What It Means To Cycle


This post is a continuation of How The Other Links Depend on Ignorance. See also Pinpointing Root Ignorance





To return to the meaning of saṃsāra, the word khorwa (’khor ba) means cycle or cycling.[1] So the pervasive compounding suffering we have been discussing is itself the meaning of saṃsāra. From that you can understand how we are circling. Saṃsāra refers to the way in which the aggregates, defiled by the contaminated seeds and disturbing thoughts, are received by the receiver, or carrier (the person who is to bear them). These contaminated aggregates receive, in other words, the future life saṃsāra. However, in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, Lama Tsongkhapa makes the qualification that in the case of a meditator on the hearer or solitary realizer path of meditation and therefore nearing the end of saṃsāra, having defiled aggregates does not mean that those defiled aggregates will necessarily continue into another saṃsāric rebirth. The reason is that such meditators have broken the cycle of rebirth due to the force of their realizations. Their contaminated aggregates, which are the result of past life karma and delusions, will therefore not have continuation.[2]

In short, saṃsāra means circling from lifetime to lifetime due to the cause of karma and delusions. Because we haven’t generated the antidote to the root ignorance through applying the true path and achieving true cessation (the third and fourth noble truths), the seed of disturbing thoughts is always there, producing the karma that results in our cycling from one saṃsāric life to the next. Kirti Tsenshap Rinpoche likened this process to the spinning of a prayer wheel.

So who is cycling? We are.

Therefore we should think how extremely fortunate we are that, at this time, we have met the teachings of the Buddha and particularly the Prāsaṅgika view of emptiness, which represents the ultimate emptiness, or final view. In order to cut the cycle of saṃsāra, it is not enough to have just heard what any text or religion might term emptiness—we must hear this particular one. We are unbelievably fortunate to have met the Mahāyāna teachings, and in particular the Tibetan lamrim teachings, which are integrated such that everything becomes extremely clear. Without having to go through extensive teachings, we can understand everything by touching on the very essence of the Buddhadharma and so practice and attain realizations.

We can spend our whole life meditating on the lower schools’ presentation of emptiness, where they discuss the meaning in terms of absence of permanence or existing alone, the lack of dependence on causes and conditions and many other things,[3] but as none of these can cut the root of saṃsāra, our whole life will be spent meditating on what we merely think is ultimate emptiness.[4] Therefore, just to be able to hear the right words, let alone be able to meditate on the correct intellectual understanding, means we have created vast amounts of good karma.


12 links moon drawing screenshot

Traditional woodblock print of the Wheel of Life



As I have been explaining briefly, the main ignorance is the ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the I. In the diagram or illustration of the twelve links of interdependent origination, it is represented in the center of the circle by the pig.[5] On the basis of this ignorance come the delusions of anger, signified by a snake, and attachment, symbolized by a pigeon.[6]

When drawn correctly, the tails of both the snake and the pigeon issue from the pig’s mouth because both these delusions arise on the basis of the basic ignorance not knowing the nature of the I,[7] but not all artists draw it like this. There is also another ignorance involved, that of not knowing the Dharma.[8]



Alternative version



Preferred version: both bird and snake coming from pig’s mouth


12 lnks black and white segment cropped 2

Virtue and nonvirtue represented by two  semi-circles


Around this central hub there are two semicircular arcs, usually depicted in paintings as white on the left and black on the right, indicating positive and negative karma respectively. The white half shows well-dressed people happily ascending to the realms of the happy migratory beings and to pure realms,[9] having created merit through virtuous thoughts and actions. We don’t see people dressed for the beach or carrying surfboards but maybe that will be shown in future wheels of life! The right, black, half shows naked people with their hands tied being pulled down headfirst by Yama, the Lord of Death.[10] This fearful figure is our own karma represented in cannibal form. This section of the wheel symbolizes the result of creating bad karma by following ignorance, attachment and other disturbing negative thoughts. Karma and delusion—the true cause of suffering—are the subject of this this section. The great superstition that is the ignorance of true existence and that causes death also manifests as Yama, holding the wheel with his fangs and claws.



