Buddhism first reached Tibet in the 7th century. By the 8th-century teachers such as Padmasambhava were traveling to Tibet to teach the dharma. In time Tibetans developed their own perspectives and approaches to the Buddhist path.
The list below is of the major distinctive traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This is only a brief glimpse of rich traditions that have branched into many sub-schools and lineages.
Nyingmapa is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. It claims as its founder Padmasambhava, also called Guru Rinpoche, “Beloved Master,” which places its beginning in the late 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with building Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, in about 779 CE.
Along with tantric practices, Nyingmapa emphasizes revealed teachings attributed to Padmasambhava plus the “great perfection” or Dzogchen doctrines.
The Kagyu school emerged from the teachings of Marpa “The Translator” (1012-1099) and his student, Milarepa. Milarepa’s student Gampopa is the main founder of Kagyu. Kagyu is best known for its system of meditation and practice called Mahamudra.
The head of the Kagyu school is called the Karmapa. The current head is the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was born in 1985 in the Lhathok region of Tibet.
In 1073, Khon Konchok Gyelpo (1034-l102) built Sakya Monastery in southern Tibet. His son and successor, Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, founded the Sakya sect. Sakya teachers converted the Mongol leaders Godan Khan and Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Over time, Sakyapa expanded to two subsects called the Ngor lineage and the Tsar lineage. Sakya, Ngor and Tsar constitute the three schools (Sa-Ngor-Tsar-gsum) of the Sakyapa tradition.
The central teaching and practice of Sakyapa is called Lamdrey (Lam-‘bras), or “the Path and Its Fruit.” The headquarters of the Sakya sect today are at Rajpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. The current head is the Sakya Trizin, Ngakwang Kunga Thekchen Palbar Samphel Ganggi Gyalpo.
The Gelugpa or Gelukpa school, sometimes called the “yellow hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), one of Tibet’s greatest scholars. The first Gelug monastery, Ganden, was built by Tsongkhapa in 1409.
The Dalai Lamas, who have been spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people since the 17th century, come from the Gelug school. The nominal head of Gelugpa is the Ganden Tripa, an appointed official. The current Ganden Tripa is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu.
The Gelug school places great emphasis on monastic discipline and sound scholarship.
Jonangpa was founded in the late 13th century by a monk named Kunpang Tukje Tsondru. Jonangpa is distinguished chiefly by kalachakra, its approach to tantra yoga.
In the 17th-century the 5th Dalai Lama forcibly converted the Jonangs into his school, Gelug. Jonangpa was thought to be extinct as an independent school. However, in time it was learned that a few Jonang monasteries had maintained independence from Gelug.
Jonangpa is now officially recognized as an independent tradition once again.
When Buddhism arrived in Tibet it competed with indigenous traditions for the loyalty of Tibetans. These indigenous traditions combined elements of animism and shamanism. Some of the shaman priests of Tibet were called “bon,” and in time “Bon” became the name of the non-Buddhist religious traditions that lingered in Tibetan culture.
In time elements of Bon were absorbed into Buddhism. At the same time, Bon traditions absorbed elements of Buddhism, until Bonpo seemed more Buddhist than not. Many adherents of Bon consider their tradition to be separate from Buddhism. However, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has recognized Bonpo as a school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The standard answer to the question “What is a Buddha?” is, “A Buddha is someone who has realized the enlightenment that ends the cycle of birth and death and which brings liberation from suffering.”
Buddha is a Sanskrit word that means “awakened one.” He or she is awakened to the true nature of reality, which is a short definition of what English-speaking Buddhists call “enlightenment.”
A Buddha is also someone who has been liberated from Samsara, the cycle of birth and death. He or she is not reborn, in other words. For this reason, anyone who advertises himself as a “reincarnated Buddha” is confused, to say the least.
However, the question “What is a Buddha?” could be answered many other ways.
Buddhas in Theravada Buddhism
There are two major schools of Buddhism, most often called Theravada and Mahayana. For purposes of this discussion, Tibetan and other schools of Vajrayana Buddhism are included in “Mahayana.” Theravada is the dominant school in southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) and Mahayana is the dominant school in the rest of Asia.
According to Theravada Buddhists, there is only one Buddha per age of the earth, and ages of the earth last a very long time.
The Buddha of the current age is the Buddha, the man who lived about 25 centuries ago and whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism. He is sometimes called Gautama Buddha or (more often in Mahayana) Shakyamuni Buddha. We also often refer to him as ‘the historical Buddha.’
Early Buddhist scriptures also record names of the Buddhas of earlier ages. The Buddha of the next, future age is Maitreya.
Note that the Theravadins are not saying that only one person per age may be enlightened. Enlightened women and men who are not Buddhas are called arhats or arahants. The significant difference that makes a Buddha a Buddha is that a Buddha is the one who has discovered the dharma teachings and made them available in that age.
Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhists also recognize Shakyamuni, Maitreya, and the Buddhas of previous ages. Yet they don’t limit themselves to one Buddha per age. There could be infinite numbers of Buddhas. Indeed, according to the Mahayana teaching of Buddha Nature, “Buddha” is the fundamental nature of all beings. In a sense, all beings are Buddha.
Mahayana art and scriptures are populated by a number of particular Buddhas who represent various aspects of enlightenment or who carry out particular functions of enlightenment. However, it’s a mistake to consider these Buddhas as god-like beings separate from ourselves.
To complicate matters further, the Mahayana doctrine of the Trikaya says that each Buddha has three bodies. The three bodies are called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Very simply, dharmakaya is the body of absolute truth, sambhogakaya is the body that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya is the body that manifests in the world.
In Mahayana literature, there is an elaborate schema of transcendent (dharmakaya and sambhogakaya) and earthly (nirmanakaya) Buddhas who correspond to each other and represent different aspects of the teachings. You will stumble upon them in the Mahayana sutras and other writings, so it’s good to be aware of who they are.
Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light and the principal Buddha of the Pure Land school.
Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, who represents the power of healing.
Vairocana, the universal or primordial Buddha.
Oh, and about the fat, laughing Buddha — he emerged from Chinese folklore in the 10th century. He is called Pu-tai or Budai in China and Hotei in Japan. It is said that he is an incarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreya.
All Buddhas Are One
The most important thing to understand about the Trikaya is that the countless Buddhas are, ultimately, one Buddha, and the three bodies are also our own body. A person who has intimately experienced the three bodies and realized the truth of these teachings is called a Buddha.
O’Brien, Barbara. “What Is a Buddha? Who Was the Buddha?” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/whats-a-buddha-450195.
Tara is an iconic Buddhist goddess of many colors. Although she is formally associated only with Buddhism in Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal, she has become one of the most familiar figures of Buddhism around the world.
She is not exactly the Tibetan version of the Chinese Guanyin (Kwan-yin), as many assume. Guanyin is a manifestation in the female form of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Avalokiteshvara is called Chenrezig in Tibet, and in Tibetan Buddhism Chenrezig usually is a “he” rather than a “she.” He is the universal manifestation of compassion.
According to one story, when Chenrezig was about to enter Nirvana he looked back and saw the suffering of the world, and he wept and vowed to remain in the world until all beings were enlightened. Tara is said to have been born from Chenrezig’s tears. In a variation of this story, his tears formed a lake, and in that lake, a lotus grew, and when it opened Tara was revealed.
Tara’s origins as an icon are unclear. Some scholars propose that Tara evolved from the Hindu goddess Durga. She appears to have been venerated in Indian Buddhism no earlier than the 5th century.
Tara in Tibetan Buddhism
Although Tara probably was known in Tibet earlier, the cult of Tara appears to have reached Tibet in 1042, with the arrival of an Indian teacher named Atisa, who was a devotee. She became one of the most beloved figures of Tibetan Buddhism.
Her name in Tibetan is Sgrol-ma, or Dolma, which means “she who saves.” It is said her compassion for all beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. Her mantra is om tare tuttare ture svaha, which means, “Praise to Tara! Hail!”
White Tara and Green Tara
There are actually 21 Taras, according to an Indian text called Homage to the Twenty-One Taras that reached Tibet in the 12th century. The Taras come in many colors, but the two most popular are White Tara and Green Tara. In a variation of the original legend, White Tara was born from the tears from Chenrezig’s left eye, and Green Tara was born from the tears of his right eye.
In many ways, these two Taras complement each other. Green Tara often is depicted with a half-open lotus, representing night. White Tara holds a fully blooming lotus, representing the day. White Tara embodies grace and serenity and the love of a mother for her child; Green Tara embodies activity. Together, they represent boundless compassion that is active in the world both day and night.
Tibetans pray to White Tara for healing and longevity. White Tara initiations are popular in Tibetan Buddhism for their power to dissolve obstacles. The White Tara mantra in Sanskrit is:
Green Tara is associated with activity and abundance. Tibetans pray to her for wealth and when they are leaving on a journey. But the Green Tara mantra actually is a request to be freed from delusions and negative emotions.
As tantric deities, their role is not as objects of worship. Rather, through esoteric means, the tantric practitioner realizes himself as White or Green Tara and manifests their selfless compassion.
The names of the remaining Taras vary a bit according to the source, but some of the better-known ones are:
Red Tara:is said to have the quality of attracting blessings.
Black Tara:is a wrathful deity who wards off evil.
Yellow Tara:helps us overcome anxiety. She is also associated with abundance and fertility.
Blue Tara:subdues anger and turns it into compassion.
Cittamani Tara:is a deity of high tantra yoga. She is sometimes confused with Green Tara.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddhist Goddess and Archetype of Compassion.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/tara-archetype-of-compassion-450180.
The “pure lands” of Buddhism can sound a little like heaven; places where “good” people go when they die. But that’s not what they are. There are, however, many different ways to understand them.
A “pure land” often is understood to be a place where dharma teachings are everywhere and enlightenment is easily obtained. This “place” may be a state of mind rather than a physical place, however. If it is a physical place, it may or may not be physically separate from the mundane world.
