Karma and the Wheel of Life

By Ken Holmes

Why are some people rich yet some poor, some happy yet others in misery, some lucky and some unlucky? Moreover, why are some pure, innocent beings afflicted with terrible misfortunes whereas evil tyrants remain healthy and rich? These are difficult questions for most faiths, believing in a just and compassionate God, to answer. The Buddhist explanation is to see this life as but one in a series of many. In this existence, one is reaping the harvest of seeds sown by actions (karma) of past lives, while at the same time planting new seeds to ripen in the life to come. There is no natural evolution in this process, hence a higher state of existence can be followed by an even better one or a worse one, depending entirely upon how it is utilised. Going up or down from one life to the next and returning again and again to the same patterns of action, through habit, and thereby reaping again and again the same results, this endless round of existence is represented by the 'wheel of life'.

Among the almost endless possibilities of existence in the cosmos, a human birth is considered to be very special. It is while human that most karma is created, with other states being mainly the experience of the results of human actions. Animals and other non-humans do create some karma, but it is quite weak. As the force of karma depends upon the motivation behind it, the karma of humans is, on the contrary, strong, since they possess intelligence and free will.

Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not think of external beings who reward or punish one for altruistic or selfish acts. Future benefits or handicaps are shaped entirely by the nature of action itself, through its ongoing influence upon the mind. Just as good cherry seeds, as they fall to the ground, have the power to produce delicious fruit, some time in the future, and aconite seeds have the power to produce deadly poison, so do our acts already contain a quasi-genetic programming of future happiness or suffering. The ground onto which they fall is our ongoing continuum of consciousness. Like a complex garden, a human (or other) existence is the ripening, side by side, of many different things planted in the past. Some, like mighty trees, have been developing over many generations. Others, more like small flowers and mushrooms, are much more temporary phenomena.

The word karma is the Sanskrit term for action, encompassing not only the initial action itself, but also all its consequences. Thus it is called 'karma, cause and effect'. A seed does not cease to exist when it falls into the ground: it just disappears from sight, to develop later into a shoot which eventually becomes a fully-matured plant. Like buried seeds in winter, the imprints of actions rest dormantly in the 'storehouse consciousness', as potential prime causes of future experience. When this psychological potential meets with certain supportive circumstances - the equivalent of the seed being awakened by the spring sun and rain - results start to emerge. Thus it is not until one meets the trigger of certain people or places that a specific karma from past lives will start to manifest.

One must distinguish between 'virtuous' karma and 'untainted' karma. Virtuous acts produce, in the long term, pleasant results for their doer, such as long life, good health, wealth and friends for their doer. Unvirtuous acts produce suffering. Since both virtuous and non-virtuous actions are performed with the fundamental triplistic delusion of there being a doer (ego), a doing and a done-to (other persons and the world) - both belong to the illusion of worldly existence (samsara). Thus virtue and non-virtue determine the experiential quality of one's samsara yet cannot, in themselves, free one from samsara. Both belong to the category of 'tainted' karma (tainted by ego). Actions performed within the lucid clarity of voidness, in which there is no triplistic delusion, are known as 'untainted' karma. These can free one from samsara.

Another special category of karma, known as 'karma of immobility', applies uniquely to concentration meditation. By remaining calm, poised and one-pointed, one is not doing anything, in the ordinary sense, but rather undoing habits of action and not-doing things which perpetuate worldly reflexes. This lucid inactivity forms a vital part of the path to personal liberation. Scriptures describing it map out the various stages of mastery that emerge from it, while alive, and the possible rebirths into purely mental states that human meditation can engender.

The Wheel of Life depicts the six main types of conscious beings found in the universe. Its inner ring portrays the three main causes for being reborn: craving, aversion and ignorance. The outer ring shows the twelve main stages through which initial ignorance leads to worldly suffering. These are known as the twelve links of interdependence. The whole wheel is held like a giant mirror in the hands of Yamantaka, the Lord of Death, since at death, when the mind leaves one type of existence and embarks on a journey which will end up in a new existence, possibly in another realm, the previous life's actions become all-determinant.

The Wheel is mainly used to depict the real states of existence taught in the first Noble Truth: the Truth of Suffering. However, it can also be considered an allegory for the six main states of a worldly mind and the type of relationship they create with the people and places that make up one's life. The three upper realms are paired with their counterparts in the lower realms.

The Tree Upper Realms

The Deva Realm

One is reborn a god (deva) as a joint result of doing many good actions but being proud. The good deeds - in particular acts of generosity and pure conduct - bring splendour and wonders. The pride brings first a feeling of natural superiority and then, when the good results come to their end, unbearable sadness. The bodies and powers of the gods vary according to their previous karma. Most have beautiful and naturally perfumed bodies of light, upon which spontaneously appear garlands of celestial flowers and various fineries. In delightful garlands and palaces, they sport with their consorts and enjoy the most subtle pleasures of the senses. A day in one of these heavens lasts for hundreds of human years and the deva's lifespan is long indeed. But as it approaches its end, the bodies start to produce unpleasant odours and other gods avoid the fading deva. The flower garlands deteriorate. Worse, the god can see his or her next incarnation, so tawdry, dark and limited compared with its present condition. Heartbroken, incredulous and overwhelmed by self-pity, they have nothing to do but await the inevitable fall. Thus, the deva realm exemplifies the cycle of pride however it manifests.