Mara Lord of Death

His fangs remind us that we saṃsāric beings are constantly held in the mouth of the Lord of Death: death can come at any moment. Being reminded of impermanence in this way also persuades us to practice Dharma. Because true suffering is the nature of our life, we must practice Dharma all the time. It is said that Yama holds a mirror that reflects all our negative karmas and virtues. Once everything has been shown in the mirror, it is then decided whether our karmic appearance will be that of the lower or upper realms.

The section outside this black and white one shows the six realms of cyclic existence. The three upper ones represent the realms of humans, gods (sura) and demi-gods (asura), while the lower three represent the hell, hungry ghost (preta) and animal realms.


Three upper realms


three lower realms

The heaviest negative karmas result in rebirth in the hells. After that come the preta and animal realms, which are depicted near the middle, with the hells below them.

There are hot and cold hells—eight major hot hells with four branch hells located around each one and eight cold hells. Although I am not going to go into detail here, this is the main reason I am explaining emptiness. My explanation of the wheel of life is a general one related to emptiness.


Why do people get reborn in the hot hells? At the time of death, those who are going to be reborn there feel very, very cold. This happens often. I have frequently seen patients like this. Even though you put a lot of blankets on them, it doesn’t help. Because of their negative karma, they still feel extremely cold and cling very strongly to heat, which becomes the immediate cause for them to be born in the hot hells. Just like falling asleep, they die and enter the intermediate state, which is like a dream.[11] Then they suddenly wake from the dream to find themselves in the hot hells, which are a creation of their own mind. Suddenly they are born there and experience that suffering.

Conversely, people about to be reborn in the cold hells feel extremely hot and crave cold. Due to that nonvirtuous craving seeking the happiness of this life, they die—again, like falling asleep—and enter the dream-like intermediate state. They are then reborn in the cold hells, which are also their own mental creation.

Now you must remember, in accordance with my earlier explanations, that all these appearances that look concrete and truly existent, come from the mind. My explanation of emptiness emphasizes how everything comes from the mind. These suffering realms are also like this; they are created by karma and come from the mind. This explains how the craving for cold at the time of death is the proximate cause of the cold hells.

Sikkim - Land of Discovery

At the time of death, people who are about to be reborn as hungry ghosts have great aversion to food and when offered it, reject it. They don’t want to eat. Again, as with the hell realms, when they die with this negative mind—the nonvirtuous attitude of attachment to not having food—they wake from the bardo state to find themselves reborn in the preta realm. When people are to be reborn as animals, the proximate cause is mainly ignorance.

We can understand how the three lower realms represent the shortcomings of saṃsāra, specifically the suffering of suffering. It is very important to meditate on how the suffering of the lower three realms is unbearable. If we don’t do this, how can we generate compassion for the sentient beings there? Our compassion becomes limited. This is why we should meditate on the form their suffering takes and whether it is bearable or unbearable. Generating compassion in this way is the preliminary to the generating bodhicitta. Because we meditate on the lower realms for the benefit of the sentient beings there, it is not the case that we are meditating on their suffering simply to torture ourselves. If we meditate with compassion, we will be able to practice Dharma continuously. Our mind will come under our control. Anger, ignorance and the dissatisfied mind of desire will no longer cause us distraction. What we must do is remember the suffering of the hell realm together with an understanding of karma. This is one of the most powerful ways of seriously practicing Dharma and developing renunciation, compassion and the good heart.

Likewise, seeing the sufferings of the human and deva realms as also unbearable helps us generate renunciation, strong compassion and the capacity to practice Dharma continuously. But because this is difficult to do, we should meditate on the sufferings of the lower realms and the karma that causes them in order to generate these positive minds and to find the determination, strength and encouragement to practice.