However one enters a pure land, it is not an everlasting reward. Although there are many kinds of pure lands, for the unenlightened they are best thought of as a place where one may dwell only for a time.
Although pure lands are mostly associated with the Pure Land traditions, such as Jodo Shinshu, you can find references to pure lands in commentaries by teachers of many Mahayana schools. Pure lands also are mentioned in many Mahayana sutras.
Origins of Pure Lands
The concept of a pure land appears to have originated in early Mahayana.in India. If enlightened beings choose to not enter Nirvana until all beings are enlightened, it was thought, then these purified beings must live in a purified place. Such a purified place was called a Buddha-ksetra, or Buddha-field.
Many different views of pure lands arose. The Vimalakirti Sutra (ca. 1st century CE), for example, teaches that enlightened beings perceive the essential purity of the world, and thus dwell in purity — a “pure land.” Beings whose minds are muddled by defilement perceive a world of defilement.
Others thought of pure lands as distinctive realms, although these realms were not separate from samsara. In time a kind of mystical cosmos of pure lands emerged in Mahayana teaching, and each pure land became associated with a particular Buddha.
The Pure Land school, which emerged in 5th century China, popularized the idea that some of these Buddhas could bring unenlightened beings into their pure lands. Within the pure land, enlightenment could easily be realized. A being who did not achieve Buddhahood eventually might be reborn elsewhere in the Six Realms, however.
There is no fixed number of pure lands, but there are just a few widely known by name. The three you will most commonly find referenced in commentaries and sutras are Sukhavati, Abhirati, and Vaiduryanirbhasa. Note that directions associated with particular pure lands are iconographical, not geographical.
Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land
Sukhavati the “realm of bliss,” is ruled by Amitabha Buddha. Most of the time, when Buddhists talk about THE Pure Land, they are talking about Sukhavati. Devotion to Amitabha and faith in Amitabha’s power to bring the faithful into Sukhavati is central to Pure Land Buddhism.
Sutras of the Pure Land school describe Sukhavati as a place filled with gentle light, the music of birdsong and the fragrance of flowers. Trees are adorned with jewels and golden bells. Amitabha is attended by the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, and he presides over all sitting on a lotus throne.
Abhirati, the Eastern Pure Land
Abhirati, the “realm of joy,” is thought to be the purest of all pure lands. It is ruled by Akshobhya Buddha. There was once a tradition of devotion to Akshobhya in order to be reborn in Abhirati, but in recent centuries this was eclipsed by devotion to the Medicine Buddha.
Vaiduryanirbhasa, the Other Eastern Pure Land
The name Vaiduryanirbhasa means “pure lapis lazuli.” This pure land is ruled by the Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru, who is often depicted in iconography holding a lapis blue jar or bowl containing medicine. Medicine Buddha mantras often are chanted on behalf of the sick. In many Mahayana temples, you will find altars to both Amitabha and Bhaisajyaguru.
Yes, there is a Southern Pure Land, Shrimat, ruled by Ratnasambhava Buddha and a Northern Pure Land, Prakuta, ruled by Amoghasiddhi Buddha, but these are far less prominent.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Buddhist Pure Lands.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/pure-lands-450045.
The Sanskrit / Pali word Tathagata usually is translated “the one who has thus gone.” Or, it is “one who has thus come.” Tathagata is a title for a buddha, one who has realized enlightenment.
Meaning of Tathagata
Looking at the root words: Tatha can be translated “so,” “such,” “thus,” or “in this manner.” Agata is “came” or “arrived.” Or, the root may be gata, which is “gone.” It’s not clear which root word is intended — arrived or gone — but an argument can be made for either.
People who like the “Thus Gone” translation of Tathagata understand it to mean someone who has gone beyond ordinary existence and will not return. “Thus come” could refer to one who is presenting enlightenment in the world.
Other of the many renderings of the title include “One who has become perfect” and “One who has discovered truth.”
In the sutras, Tathagata is a title the Buddha himself uses when speaking of himself or of buddhas generally. Sometimes when a text refers to the Tathagata, it is referencing the historical Buddha. But that isn’t always true, so pay attention to context.
The Buddha’s Explanation
Why did the Buddha call himself Tathagata? In the PaliSutta-pitaka, in Itivuttaka § 112 (Khuddaka Nikaya), the Buddha provided four reasons for the title Tathagata.
First, everything in this world, “whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought, and reflected upon by the mind,” is fully understood by a Tathagata.
Second, from the moment a being realizes complete enlightenment until he passes intoNirvana, leaving no trace behind, whatever he teaches is just so (tatha) and not otherwise.
Third, what he does is in the manner of (tatha) what he teaches. Likewise, what he teaches is what he does.
Fourth, among all other beings in this world, a Tathagata is the conqueror, unvanquished, all-seeing, and the wielder of power.
For these reasons, the Buddha said, he is called the Tathagata.
In Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhists connect Tathagata to the doctrine of suchness or tathata. Tathata is a word used for “reality,” or the way things really are. Because the true nature of reality cannot be conceptualized or explained with words, “suchness” is a deliberately vague term to keep us from conceptualizing it.
It is sometimes understood in Mahayana that the appearance of things in the phenomenal world are manifestations of tathata. The word tathata is sometimes used interchangeably with sunyata or emptiness. Tathata would be the positive form of emptiness — things are empty of self-essence, but they are “full” of reality itself, of suchness. One way to think of the Tathagata-Buddha, then, would be as a manifestation of suchness.
As used in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, Tathagata is the inherent suchness of our existence; the ground of being; the dharmakaya; Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Tathagata: One Who Is Thus Gone.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/tathagata-449867.
Although we often speak of “the Buddha,” there are many Buddhas in Buddhism. On top of that, the many Buddhas come with many names and forms and play multiple roles. The word “Buddha” means one who woke up,” and in Buddhist doctrine, any such enlightened individual is technically a Buddha. In addition, the word Buddha is often used to mean the principle of Buddha-nature. But of course, there is one historical figure that normally is considered the Buddha.
Shakyamuni Buddha is a name given to the historical Buddha, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. So it’s nearly always the case that when someone is talking about Shakyamuni, he or she is speaking of the historical figure who was born Siddhartha Gautama but then became known as Shakyamuni only after he became the Buddha. This person, after his enlightenment, is also sometimes called Gautama Buddha.
However, people also speak of Shakyamuni as a more transcendent figure who still is, and not as a historical figure who lived a long time ago. Especially if you are new to Buddhism, this may be confusing. Let’s take a look at Shakyamuni Buddha and his role in Buddhism.
The Historical Buddha
The future Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the 5th or 6th century BCE in what is now Nepal. Although historians believe there was such a person, much of his life story is shrouded in legend and myth.
According to legend, Siddhartha Gautama was the son of a king, and as a youth and young adult, he lived a sheltered and pampered life. In his late 20s, he was shocked to witness sickness, old age, and death for the first time, and he was filled with such dread he resolved to give up his royal birthright to seek peace of mind.
After several false starts, Siddhartha Gautama eventually settled determinately into deep meditation under the famous Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, in North Eastern India, and realized enlightenment, at about the age of 35. From this point on he was called the Buddha, which means “one who woke up.” He spent the rest of his life teaching and died at about the age of 80, achieving Nirvana. More detail about the life of the Buddha can be read in The Life of the Buddha.
About the Shakya
The name Shakyamuni is Sanskrit for “Sage of the Shakya.” Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince of the Shakya or Sakya, a clan who appear to have established a city-state with a capital in Kapilavatthu, in modern-day Nepal, about 700 BCE. The Shakya were believed to have been descendants of a very ancient Vedic sage named Gautama Maharishi, from whom they took the name Gautama. There is a bit of legitimate documentation of the Shakya clan that can be found outside of Buddhist texts, so it appears the Shakya was not just an invention of Buddhist story-tellers.
If indeed Siddhartha was the heir of the Shakya king, as legends suggest, his enlightenment may have played a small role in the clan’s downfall. The Prince had married and had fathered a son before he left his home to seek wisdom, but the son, Rahula, eventually became his father’s disciple and a celibate monk, as did many young men of the Shakya nobility, according to the Tipitaka.
Early scriptures also say the Shakya and another clan, the Kosala, had long been at war. A peace agreement was sealed when the Kosala crown prince married a Shakya princess. However, the young woman sent by the Shakya to marry the prince actually was a slave, not a princess–a deception not discovered for a long time. The couple had a son, Vidudabha, who swore revenge when he learned the truth about his mother. He invaded and massacred the Shakya, then annexed Shakya territory into Kosala territory.
This happened near the time of the Buddha’s death. In his book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist Stephen Batchelor presents a plausible argument that the Buddha was poisoned because he was the most prominent surviving member of the Shakya royal family.
According to the Trikaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, a Buddha has three bodies, called dharmakaya, Samb Hoga kaya, and Nirvana kaya. The Nirvana kaya body is also called the “emanation” body because it is the body that appears in the phenomenal world. Shakyamuni is considered a Nirvana kaya Buddha because he was born, and walked the earth, and died.
The samghogakaya body is the body that feels the bliss of enlightenment. A Samb Hoga kaya Buddha is purified of defilement and is free of suffering, yet maintains a distinctive form. The dharmakaya body is beyond form and distinction.
The three bodies actually are one body, however. Although the name Shakyamuni usually is associated with the Nirvana kaya body only, occasionally in some schools Shakyamuni is spoken of as all bodies at once.
Aspects of the story of Buddha’s birth may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was a considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.
The Traditional Tale of the Buddha’s Birth
Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.
One day during a midsummer festival, his wife, Queen Maya, retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream, in which four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.
When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household, he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.
When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings, she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.
On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.
Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them. And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!
Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.
There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol of enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus, in particular, represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions—north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.
Buddha’s Birthday Celebration
In Asia, Buddha’s birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.
Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to reconcile with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism, this is interpreted as the baby Buddha speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Birth of the Buddha.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-birth-of-the-buddha-449783.
The Bhavachakra is a Tibetan Buddhist representation of the “wheel of life,” or cycle of existence. MarenYumi/Flickr
The rich iconography of the Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types—hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues.
In each of the realms, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana.
The gallery shows sections of the Wheel and explains them in more detail.
The Wheel of Life is one of the most common subjects of Buddhist art. The detailed symbolism of the Wheel can be interpreted on many levels.
The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara.
This gallery looks at different parts of the Wheel and explains what they mean. The main sections are the hub and the six “pie wedges” depicting the Six Realms. The gallery also looks at the Buddha figures in the corners and at Yama, the fearsome creature holding the Wheel in his hooves.
Many Buddhists understand the Wheel in an allegorical, not literal, way. As you examine the parts of the wheel you might find yourself relating to some of it personally or recognizing people you know as Jealous Gods or Hell Beings or Hungry Ghosts.
The outer circle of the Wheel (not shown in detail in this gallery) is the Paticca Samuppada, the Links of Dependent Origination. Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pierced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death).
Yama, Lord of the Underworld
The creature holding the Wheel of Life in his hooves is Yama, the wrathful dharmapala who is Lord of the Hell Realm.
The terrible face of Yama, who represents impermanence, peers over the top of the Wheel. In spite of his appearance, Yama is not evil. He is a wrathful dharmapala, a creature devoted to protecting Buddhism and Buddhists. Although we may be frightened of death, it is not evil; just inevitable.
In legend, Yama was a holy man who believed he would realize enlightenment if he meditated in a cave for 50 years. In the 11th month of the 49th year, robbers entered the cave with a stolen bull and cut off the bull’s head. When they realized the holy man had seen them, the robbers cut off his head also.
But the holy man put on the bull’s head and assumed the terrible form of Yama. He killed the robbers, drank their blood, and threatened all of Tibet. He could not be stopped until Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, manifested as the even more terrible dharmapala Yamantaka and defeated Yama. Yama then became a protector of Buddhism.
The Realm of the Gods
The Realm of the Gods (Devas) is the highest realm of the Wheel of Life and is always depicted at the top of the Wheel.
The Realm of the Gods (Devas) sounds like a nice place to live. And, no question, you can do a lot worse. But even the Realm of the Gods isn’t perfect. Those born in the God Realm live long and pleasure-filled lives. They have wealth and power and happiness. So what’s the catch?
The catch is that because the Devas have such rich and happy lives they don’t recognize the truth of suffering. Their happiness is, in a way, a curse, because they have no motivation to seek liberation from the Wheel. Eventually, their happy lives end, and they must face rebirth in another, less happy, realm.
The Devas are perpetually at war with their neighbors on the Wheel, the Asuras. This depiction of the Wheel shows the Devas charging the Asuras.
The Realm of Asuras
The Asura (Jealous God) Realm is marked by paranoia.
Asuras are hyper-competitive and paranoid. They are driven by a desire to beat their competition, and everyone is competition. They have power and resources and sometimes accomplish good things with them. But, always, their first priority is getting to the top. I think of powerful politicians or corporate leaders when I think of Asuras.
Chih-i (538-597), a patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, described the Asura this way: “Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith — this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras.”
Asuras, who are also called “anti-gods,” are perpetually at war with the Devas of the God Realm. Asuras think they belong in the God Realm and fight to get in, although here it seems the Asuras have formed a line of defense and are fighting the attacking Devas with bows and arrows. Some depictions of the Wheel of Life combine the Asura and God realms into one.
Sometimes there is a beautiful tree growing between the two realms, with its roots and trunk in the Asura Realm. But its branches and fruit are in the God Realm.
The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Hungry Ghosts have huge, empty stomachs, but their thin necks don’t allow nourishment to pass. Food turns to fire and ash in their mouths.
Hungry Ghosts (Pretas) are pitable things. They are wasted creatures with huge, empty stomachs. Their necks are too thin to allow food to pass. So, they are constantly hungry.
Greed and jealousy lead to rebirth as a Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghost Realm often, but not always, is depicted between the Asura Realm and the Hell Realm. It is thought the karma of their lives was not quite bad enough for a rebirth in the Hell Realm but not good enough for the Asura Realm.
Psychologically, Hungry Ghosts are associated with addictions, compulsions and obsessions. People who have everything but always want more may be Hungry Ghosts.
The Hell Realm
The Hell Realm is marked by anger, terror and claustrophobia.
The Hell Realm is depicted as a place partly of fire and partly of ice. In the fiery part of the realm, Hell Beings (Narakas) are subjected to pain and torment. In the icy part, they are frozen.
Interpreted psychologically, Hell Beings are recognized by their acute aggression. Fiery Hell Beings are angry and abusive, and they drive away anyone who would befriend or love them. Icy Hell Beings shove others away with their unfeeling coldness. Then, in the torment of their isolation, their aggression increasingly turns inward, and they become self-destructive.
