The Wheel of Suffering: A Story in Many Parts PART TWO: The Center by Getsu San Ku Shin

Posted by on June 22, 2016



PART TWO: The Center

A senior teacher at Shasta Abbey, whose website I often visit for Zen teaching, provided a key to the Wheel of Suffering when he noted that if you find yourself caught in a place of suffering, you are ignorant of something. The key is to discover how ignorance is keeping you in a place of misery and craving. As I make my way through the many images and facets of The Wheel of Suffering, I come upon my ignorance over and over again. Being surrounded, as I now am, with my own take on some of the Wheel images, I often find myself using the cards as clues to discover where the truth is hidden under the flotsam and jetsam of ignorance.

As my sangha slowly, deliberately contemplated the original Wheel, my creative attention moved from the outer rim of the Wheel to its innermost circle. In the Wheel mandala, greed hate and delusion live at the hub. These “Three Poisons” are at the center of Buddhist thought as well, the reasons for suffering boiled down to their purest essence.

Figure 1 Credit below

Figure 1 The Wheel of Birth & Death

The Wheel of Life – Poster

Greed Hate Delusion

Figure 2 Greed-Hate-Delusion

Just as the hubs of our bike and car wheels hold the spin of those wheels together, so the three primary human emotional drives of delusion (a pig), greed (a cock) and hate (a snake) bind our suffering with such force that everything on the Wheel, moving out from the middle, is held together by their power.

Figure 3 Credit Below

Getsu San Ku Shin  2016                Delusion….Greed……and Hate in the card game of life

In my re-working of the Wheel mandala, these three poisons are the orange card suit, hence, each of the playing cards have the color orange featured in its design. They are the “bullseye,” the core of the teachings, and not unlike the card of Ignorance at the top outermost edge of the Wheel, seeing that one is caught up in the 3 Poisons is to see everything.  It is an arrow to the heart of the beast called suffering.

Greed and hate are strong words.  They don’t mess around in describing the lengths to which we humans will go to manipulate the world so that we may realize our self-centered dreams.

These are toxic, poisonous impulses in human beings.  These twin drives reach far back into evolutionary time, and allowed our oldest ancestors to know instantly whether to move towards, or away from, sensate experiences.  They were, and are, survival drives, and our success as a species reflects in part the success of greed and hate at showing us how to navigate challenges in our environment.  And yet, unedited survival responses have gotten the world, and each of us, into a mess of trouble.  They are the craving of the second Noble Truth: the cause of all suffering.


Contemplating my own manifestation of the basic human drive to want more, better, different, I  began to notice a tendency in my eyes, in my posture and also in my mind to reach.  My eyes reach into my visual environment, looking for problems to be solved.  My mind too is relentlessly seeking, driving, re-working the past hour or day, cleaning things up, dreaming of the next minute or hour or day’s work to be done. And my torso urges me forward, always forward.  As I  settle into a period of sitting meditation, often the settling comes as a relaxation of my torso from urging myself forward to resting back into the center of my pelvis.  It always feels like coming home, a great relief.  I began to recognize that the reaching habit has greed at its core.

Figure 4 Credit Below

Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

The Greed card illustrates this reaching as the deep imbalance it is.  The sitting figure reaches for a piece of unripe fruit (the future is never ripe enough for picking, yet we can’t seem to stop reaching for it anyway), and/or for a pile of dry bones, those aspects of our lives that have already been lived, are gone forever, but which we, with our re-hashing, try in vain to keep alive and malleable.


Figure 5 Credit Below

Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

When the sitting figure on the greed playing card can organize not around the reach but around the gathering of all experience into the here and now, then her true center, binding her to heaven and to earth, becomes manifest.

I make use of this image frequently to help me let go of the reaching mind, and settle into my own centered stillness, especially while I meditate.  The “clunk” of body and mind and spirit into that pure quality of presence is dear to me.  It is worth practicing to find.  Grounded down, lifted upwards, fully here, wanting nothing, feeling my own connection to everything above and below through my own mind, heart and gut.


Meditation is a strong antidote to greed, for the simple though profound act of sitting still sends instant signals to the wanting mind that there will be no going after anything for the duration of the meditation period. This can make the mind frantic with desire, as we all know.  But to be physically still in the face of a greedy mind lays a foundation for deep practice.


Next time, while in meditation, when you find yourself overwhelmed with the unrelenting desires of the mind, try bringing your attention to the stillness of your body.  Make your eyes still.  Let the frantic mind run its course as you hold your ground with your sitting posture.  Accept that this stillness you have achieved, so foreign in our culture, so contrary to the workings of the grasping ego and our survival instinct, is understandably difficult for your mind to surrender to.  Honor your body’s capacity to lead the way for the mind.




We like to soft-pedal hate.  We call it anger, frustration, dislike, irritation.  Do you know that all these words have hate at their core? Do you know your own hate? I was not very familiar with my hatred as I began working with this playing card.  I was much more in touch with anxiety, fear, dread.  My teacher said to me over and over again, “Underneath fear is hate.”  It took me a long time to realize the truth of her words, but eventually I saw that my anxiety is built on self-hatred and self-condemnation.  Somebody inside me hates who I am and what I do.

Figure 6 Credit Below



The hate playing card shows a fearful woman with missiles trained at her.  Two hate-filled male figures, squeezed into the bottom of the frame, fuel the spark that can ignite the missiles.  The hatred, buried and held back, also burns like a slow fire, licking up the left side of the image, and eventually releasing fiery venom from a very pretty, though lethal, snake. Image by Getsu San Ku Shin 2016


Which is more dominant in your internal world, hate or fear?  Do you know of the connection between fear and hate from your own experience?

My deeply hidden anger first manifested as left side body pain.  Eventually, with study, contemplation and meditation, the physical pain transformed into long-held emotional memory.


When anger or fear show up, whether sparked by the present or the past, the key is to recognize their fundamental emptiness.  Do not believe that what you feel is true.  Do not identify with it.  Let this strong energy come, up through your still body and mind, then let it go.  This capacity, to be present to strong emotions with acceptance yet without letting them define you, comes with practice and the good guidance of a teacher.


As my angry memories emerged, I could see how attached I was, and am, to having things go my way. My teacher’s words echo in me, “What are you going after?”  Ask this of yourself.  Whatever it is we are driven to have, aversion and its many guises can be kindled when our cherished aspirations fall apart.

Fear and hate drive us towards fighting against, or running from, that which we perceive as a threat, while greed propels us to reach for, in order to grasp, that which we perceive as insuring our wellbeing. Whether we are caught in like or dislike, we create what feels like a solid state made up of running from, pushing against, and reaching toward. This sense of solidity is a delusion.  A house of cards!



Delusion is the third and final drive at the hub of the Wheel.  Delusions are the stories we tell ourselves that help us to know the world and how to operate in it.  These stories are delusions because they arise out of the likes and dislikes that condition our understanding.  They are created by, and they also feed the creation of, greed and hate, the pushing away of experiences and people and the reaching for more, different, better.

Figure 7 Credit Below

Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

The false sense of being a solid somebody is illustrated in the Delusion playing card with a New Yorker cartoon that assigns names and personalities to two waves rising up in the ocean.  We can see the hilarity in this……yet we are deeply attached to our own identities, easily forgetting just how fleeting and fluid our self-ness really is, and how completely interpenetrated with everything else this thing called “me” actually is.


The second cartoon depicts my personal favorite, the delusion that lives at the core of my belief system. Here, at the heart of my conditioning, stunning is an imperative.  I MUST be stunning, be perceived as stunning, strive relentlessly to be stunning.  It is a deep drive.  My very survival seems at stake. Stunning, and the striving required of it, are imbedded in my personality.  Despite many attempts to slow down, relax, let go of my ambition and perfectionism, I remained caught and in pain because of this drive until I committed to a Buddhist practice.  I still find myself striving towards an ideal all the time.  It remains a pervasive influence on me.  But I have tools now that have helped me to stay present to this impulse long enough to know how exactly it is false.


One such practice tool is represented by a “trap door,” on the Delusion playing card, an opening through which to escape the falseness of the world that delusion creates.  Opening this door, we find a mirror, showing us a reflection of…….what?  The way to freedom from the ignorance of our delusions lies in opening to what may be outside this self-contained reality, staying in the question, “what is really here?”

Figure 8 Credit Below

Image by Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

But even before we can bring mindfulness to our suffering, we need to see where we are.  We have to wake up to the truth that we are caught in a false sense of self.  The original Wheel mandala illustrates the Three Poisons as three beasts eating each other’s tails, showing us that these drives co-exist, are co-created.  If you can identify one, the other two are INEVITABLY running also.  I have found this such a valuable tool.  Now I know that whenever I am angry, greed and delusion are somewhere close at hand.  I know that whenever my perfectionism is driving me, that it is greed and hate I am giving birth to.  Here is an example from own experience:


When, through my Buddhist practice, I encountered a tight knot of anger within a chronically painful left hip and neck, I was brought face to face with the whole trio of drives.  The rage inflaming my hip and neck arose from a time in my life when I helped to create and manage a business that, in my mind, represented the pinnacle of stunning-ness.  It was everything I had ever dreamed of.  In order to get it and keep it, I worked harder than I had ever worked, denying myself sleep, time with family, self-care… other words, the greed-filled reaching was manifest.  Eventually, the pressures of managing a successful business took their toll, and the business relationships began to fall apart.  It was not pretty.  When I finally walked away from the whole enterprise, it was with a deep sense of failure, my dream of stunning shattered.  Depression ensued, remedied only by my eventually plunging into new projects.


It was not until I had enough skill as a meditator, as well as a mentor to guide me, that I  discovered the rage I had suppressed, and that my body still carried.  I saw that my hatred was sustained by my belief that the business was the only thing that would ever truly complete me.  A decade or more later, I continued to crave being the stunning owner of a stunning enterprise.  Because it fell apart, I was furious with both myself and my business partner for how things had actually unfolded.


Staying still within the experience of the hatred, I began to remember that I did not really enjoy the process of running a business.  I did not like being in charge.  I did not really want to show up in that way.  It didn’t actually suit me.  It was, if I was honest with myself, a relief to walk away, to get a rest from the effort it took to be stunning. The impulses for less busy-ness, for less notoriety, for a more solitary life, had been completely ignored and denied by my drive toward fame and power. The solid sense of myself I thought I had was indeed a delusion built of desire and culminating in aversion. Seeing this clearly, I could step out of ignorance.


The anger fell away.  It was painful to realize how little I had actually known of my true nature, but I also felt  joy at having discovered a world within, beyond the delusion of stunning. I was grateful that the partnership had fallen apart and freed me to have a different kind of life.


The example above illustrates the poison that can manifest when we don’t get what we want.  But it also speaks to what can happen when we DO get what we want.  It took me years to realize it, but having this business, for which I had fought and reached mightily, was not a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.  Now that I had it, I had to keep it…..which made me more anxious, more stressed.  I found I was fighting all the time to keep what I wanted, to control its outcomes, to make it a continuing success.  I truly felt mostly aversion for the project, though this was paved over with my habitual determination to succeed. Looking back, I can see that typically when I get the thing I strive for, it is nothing like the pleasure and nourishment I expected.  Fool’s gold.


Greed hate and delusion do not represent our true nature.  Who we really are remains hidden until we can see through our habits, and stop believing them.  My Buddhist practice, and the wisdom tradition so beautifully illuminated on the Wheel of Suffering, are the tools I am using to lead me inward and homeward.



Written by Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

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