A Turkish woman mourns her dead husband, who is a victim of the Greek-Turkish Civil War, Limassol, Cyprus (1964). By Elias Hazou


As I mentioned, in depictions of the wheel of life, the three upper realms are shown at the top. They are a part of the desire realm and show the suffering of change, illustrating how even the temporary saṃsāric pleasures are only suffering in nature. I gave the example before of how sitting for a long time compounds the suffering of tiredness. In saṃsāra, even if we eat, it’s suffering. Even if we don’t eat it’s suffering. Even if we don’t sleep it’s suffering. Even if we stay at home it’s suffering. Even if we travel it’s suffering. It’s like this no matter what we do until we become free from saṃsāra. In this way we can understand that the human, sura and asura realms show the saṃsāric pleasures that are the suffering of change and therefore only suffering in nature. Though labeled pleasure, they are in reality suffering.[12]

In the lower realms, the basic sufferings of the pretas are three kinds of obscurations: outer, inner and a lack of food; animals suffer from being extremely foolish and experiencing the sufferings of hunger, heat and cold and being eaten, tortured and abused by others. In the upper realms, human beings undergo the eight kinds of suffering.[13] For devas, the heaviest suffering is experiencing the five signs of death and the five signs of being near death. They also experience being controlled by other devas and being kicked out or killed. So there are many sufferings like this.


In pictures of the wheel of life you may sometimes see seventeen lines drawn to signify the seventeen categories of the form realm, but not all artists show them. The formless realm is also contained there but is not represented separately.[14] Together, the form and formless realms show pervasive compounding suffering, which is the fundamental suffering of saṃsāra. That the form realm is shown above the realms of gods and demi-gods does not mean that it is beyond saṃsāra. It is above and outside because it can’t fit inside [within] those other saṃsāric realms. Those in this realm are saṃsāric beings. They are part of saṃsāra.

A being is born in the form realm by actualizing the peaceful gross worldly path. Based on actualizing calm abiding, you look at the desire realm (e.g., our human realm) as having too much suffering. Life is short and there is much disease, unhappiness and problems. Meditating upon the many shortcomings of the desire realm while admiring the qualities of the form realm such as peace, a long life, no disease and greater happiness (and thus cultivating the six comprehensions) causes you to be reborn in the form realm. By meditating on the six comprehensions you don’t really remove the delusions but you do remove the visible, gross delusions. But not forever.

I won’t detail the six comprehensions, but when completed you achieve the actual state of the first concentration. [15] The second concentration now appears as happier and more peaceful. By meditating on its qualities you then go to the second state (concentration). Then you look at the third state (concentration) as happier and better than the second and proceed to the third state, then the fourth concentration as happier and more peaceful than the third and so on. In this way you proceed to the fourth state of concentration which in Tibetan is called bsam gtan bzhi pa.[16]

In the form realm there is no suffering of suffering or suffering of change since these are dependent upon external sense objects.[17] In the form realm, pleasure is derived only from the inner development of concentration itself. If you have not renounced all of saṃsāra or do not have bodhicitta or the wisdom realizing emptiness and are attached only to mental peace, then you have assembled the causes to be born in the form realm, which is still included within the realms of saṃsāra. Liking to meditate on a blank state of mind because you think it is so peaceful is another example. The cause, in other words, of being born in the form realm is simply clinging to your own happiness. That can also be the cause of rebirth in the animal realm. Keeping your mind in a blank state destroys your wisdom. Your mind becomes more and more ignorant and in that way an animal rebirth can result.

After the fourth level of the form realm comes the formless realm called Infinite Sky (or Infinite Space). You become bored with the form realm and prefer everything to be in the nature of space. Then you get bored with even that and want everything to be in the nature of consciousness: Infinite Consciousness. Then even that is found to be boring, unpeaceful and distracting and then you want to look at everything as nothingness. This brings you to the realm of Nothingness. It is not a very high state because it is not free of saṃsāra. Seeing that state as mistaken you then look at the Tip of Saṃsāra as happier and better. In this way you reach the Tip of Saṃsāra. There is no higher saṃsāric realm than this.[18]


Up to this point you have generated renunciation of each successive state by comparing it (unfavorably) to what is higher, more peaceful and better. But when the Tip of Saṃsāra is reached there is nothing to which it can be compared.[19] You didn’t completely understand that the whole of saṃsāra is suffering in nature. You didn’t understand true sufferings and true causes and hence did not renounce the whole of saṃsāra. Nor did you have bodhicitta or the wisdom realizing emptiness. Consequently, when you reach the Tip of Saṃsāra, which is suffering in nature, you are unable to renounce it, despite having been able to renounce all previous realms; you can’t see the Tip as Saṃsāra as suffering because you lack comparison to any higher realm.

So, when the karma to be in that realm finishes—as with a country that has been, for a time, extremely rich and with a very high standard of living which then becomes poor with the standard of living deteriorated—you are again born in the desire realm, even in the three lower realms. At the time of death, as your consciousness transfers to the lower realms, heresy arises, as you thought that you had achieved liberation. This is because in the formless realms there are no visible delusions. You think, “Oh, it’s not true that one can achieve liberation.” Due to that thought you are then born in the hells.

The point is that the form and formless realms don’t have suffering of suffering or the suffering of change, but they do have the third kind, pervasive compounding suffering, the most fundamental saṃsāric suffering. “Pervasive” means that their aggregates are caused by past karma and delusion. “Compounding” means that their aggregates are contaminated by the seeds of delusion.[20] Because delusions that create karma arise, the cause of saṃsāra is again compounded. In other words, beings in the formless realms are not free of karma and delusion. Therefore, wherever one is born in the six realms, it is only in the nature of suffering.[21] To show this, the Buddha advised that the wheel of life be drawn showing the different realms. He also advised that it be put outside the monasteries.[22]


Tibetan monk painting 'Wheel of Life'.Dharamshala, India.

!2 Links Mural. Monastery, Dharamsala. Image courtesy of Kelledia’s Garden.




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] See Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Bodhisattva Attitude (Boston: LYWA, 2012), 75–90, for an extensive discussion of exactly what saṃsāra is.

[2] This point invokes interesting debates. According to the Vaibhāṣika, for example, when foe destroyers who have attained liberation die, not just their contaminated aggregates cease, but the aggregates themselves terminate. See Hopkins, Meditation, 341–42. For mention of the butter lamp going out analogy in this context, see also the Dalai Lama, From Here to Enlightenment, 44. For other tenet positions, see Meditation, 393–96. For further discussion on the Mādhyamika interpretation of nirvāṇa with and without remainder, see Sopa and Hopkins, Cutting Through, 316–18. Lama Zopa Rinpoche presents the classic Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamaka view above.

[3] Reference to Hopkins’s chart listing the principal objects of meditation in the various Buddhist tenet systems is useful here as it vividly displays the differences in the respective school’s accounts of coarse and subtle selflessness of persons and (where applicable) phenomena. Meditation, 298–301.

[4] Ultimate emptiness (don dam par stong pa nyid).

[5] Illustrated in the Dalai Lama, End of Suffering, 208 (reproduced with permission here). Individual illustrations for each link are also given. See also Tharchin, King Udrayana, the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, between 40 and 41, and Pabongka, Liberation, 482. For a verbal account of the illustration, see Rinchen, How Karma Works, 7–12.

[6] The Dalai Lama describes a variation in the relationship and thus symbolism of the three central animals: “The pig indicates ignorance, the snake indicates hatred and the rooster indicates desire. In a more correct version of the drawing, the rooster and snake would be coming out of the mouth of the pig, and they would have their mouths on the tail of the pig. This indicates that desire and hatred have ignorance as their root, but the fact that they in turn hold on to the tail of the pig indicates that they act to further and assist each other.” End of Suffering, 207. See also the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, 42–43. Commenting on the same variation, Geshe Doga explains:

The innermost circle of the drawing shows a pig, a snake and a bird. These three creatures are symbols of the three poisonous minds – the pig symbolises ignorance, the snake symbolises anger and the bird represents attachment – which are the main causes for the cycle of rebirth. In some pictures, the pig has the tail of the snake in its mouth, and the snake’s mouth is holding the tail of a bird, which in turn holds the tail of the pig in its beak. In other versions, the bird does not have a hold on the pig’s tail. In such pictures where the bird is not holding the tail of the pig, the pig represents the ignorance that is the primary cause of all the other delusions. The versions showing the bird holding the pig’s tail indicate how each of one of these three serves as a cause and an effect for the other two: attachment can be a cause for both anger and ignorance; anger can be a cause for attachment; and ignorance, of course, can be a cause for anger and attachment.” Regarding the symbolism of the pig Geshe Doga adds: “A pig is used to represent ignorance because pigs are regarded as very simple as they mistakenly trust the person who feeds them when they are, in fact, being fattened for the kill.

See Geshe Doga, Twelve Links, forthcoming book from Tara Institute Publications, draft 10, 41-2.

Regarding desire being represented as either pigeon or rooster, Lama Zopa Rinpoche observes, “Many artists draw a rooster, but I have yet to see the teaching that says it’s a rooster. In the sūtra it seems it is a pigeon. In Geshe Sopa Rinpoche’s teachings on the wheel of life, he quotes the sūtra in which a pigeon is mentioned. Some artists who understand the teachings draw a pigeon. Pigeons have unbelievable attachment. It’s said that pigeons are incredibly attached to their companions, from whom they are inseparable. Of course, in reality, it is uncommon for them to actually get to stay together. They have unbelievable desire, performing the sexual act over and over, many times a day. Even if it finds human snot on the ground, a pigeon will pick it up to feed its companion. That’s why a pigeon is used to signify attachment.” LYWA Archive number 1700114, Guadalajara, Mexico, April, 2008. See also Sopa, Steps, Volume 2, 354–55.

[7] It is in this generative or causal sense that ignorance can be said to “pervade” all delusions. Thus also the singularity of the remedy, or solution. Āryadeva writes,

Ignorance pervades all delusions,
Just as the physical sense faculty resides throughout the body.
Thus when ignorance is destroyed,
All other delusions will be destroyed too.

See Gyatso, Harmony, 25, and Āryadeva and Gyel-tsap, Yogic Deeds, 156. Tsongkhapa also discusses this famous verse in relation to the critical imperative of identifying the root of cyclic existence. See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 45.

[8] In this context, “not knowing the Dharma” refers specifically to not knowing the nature of the law of cause and effect, namely, actions (las, karma). Hopkins writes, “Ignorance is of two types: obscuration with respect to actions and their effects and obscuration with respect to suchness. The latter serves as the causal motivation for all rebirth in cyclic existence, but in terms of operational motivation at the time of actions, obscuration with respect to actions and their effects is specified as the cause of accumulating actions that result in birth in bad migrations whereas obscuration with respect to suchness is specified as the cause of accumulating actions that result in birth in happy migrations. In dependence on ignorance, the other afflictions arise, and in dependence on them contaminated actions are accumulated. From those, all sufferings in cyclic existence are produced.” Meditation, 258.

[9] Pure realm (dag pa’i zhing).

[10] Jeffrey Hopkins draws out the significance of the figures facing either upwards in the white semi-cicle and downwards in the black: “The light and dark half-circles just outside the hub indicate virtuous and nonvirtuous actions that are motivated by the tried of ignorance, desire, and hatred. In the dark half-circle are persons engaged in counterproductive actions; they face downwards in order to indicate that negative actions lead to lower states. In the light half-circle, persons engaged in positive actions face upwardd to indicate that virtuous actions lead to higher, or more favorable states.” See His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, introduction, 9.

[11] Intermediate state (bar srid/bar do). See Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 40–43, for a summary account of this intermediate phase of the cycling process. Western notions of the “after-life,” with their teleological or transcendental emphasis, reveal fewer points of correspondence than might be expected. For detail on how the intermediate state (bardo) is accomplished after death, see Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim, 122–23. The Dalai Lama indicates a being in the intermediate state “has the form of the being as whom one will be reborn” and adds, “Technically speaking, the intermediate state belongs to the next life.” Harvard, 93–94.

[12] Āryadeva writes,

Thinking the alleviation
Of pain is pleasure
Is like someone who feels delight
Vomiting into a gold pot.\

By beginning it stops the produced –
How can pain that begins be pleasure?
It seems the Subduer therefore said]
Both birth and cessation are suffering.