The Animal Realm
Animal Beings (Tiryakas) are solid, regular and predictable. They cling to what is familiar and are disinterested, even fearful, of anything unfamiliar.
The Animal Realm is marked by ignorance and complacency. Animal Beings are stolidly un-curious and are repelled by anything unfamiliar. They go through life seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort. They have no sense of humor.
Animal Beings may find contentment, but they easily become fearful when placed in a new situation. Naturally, they are bigoted and likely to remain so. At the same time, they are subject to oppression by other beings — animals do devour each other, you know.
The Human Realm
Liberation from the Wheel is possible only from the Human Realm.
The Human Realm is marked by questioning and curiosity. It is also a realm of passion; human beings (Manushyas) want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore. Here the Dharma is openly available, yet only a few seek it. The rest become caught up in striving, consuming and acquiring, and miss the opportunity.
At the center of the Wheel of Life are the forces that keep it turning — greed, anger and ignorance.
At the center of every Wheel of Life are a cock, a snake and a pig, which represent greed, anger and ignorance. In Buddhism, greed, anger (or hate) and ignorance are called the “Three Poisons” because they poison whoever harbors them. These are the forces that keep the Wheel of Life turning, according to the Buddha’s teaching of the Second Noble Truth.
The circle outside the center, which is sometimes missing in depictions of the Wheel, is called the Sidpa Bardo, or intermediate state. It is also sometimes called the White Path and the Dark Path. On one side, bodhisattvas guide beings to rebirths in the higher realms of Devas, Gods and Humans. On the other, demons lead beings to the lower realms of Hungry Ghosts, Hell Beings and Animals.
In the upper right-hand corner of the Wheel of Life, the Buddha appears, representing hope for liberation.
In many depictions of the Wheel of Life, the figure in the upper right-hand corner is a Dharmakaya Buddha. The dharmakaya is sometimes called the Truth Body or the Dharma Body and is identified with shunyata. Dharmakaya is everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.
Often this Buddha is shown pointing to the moon, which represents enlightenment. However, in this version the Buddha stands with his hands raised, as if in blessing.
The Door to Nirvana
This depiction of the Wheel of Life shows the entry to Nirvana in the upper left-hand corner.
In the upper left-hand corner of this depiction of the Wheel of Life is a temple with a seated Buddha. A stream of beings rise from the Human Realms toward the temple, which represents Nirvana. Artists creating a Wheel of Life fill this corner in various ways. Sometimes the upper left-hand figure is a Nirmanakaya Buddha, representing bliss. Sometimes the artist paints a moon, which symbolizes liberation.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Wheel of Life.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-wheel-of-life-4123213.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas are icons of Mahayana Buddhism. These transcendent Buddhas are visualized in tantric meditation and appear in Buddhist iconography.
The five Buddhas are Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasaṃbhava, and Vairocana. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation.
Often in Vajrayana art, they are arranged in a mandala, with Vairocana in the center. The other Buddhas are depicted in each of the four directions (north, south, east, and west).
Each Dhyani Buddha has a specific color and symbol which represent his meanings and the purpose for meditating on him. Mudras, or hand gestures, are also used in Buddhist art to distinguish one Buddha from another and convey the appropriate teaching.
1. Akshobhya Buddha: “Immovable One”
Akshobhya was a monk who vowed never to feel anger or disgust toward another being. He was immovable in keeping this vow. After striving for a long period, he became a Buddha.
Akshobhya is a heavenly Buddha who reigns over the Eastern paradise, Abhirati. Those who fulfill Akshobhya’s vow are reborn in Abhirati and cannot fall back into lower states of consciousness.
It’s important to note that the directional ‘paradises’ are understood to be a state of mind, not physical places.
Depictions of Akshobhya
In Buddhist iconography, Akshobhya is usually blue though sometimes gold. He is most often pictured touching the earth with his right hand. This is the earth-touching mudra, which is the gesture used by the historical Buddha when he asked the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.
In his left hand, Akshobhya holds a vajra, the symbol of shunyata — an absolute reality that is all things and beings, unmanifested. Akshobhya is also associated with the fifth skandha, consciousness.
In Buddhist tantra, evoking Akshobhya in meditation helps overcome anger and hatred.
2. Amitabha Buddha: “Infinite Light”
Amitabha Buddha, who is also called Amita or Amida Buddha, is probably the best known of the Dhyani Buddhas. In particular, devotion to Amitabha is at the center of Pure Land Buddhism, one of the largest schools of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia.
In a long-ago time, Amitabha was a king who renounced his kingdom to become a monk. Called Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the monk practiced diligently for five eons and realized enlightenment and became a buddha.
Amitabha Buddha reigns over Sukhavati (the Western paradise) which is also called the Pure Land. Those reborn in the Pure Land experience the joy of hearing Amitabha teach the dharma until they are ready to enter Nirvana.
Depictions of Amitabha
Amitabha symbolizes mercy and wisdom. He is associated with the third skandha, that of perception. Tantric meditation on Amitabha is an antidote to desire. He is sometimes pictured in between the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.
In Buddhist iconography, Amitabha’s hands are most often in a meditation mudra: fingers barely touching and gently folded over the lap with palms facing upward. His red color symbolizes love and compassion and his symbol is the lotus, representing gentleness and purity.
3. Amoghasiddhi Buddha: “Almighty Conqueror”
In the “Bardo Thodol” — the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” — Amoghasiddhi Buddha appears to represent the accomplishment of all action. His name means ‘Infalliable Success” and his consort is the well-known Green Tara, in the ‘Noble Deliverer.’
Amoghasiddhi Buddha reigns in the North and is associated with the fourth skandha, volition or mental formations. This can also be interpreted as impulses, which is strongly associated with action. Meditation on Amoghasiddhi Buddha vanquishes envy and jealousy, two often impulsive actions.
Depictions of Amoghasiddhi
Amoghasiddhi is most often depicted in Buddhist iconography as radiating a green light, which is the light of accomplishing wisdom and promoting peace. His hand gesture is the mudra of fearlessness: his right hand in front of his chest and palm facing outward as if to say ‘stop.’
He holds a crossed vajra, also called a double dorje or the thunderbolt. This represents accomplishment and fulfillment in all directions.
4. Ratnasambhava Buddha: “Jewel-Born One”
Ratnasambhava Buddha represents richness. His name translates to “Origin of Jewel” or the “Jewel-Born One.” In Buddhism, the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and Ratnasambhava is often thought of as the giving Buddha.
He reigns in the South and is associated with the second skandha, sensation. Meditation on Ratnasambhava Buddha vanquishes pride and greed, focusing instead on equality.
Depictions of Ratnasambhava
Ratnasambhava Buddha has a yellow color which symbolizes earth and fertility in Buddhist iconography. He often holds a wish-fulfilling jewel.
He holds his hands in the wish-fulfilling mudra: his right hand facing down and the palm outward and his left in the mudra of meditation. This symbolizes generosity.
5. Vairocana Buddha: “Embodiment of Light”
Vairocana Buddha is sometimes called the primordial Buddha or Supreme Buddha. He is thought to be the embodiment of all the Dhyani Buddhas; also everything and everywhere, omnipresent and omniscient.
He represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness. Vairocana is considered a personification of the dharmakaya — everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.
He is associated with the first skandha, form. Meditation on Vairocana vanquishes ignorance and delusion, leading to wisdom.
Depictions of Vairocana
When the Dhyani Buddhas are pictured together in a mandala, Vairocana is at the center.
Vairocana is white, representing all colors of light and all the Buddhas. His symbol is the Dharma wheel, which, at its most basic, represents the study of the dharma, practice through meditation, and moral discipline.
His hand gesture is known as the Dharmachakra mudra and is often reserved for the iconography of either Vairocana or the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The mudra represents the turning of the wheel and places the hands so that the thumbs and index fingers touch at the tips to form a wheel.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Five Dhyani Buddhas.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-five-dhyani-buddhas-4123189.
Taktsang Palphug Monastery, also called Paro Taktsang or The Tiger’s Nest, clings to a sheer cliff more than 10 thousand feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Bhutan. From this monastery there is about a 3,000 foot drop to the Paro Valley, below. The original temple complex was built in 1692, but the legends surrounding Taktsang are much older.
Taktsang marks the entrance of a cave where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Padmasambhava is credited with bringing Buddhist teachings to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century.
2. Sri Dalada Maligawa: The Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was built in 1595 to hold the single most sacred object in all of Sri Lanka — a tooth of the Buddha. The tooth is said to have reached Sri Lanka in the 4th century, and in its complex history was moved several times and even stolen (but returned).
The tooth has not left the temple or been displayed to the public for a very long time. However, every summer it is celebrated in an elaborate festival, and a replica of the tooth is placed in a golden casket and carried through the streets of Kandy on the back of a large and elaborately decorated elephant, festooned with lights.
3. Angkor Wat: A Long-Hidden Treasure
When construction began in the 12th century Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was intended to be a Hindu temple, but it was rededicated to Buddhism in the 13th century. At that time it was in the heart of the Khmer empire. But by the 15th century water shortages forced the Khmer to relocate, and the beautiful temple was abandoned except by a few Buddhist monks. In time much of the temple was reclaimed by the jungle.
It is renowned today for its exquisite beauty and for being the largest religious monument in the world. However, until the mid-19th century it was known only to Cambodians. The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.
4. Borobudur: A Massive Temple Lost and Found
This massive temple was built on the Indonesian island of Java in the 9th century, and to this day it is considered the largest entirely Buddhist temple in the world (Angkor Wat is Hindu and Buddhist). Borobudur covers 203 acres and consists of six square and three circular platforms, topped by a dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and hundreds of Buddha statues. The meaning of the name “Borobudur” has been lost to time.
