to obtain, but to lose it for the aeons of endless rebirth in the lower realms is very easy, for it needs only the arising of confusion due to ignorance and the transgressing of one single act of evil.

Whoever is unaware of the truth, yet remains conceited and defiant, totally oblivious of their own defects and obscurations, are destined for the fast track to the lower realms, but those who are humble and sincere, will always be blessed with the support of the Three Jewels, which illustrates the importance of having faith in the guru as spoken often by Patrul Rinpoche:

“Pray with sincere devotion and total faith
To a supremely realised guru
Whose lineage is like
A pristine gold chain of perfect samaya,
Rely solely on him and
To consider your guru
As the emanation of the Buddha
Will bring about the merging of your mind with his
From which blessings will transfer
And realisation will arise”.

True progress to awake the natural clarity of stain-free awareness from our primordial nature cannot occur without the constant guidance of a qualified lama to whom we can report our experience so that unhelpful digression can be avoided, but it is still up to us to apply ourselves if we wish to attain liberation from samsara.

Once we are aware of our errors through reflection, it is not enough to feel mere regret, yet take no redemptive action to repair our mistakes.

We should strive to purify our karma as thoroughly as possible, by making good of our determination to rectify any disruption or damage we might have caused, lest we forfeit our precious human rebirth for the aeons of endless recurring of death and rebirth in the lower realms.

May all beings pay heed to the twelve links of dependent origination
May all beings value their precious human rebirth
May all beings give rise to the four immeasurables
May all beings attain liberation from samsara!

This teaching entitled ‘Reflection On The Twelve Links of Dependent-Origination is presented here by Tenzin Gyalpo Drakpa Gyaltsen Dondrup Dorje as his homage to all the Buddhas of the three times in ten directions.