If common beings do not see suffering
Because pleasure disguises it,
Why is there no pleasure
Which obscures suffering?

Yogic Deeds, 92–93.

[13] These are the sufferings of birth, ageing, illness, death, being constantly confronted with undesirable things, being separated from desirable things, unfulfilled desire and being bound by the chains of the suffering nature of the five aggregates. See Pabongka, Liberation, 440–50; Wangchen, Awakening the Mind, 103–9; and Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim, 108–11.

[14] Formless realm (gzugs med khams, ārūpyadhātu). Beings born in the formless realm have only four personal aggregates; they do not have an aggregate of form. As Rinchen observes, “In the formless realm the four aggregates associated with mental activity are present, but since beings in that realm have no actual physical form, the physical aspect is present only as a potential.” How Karma Works, 67. Hopkins outlines the general structure of three realms: “The three realms are the Desire, Form, and Formless Realms; of the nine levels, the first corresponds to the Desire Realm, the next four to the four divisions of the Form Realm, called the Four Concentrations, and the last four to the four divisions of the Formless Realm, called the Four Formless Absorptions. The Four Concentrations and Four Formless Absorptions are places of rebirth where beings have particularly strong concentrative powers; these powers can be achieved within a lifetime in the Desire Realm, and thus the three realms outline the possible states of consciousness in terms of concentrative ability within a human lifetime in the Desire Realm and also present in condensed form all the possible states of rebirth within cyclic existence.” Meditation, 104.

[15] “Comprehension” can also be translated as “mental contemplation” (yid la byed pa). For a useful chart showing what portion of the afflictions of the desire realm are progressively removed by each mental contemplation, see Lati Rinbochay and Denma Lochö Rinbochay, Meditative States, 104. For extensive detail on the levels of meditation merely alluded to here, see ibid. or Leah Zahler, Study and Practice of Meditation (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2009).

[16] First concentration (bsam gtan dang po, prathamadhyāna); second concentration (bsam gtan gnyis pa, dvitīyadhyāna); third concentration (bsam gtan gsum pa, tritīyadhyāna); fourth concentration (bsam gtan bzhi pa, caturthadhyāna). Lati Rinbochay and Denma Lochö Rinbochay write,

There is a reason for positing the concentrations as four because 1) these concentrations are posited from the point of view of definitely emerging from contaminated feeling and 2) the first concentration is posited from the point of view of definitely emerging from the contaminated feeling of mental discomfort; the second concentration is posited from the point of view of definitely emerging from the contaminated feeling that is the faculty of suffering….The third concentration is posited from the point of view of definitely emerging from the contaminated feeling of [mental] bliss; the fourth concentration is posited from the point of view of definitely emerging from the contaminated feeling that is the faculty of bliss….There is a reason for not positing a fifth concentration from the point of view of its definitely emerging from contaminated neutral feeling because, since contaminated neutral feeling is a subtle suffering of pervasive conditioning (’du byed kyi sdug bsngal, saṃskāraduḥkhatā), a mundane path cannot cause definite emergence from it.

Meditative States, 172–73. This last point of the inability to achieve definite emergence from suffering is the key point in Lama Zopa’s soteriologically-aimed account.

[17] Form realm (gzugs kyi khams, rūpadhātu).

[18] The Peak of Cyclic Existence, or Tip of Saṃsāra (srid rtse, bhavāgra). Ruth Sonam gives an overview of the relation of meditational achievements and actions to Buddhist cosmology that concisely frames Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s account. She writes,

Non-virtuous actions (mi dge ba’i las), virtuous contaminated actions (zag bcas dge ba’i las) and unfluctuating action (mi g.yo ba’i las) lead to a rebirth in one of the three realms of cyclic existence. Non-virtuous actions lead to a rebirth as a hell-being, a hungry spirit or as an animal in the desire realm (’dod khams) and virtuous contaminated actions to a rebirth in the same realm as a human or celestial being. Unfluctuating actions result in rebirth as a celestial being in the form or formless realms (gzugs khams, gzugs med khams). In order to create unfluctuating action one must have attained a calmly abiding mind (zhi gnas). There are four concentrations (bsam gtan) or absorptions (snyoms ’jug) of the form realm, which are differentiated on the basis of the accompanying feelings. A progressive development towards neutral feeling takes place. There are seventeen abodes (gnas) of the form realm divided among the four concentrations. The four absorptions of the formless realm are called limitless space (nam mkha’ mtha’ yas), limitless consciousness (rnam shes mtha’ yas), nothingness (ci yang med) and the peak of cyclic existence (srid rtse). They are differentiated on the basis of the accompanying discrimination, which becomes less and less coarse.

See Rinchen, Three Principal Aspects, 142, note 13.

For another account of cyclic existence in terms of levels see also Lati Rinbochay and Denma Lochö Rinbochay, Meditative States, 29–47.

[19] The meaning here is that, as the peak, it is without equal or superior. Because there is no saṃsāric state that compares, one imagines or concludes that one has arrived at one’s ultimate goal. But this is mistaken: one has only achieved a mundane goal that will prove all too temporary. Lama Tsongkhapa explains:

By means mundane insight developed on the basis of serenity explained earlier, you can achieve the “mind of the Peak of Cyclic Existence,” which has eliminated all the manifest afflictions of the formless level of Nothingness and below. But if you do not know the reality of selflessness and meditate upon it, you will not be liberated from cyclic existence. Thus, Mātŗceta’s “Praise that Falls Short,” [the first chapter of his] Praise in Honor of One Worthy of Honor (Varṇāha-varṇa-stotra) says:

Those opposed to your teaching
Are blinded by delusion.
Even after venturing to the peak of cyclic existence,
Suffering occurs again, and cyclic existence is maintained.
Those who follow your teaching–
Even if they do not achieve actual meditative stabilization–
Turn away from cyclic existence,
While under the steady gaze of the eyes of Māra.

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Exposition, Volume 3, 95. Speaking of  yogis who attain  very high levels of mundane (as opposed to supra-mundane) meditative stabilization (samādhi) within the formless real including, the very highest of which   may also be called the tip of cyclic existence (here referring to the  concentrative attainment rather than the rebirth realm) The King of Concentrations Sutra (Samādhi-rāja-sūtra) says:

Although worldly ones cultivate samādhi,
That does not destroy the false notion of self;
Afflictions return and disturb them.
Like Udraka, who cultivated samādhi up to this level.

See Sopa, Steps on the Path, Volume 5, 22. For the source of Geshe Sopa’s commentary, see also Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Steps of the Path, Volume 3, 22-3. 

Regarding Udraka, Geshe Sopa tells an amusing story illustrating the seductive yet deceptive charm of even the highest levels of mundane attainment:

The last line of the sutra mentions Udraka as an example. He was a non-Buddhist yogi who spent so many years in meditation that he accomplished all four concentrations of the form realm and the first three of the formless realm up to and including the level of nothingness. The mental afflictions on these seven levels no longer arose within his mental continuum and those afflictions on the highest level of the formless realm, the peak of cyclic existence are so very subtle that the meditator almost appears to be an arhat. At this point Udraka no longer experienced any noticeable attachment, hatred, or other afflictions, so he thought that he had achieved liberation from samsara. During the time it had taken him to achieve this level, Udraka’s hair had grown very long. One day he awoke from his meditation and found that his hair had been eaten away by mice. This disturbed him. Seeing that his mind was agitated, he realized that mental afflictions were still present in his mental continuum. This made him angry. The karma of anger later caused him to fall into a lower rebirth. This story shows that Udraka’s concentration was limited to the mundane level, indicated by the final phrase, “up to this level” in the preceding verse, without touching the supramundane.

Ibid, 23. 

[20] The aggregates (’jig rten) may also be known as “disintegrating basis.” As Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains, this refers to the five aggregates “consisting of forms, feelings, discriminations, compositional factors, and the six kinds of consciousness, which together constitute body and mind” and “undergo change moment by moment.” But it may also refer more generally to the also perishable base that is the world, as shown in the following verse from Je Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Arising:

Whatever troubles of this world
Their root is ignorance. You taught
The insight which reverses it,
Dependent relativity.

“Since the person is attributed to these five aggregates,” Geshe Sonam Rinchen glosses, “the world in this context alludes primarily to the person. The whole recurrent process of involuntary birth and death, of one rebirth after another in the six realms of existence, is also referred to as the world.” His explanation echoes Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s own presentation. Geshe Sonam Rinchen further explains, “These unwanted miseries [“troubles of this world”] come from ignorance, and only through understanding the profound nature of dependent arising can we stop the suffering, the compulsive actions, the disturbing emotions, and the misconceptions which lie at their root.” Heart Sutra, 7–8. See also Rinchen, How Karma Works, 13.

[21] Jeffrey Hopkins usefully points out that our understanding of how all the six realms are suffering in nature can also be extended, or rather, transported and condensed into our more immediate understanding of the dimensions or potential scope of suffering in our immediate human life:

My first teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, a Kalmyck Mongolian scholar-adept who had lived through the brutal Communist takeover of the Soviet Union, spent thirty-five years in Tibet, foresaw the Communist takeover there, and emigrated to the United States. He used to say that the Americans were the gods and the Russians were the demigods. In this way, we can view these realms of beings as representing types of beings in cyclic existence but also periods in one’s own or others’ lives–as short as five minutes, or months, or even a whole lifetime.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, 8.

This same approach can be very useful if one does not accept the existence of other realms, not to mention reincarnation. Just to honestly contemplate and recognize the sufferings that humans, and animals must undergo, proves earth-shaking. Mind-boggling. It also makes it harder to interpret the existence of the six realms, and the lower realms in particular, as purely figurative or metaphoric: as mere moral tales. This said, we must remember that central to the Buddhist presentation is the notion that we are not permanently ensconced in any of the six realms. In this regard there is significant difference to the Biblical/Christianic accounts of heaven and hell. Moreover, we (meaning all sentient beings, not just humans) all are exactly alike in having deep potential to escape the wheel of suffering cyclic existence altogether: this is the whole purpose of the current explanation and the Buddha’s intent in presenting a diagram of the twelve links of dependent arising to King Bimbisara to give, in turn, to King Utrayana as a treasure more precious than ten million gold coins. See Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works, 95-6.

[22] “The history of this drawing,” writes the Dalai Lama, “is that the king of a distant land made a present of a jewel to the King of Magadha, and the king felt he did not have anything of equivalent worth to give in return, so he asked Buddha what he should give. Buddha told him to give a drawing like this of the 12 links of dependent arising, with the five sections symbolizing suffering. It is said that when the distant king received the picture and studied it, he attained realization from it.” End of Suffering, 207.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen gives a more extensive account:

They escorted it [the gift] ceremonially into the palace. Then, with the whole court waiting in suspense, it was taken out of the golden box. To everyone’s surprise, when the many layers of silk and brocade had been removed, what lay before them was a rolled-up painting, Eagerly they unrolled it and found a beautiful portrait of someone they did not know. Present at court, however, were some merchants who had visited Magadha, the area where Bimbisara lived, and they recognized it was a painting of the Buddha. At once they began speaking words in praise of the Buddha and paid homage to him. King Utrayana and his court had already been prepared for something exceptional. Moved by the image and by the reverence of the merchants, they were quite overcome. Through the arrival of this gift past positive imprints were awakened in the king and his court. The king took the painting to his private quarters, That evening he looked carefully at the twelve images around the edge and read the verses. Throughout the night he thought very deeply about this whole twelve-part process in forward and reverse sequence, and in the course if this intensive meditation he reached the stage of a stream enterer, that is, he had direct perception of the truth. It is said that even just seeing the twelve links depicted creates beneficial imprints, so thinking about them again and again with understanding of how they function will undoubtedly have a very profound effect and bring vast benefit.

Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works, 96-7.



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