The Buddha manifests in this realm playing a lute delightfully. This represents the need to gain the respect and attention of the proud before any message can get through to them.

The Asuras

also have good karma and are like demi-gods. Whereas the gods' good karma is tarnished by pride, the asuras' is spoilt by jealousy and some people refer to them as 'jealous gods'. Envying the superior joys and possessions of the gods, the asuras wage war on the latter, in the hope of deposing them and usurping their palaces. However, lacking the karma to possess such splendour, they are defeated and humiliated. Jealousy is like this everywhere, bringing the anguish of envy itself, competitive battles and eventual defeat.

The Buddha manifests to the Asuras with a sword of primordial wisdom in his hand. This symbolises that the jealous respond primarily to force and need to learn to channel their competitivity into a quest for wisdom, defeating ignorance rather than other beings.


As rare as a star in daytime, a human rebirth is considered to be the rare result of much good karma. Sometimes compared to a wish-fulfilling gem, it is considered the most precious existence of all, because of its tremendous potential. Unfortunately, this potential is rarely exploited and the gem is like a buried treasure. The majority of humans are so busy with their desires and projects that they are not even aware of spiritual possibilities. However, being exposed to more suffering than are gods or demi-gods, humans do have a better chance of giving rise to compassion: one of the most vital keys to spiritual development. Their main sufferings are those of birth, ageing, sickness and death, along with those of striving to fulfil their needs, not getting what they want, getting what they do not want and preserving what they have.

The Buddha appears to humans bearing his alms bowl and staff, the symbols of the ascetic life. This shows them that, in their world of multiple choices, the finest option is to follow the way of the sage.

The Three Lower Realms


"Most of them live in the sea" is the remarkable comment from early Buddhist scriptures, in times when most people ignored the existence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and had no knowledge of submarine life. One is reborn an animal as a result of ignorance: fostering delusion rather than truth. They fall into two main categories. Wild animals live in constant fear and spend their time seeking food or eating each other. Domesticated animals are enslaved by humans. Their nature is one of submissive acceptance of their lot, the counterpart of the acquisitive dissatisfaction of the Asura.

The Buddha appears to the animals bearing a book, showing that the only way out of stupidity is the development of clear reason and the cultivation of knowledge.


are spirits, born into states of frightful deprivation through former greed. With distended stomachs and needle-like throats, they search for ages for food and then only find disgusting scraps, or else see their find disappear before their eyes. Others manage to eat or drink but are burnt by they ingest as though it were molten metal. Unlike humans and animals, these spirits are aware of their former births and the greed which threw them into this condition. Their destitution is the counterpart of the complexity of possessions in the human realm. The Buddha appears to them bearing gifts and bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as Khasarpani, feeds them soothing nectar. This symbolises the need to draw the greedy and mean to truth by manifesting generosity.


are, like the Preta worlds, states of severe hallucination into which the mind is thrown once it leaves the body and has passed through the post-death experience. It is the bitterness and anger imprinted in the mind, through past malevolence and hatred, which generate the hellish environment experienced. Some of these nightmares take the form of hot hells, with various agonies of burning and torture. Others take the form of frozen wildernesses, in which frostbite is the worst enemy. All seem to last for endless ages and many take the form of pain which leads to death then revival, only to pass through the whole cycle again and again. This is the opposite of the luxurious indulgence of the gods.

"Who could have created the beings there and the hellish weapons? Who made the burning iron ground? The Great Sage has taught these, and similar things, to be the fabrications of an unwholesome mind."


The Buddha appears in the hells bearing the flame of purification, a sign of finding liberation from suffering by relating to it in an enlightened way.

The Basic Poisons

Just as a whole and healthy body loses its power when stricken by a tiny amount of poison, so does the mind lose its limitless wisdom due to 'mind poisons' (klesa) and thereby wanders in the confused illusions of the six realms. There are three basic poisons - ignorance, craving and hostility - represented by the pig, the cock and the serpent at the centre of the wheel. The three poisons feed off each other, as do the animals in the circle.

The Links of Interdependence

The twelve main stages in the cycle of rebirth are represented by the twelve icons forming the rim of the wheel:

ignorance - the blind leading the blind
karmic creations - a pot being thrown
consciousness - a monkey in a room with six windows
name and form - a boat
the six doors of perception - a house
contact - people embracing
feeling - an arrow piercing an eye
involvement - a man being served tea by a woman
craving- gathering fruits
becoming - two people procreating
birth - a woman giving birth
ageing and death - a corpse being carried to the funeral pyre.

The Buddhist principle is to be everybody's friend, not to have any enemy.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Meditation means simple acceptance.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Only the impossible is worth doing.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Whenever we see something which could be done to bring benefit to others, no matter how small, we should do it.
Chamgon Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Freedom is not something you look for outside of yourself. Freedom is within you.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Hasten slowly, you will soon arrive.
Jetsun Milarepa
It doesn’t matter whatever comes, stop judging and it won’t bother you.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Whatever obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Every sentient being is equal to the Buddha.
Chamgon Kentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche