The Wheel of Suffering: A Story in Many Parts

Posted by on May 10, 2016

Wheel of Suffering Figure 1

The Wheel of Suffering:

A Story in Many Parts

PART ONE – The Beginning

Three years ago, my teacher offered members of the sangha support and guidance to create a personal artistic expression of the Wheel of Suffering, an ancient Buddhist mandala comprised of images that map how we humans create and re-create our own suffering.  The Wheel of Suffering also brilliantly offers an imagistic map of liberation.  It is a one-stop guide into the entire panorama of Buddhist wisdom.


Wheel of Suffering

It is said that the Buddha originally drew this series of images in the dirt to explain the origins of suffering to his monks.  Subsequently, the Wheel could be found on the walls of every monastery, as a teaching in symbols, not requiring literacy, just a willingness to contemplate the fullness of what is presented.

But the symbols are ancient, and sometimes difficult to translate into modern culture.  Could we, could I, re-work the images to speak to this time and place?  Could I do so in a way that would speak to others, that would be a universal as well as a personal, guide to liberation from suffering? My sangha embarked on an in-depth contemplation of the Wheel images and their spiritual significance.


The Wheel Figure 2

The Wheel Figure 2


The Wheel of Suffering is comprised of three main ideas/images: At its center is the wheel itself, actually four separate and nested wheels.  These four wheels together contain close to 30 separate images, each describing yet another way we manifest self-centered pain and disappointment.

The nested wheels are held by a fierce creature who fixes the viewer with a steady, piercing stare.  This creature, Yama, represents impermanence.  Impermanence, embodied by Yama, is spinning the Wheel—AND devouring it.  Can you see how the constant change in your own life is spinning your wheels, how change itself and the friction thus manifested can leave us wanting something other than what is?

Yama is in turn suspended within a frame of sky, from which a Buddha stands nobly in a cloud.  So, all of our suffering, AND impermanence itself are held by something bigger, something that isn’t suffering, and isn’t impermanent.  Something represented by sky, and by the Buddha, who points at the wheel as if to say, “This is important, study this!”

Study it I did.  At first, to have enough understanding that I could choose an artistic medium of my own to express the many ways we humans are on the wheel, running in circles looking for something we never find. I settled on an overall concept of a deck of cards, a card for each image contained in the Wheel, to be rendered using collages of mixed media.


The Card Game of Life 

My deck of playing cards has four “suits,”  one for each of the four nested wheels, signified by a color. Rather than clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades, my Wheel deck has orange, black/white, blue and green suits.

The cards we’re dealt on the Wheel of Suffering…

The Card Game of Life Figure 3

The Card Game of Life Figure 3

Stepping Onto the Wheel    Along with other sangha members, I was engaged in a careful contemplation of each of the drawings contained in the ancient wheel mandala, using these images as a map with which to discover the precise and varied ways I myself created suffering.

We began our study of the Wheel not at the center, but at the top of the outermost circle, represented by the color green in my cards.  Beginning here, one is given, first and foremost, a tool for getting off the wheel.  If one is going to study suffering…it is quite beneficial to enter onto the Wheel with an “out.”  The twelve images of this outer wheel begin, at the top, with a blind man, feeling his way in the world with a cane.  He is IGNORANCE, and in spiritual terms, this ignorance blinds him to the causes of suffering.  He is blind to his innate ability to apply the brakes and turn towards the cessation of suffering.

As I contemplated the root of my own ignorance, I was also searching for how to depict on a playing card this fundamental blindness and the truth it obscures.  This exercise of beginning with inner contemplation, followed greater self-awareness, followed by the creation of an image for the playing card, has become a powerful tool in my spiritual practice.

Zen master Eihei Dogen taught, “To study the Way is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the Self is to be actualized by myriad things.”  To let go of the hold our ego has over us requires going deeply into our personality, understanding it thoroughly… that it slowly loses its grip, and the one who studies, who sees the ways she is conditioned to keep the spinning wheel spinning, and who chooses not to perpetuate those habits…….that one begins to take up more space.  That one is NOT on the wheel.  That one is sky, and like sky, is not separate from everything.

Each card can take weeks of constant attention to what I am doing, thinking and feeling, moment to moment. Such mindfulness, I have come to know from my practice, leads to clear comprehension.  Clear comprehension leads to wisdom.   Once some clear comprehension of my habit or tendency in each realm of the wheel is reached, the way is opened to let an image for the playing card arise. Each of my cards reflects my own quest for such wisdom.

At first, I was deeply uncomfortable with spending so much time in “don’t know,” in an absence of images and understanding.  I had to accept that  I could not think these understandings into being.  To bring forth an image requires a willingness to sit still in the empty space.  I came to trust the something that would inevitably emerge from nothing, often when I would least expect it.  Each card reflects my practice with this kind of patience, this equanimity with the moment-to moment unfolding of everything.


Figure 4

Figure 4



As I pondered the blind man on the road, I came to see that my own ignorance comes from getting caught up in the identities and activities of my everyday life as if they will provide me with ultimate nourishment.  What I go after inevitably creates pain, stress and disappointment—-even when it is initially pleasurable.  When I can see the suffering I create, and recognize that I am looking in the wrong place, I step out of ignorance.  Seeing that I am suffering gives me another choice.




The stuff we fabricate, and take as real, blinds us to the truth of suffering

Figure 5

Figure 5


When we can see that we want the material world to make us happy…the blind snaps open, something crumbles, the wise grandmother comes out of the basement, and Truth sets us free

Wheel Part 1 Photo #6

Figure 6

Practicing with Ignorance

Two winters ago, deeply immersed in my study of the Wheel, I experienced a flare-up of a chronic pain pattern in my neck and head.  The least wrong posture or poor eating/drinking choices aggravated the pattern, and I would be on the couch, in severe pain for a day or two.  I could no longer practice yoga, I could not tolerate even one glass of wine in the evenings.  I began to judge every activity in terms of its potential contribution to pain.  I feared for my future, I was irritated with myself for the least little slip-up that seemed to make things worse.  And I agonized about whether and where to look for help.

By this time, my “Ignorance” playing card was complete.  I had included “joint pain” on the window shade as I knew that physical pain caused me to suffer.  But I had not yet lived the experience of “pulling up the shade.”  Often, waking up to ignorance comes only after much suffering.  We are conditioned to carry on within the narrow confines of our own misery.  We are conditioned to believe that the solution to our suffering lies in finding answers outside of ourselves.  This is indeed a kind of blindness, and it is a profound turn when we begin to see that we ourselves are causing our own unhappiness.  This “turn” is the waking up from ignorance as depicted by the blind man on the Wheel’s outer rim.

The moment when I saw that my neck pain could be part of my spiritual practice was a moment of having my own blindness illuminated!  The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is encapsulated in the image of the blind man and in my personal experience with chronic pain:

First Noble Truth: There is suffering.  Do you know when you are suffering? Do you know that the pressure, anxiety, and irritation you cope with daily is caused by YOU? When I was able to see how much pressure and anxiety I had created around my neck pain, my suffering became evident to me.  Every life has physical pain.  It was my emotional reaction to the physical pain that was creating my suffering.

Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving.  What do you crave? I just wanted my neck pain to go away.  I wanted my life back.  I wanted to go to yoga, enjoy a glass of wine, and experience myself physically in ways that assured me I was strong, fit and able-bodied.

Third Noble Truth:  There is an end to suffering.  This is a truly amazing message!  Your suffering can end, IF you can see the fallacy in placing your hopes and dreams in the material world.   When my neck pain became a part of my spiritual practice, everything changed.  This was not easy or quick.  It required walking the Eightfold Path, as we are instructed in the Fourth Noble Truth.  With the help of good teachers, and the discipline of a regular meditation practice, I began to accept my pain and the resulting physical limitations as a given.   Moment by moment I learned to precisely and kindly be with the pain.  Moment by moment I began to see clearly the ever-changing nature of the human bodily form.

Once I could stop bringing so much negativity to my experience of the neck pain, the pain itself began to change.  Pain is a message from the body.  If we expend all our energy to resist that message….it will get louder.  Stillness and acceptance can allow for the energy and information contained within pain to move through.

There is liberation, wisdom and a surrender of the delusion of control in this way of practicing with chronic pain or other forms of suffering…such as in the realm of relationships.  Relationships get me into trouble quite often.  How about you?

It was after having dinner with a friend one night that I found myself caught in the agony of anger and judgement toward this person.  They had spent our time together recounting numerous tales of woe.  For them, life was hell.  For me, it was so clear that this hell was self-induced.  I could see clearly how they could feel better.  Why couldn’t they see it?  How could I kindly tell them the truth?  How could I help them to see the error of their ways?  I am not proud of it, but this is a stance in which I often find myself: knowing the solution to someone else’s pain, then feeling responsible for “helping.”

On the drive home, I was able to see that my reaction to this person’s hell was to enter hell with them.  I was miserable.  Closer to home, I saw that I deeply wanted this person to be free from their suffering so that I didn’t have to suffer with them. To fix them was to fix me too….or so I thought.  By the time I reached home, I knew that neither their pain nor my pain for them was fix-able.  I was ready to send an email saying, “Thanks for our time together.  I am so sorry it’s so very hard right now.  You are a good person.  You are doing your best.”

Such a crisp, quick snapping open of the window shade is a great blessing.  Often, the quest to “see the light” is a much longer and more arduous process.  Often, I spend days, weeks, hanging out with the stuff on the shade, unable to see through it.  But it is always amazing grace, and a sign of diligent practice no matter how long it takes, to be lost, then to be found.

Written by Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

Photo Credits
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3 Getsu San Ku Shin 2016
Figure 4
Figure 5 Getsu San Ku Shin 2016
Figure 6 Getsu San Ku Shin 2016

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