The entire temple almost was lost to time as well. It was abandoned in the 14th century and the magnificent temple was reclaimed by the jungle and forgotten. All that seemed to remain was a local legend of a mountain of a thousand statues. In 1814 the British governor of Java heard the story of the mountain and, intrigued, arranged for an expedition to find it.
Today Borobudur is a United Nation World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
5. Shwedagon Pagoda: An Inspirer of Legend
The great Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) is a kind of reliquary, or stupa, as well as a temple. It is believed to contain relics not only of the historical Buddha but also of three Buddhas who preceded him. The pagoda is 99 feet fall and plated with gold.
According to Burmese legend, the original pagoda was built 26 centuries ago by a king who had faith a new Buddha had been born. During his reign two merchant brothers met the Buddha in India and told him about the pagoda built in his honor. The Buddha then pulled out eight of his own hairs to be housed in the pagoda. When the casket containing the hairs was opened in Burma, many miraculous things happened.
Historians believe the original pagoda actually was built some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. It has been rebuilt several times; the current structure was built after an earthquake brought down the previous one in 1768.
6. Jokhang, the Holiest Temple of Tibet
According to legend, Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in the 7th century by a King of Tibet to please two of his wives, a princess of China and a princess of Nepal, who were Buddhists. Today historians tell us the princess of Nepal probably never existed. Even so, Jokhang remains a monument to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet.
The Chinese princess, Wenchen, brought with her a statue said to have been blessed by the Buddha. The statue, called the Jowo Shakyamuni or Jowo Rinpoche, is considered the most sacred object in Tibet and remains enshrined in Jokhang to this day.
7. Sensoji and the Mysterious Golden Statue
Long ago, about 628 CE, two brothers fishing in the Sumida River netted a tiny golden statue of Kanzeon, or Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy. Some versions of this story say the brothers repeatedly put the statue back into the river, only to net it again.
Sensoji was built in honor of the bodhisattva, and the tiny golden statue is said to be enshrined there, although the statue the public may view is acknowledged to be a replica. The original temple was completed in 645, which makes it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
In 1945, during World War II, bombs dropped from American B-29s destroyed much of Tokyo, including Sensoji. The present structure was built after the war with donations from the Japanese people. On the temple grounds there is a tree growing from the remains of a tree hit by a bomb. The tree is cherished as a symbol of the undying spirit of Sensoji.
8. Nalanda: A Lost Center of Learning
Eight centuries after its tragic destruction, Nalanda remains the most famous learning center in Buddhist history. Located in the present-day Bihar state of India, in Nalanda’s heyday the quality of its teachers attracted students from all over the Buddhist world.
It’s not clear when the first monastery was built at Nalanda, but one appears to have been there by the 3rd century CE. By the 5th century it had become a magnet for Buddhist scholars and had grown into something like a modern-day university. Students there not only studied Buddhism but also medicine, astrology, mathematics, logic and languages. Nalanda remained a dominant learning center until 1193, when it was destroyed by a nomadic army of Muslim Turks of central Asia. It is said that Nalanda’s vast library, full of irreplaceable manuscripts, smoldered for six months. Its destruction also marked the end of Buddhism in India until modern times.
Today the excavated ruins may be visited by tourists. But the memory of Nalanda still attracts attention. Presently some scholars are raising money to rebuild a new Nalanda near the ruins of the old one.
9. Shaolin, Home of Zen and Kung Fu
Yes, China’s Shaolin Temple is a real Buddhist temple, not a fiction created by martial arts movies. The monks there have practiced martial arts for many centuries, and they developed a unique style called Shaolin kung fu. Zen Buddhism was born there, established by Bodhidharma, who had come to China from India early in the 6th century. It doesn’t get more legendary than Shaolin.
History says Shaolin was first established in 496, a few years before Bodhidharma arrived. The buildings of the monastery complex have been rebuilt many times, most recently after they were gutted during the Cultural Revolution.
10. Mahabodhi: Where the Buddha Realized Enlightenment
Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and realized enlightenment, more than 25 centuries ago. “Mahabodhi” means “great awakening.” Next to the temple is a tree said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. The tree and temple are located in Bodhgaya, in the Bihar state of India.
The original Mahabodhi Temple was built by the Emperor Ashoka about 260 BCE. In spite of its significance in the Buddha’s life, the site was largely abandoned after the 14th century, but in spite of neglect it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India. It was restored in the 19th century and is protected today as a UN World Heritage Site.
Buddhist legend says that Mahabodhi sits on the naval of the world; when the world is destroyed at the end of the age it will be the last place to disappear, and when a new world takes the place of this one, this same spot will be the first place to reappear.
11. Jetavana, or Jeta Grove: The First Buddhist Monastery?
The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License
The ruins of Jetavana are what is left of what may have been the first Buddhist monastery. Here the historical Buddha gave many of the sermons recorded in the Sutta-pitaka.
Jetavana, or Jeta Grove, is where the disciple Anathapindika purchased land more than 25 centuries ago and built a place for the Buddha and his followers to live during the rainy season. The rest of the year the Buddha and his disciples traveled from village to village, teaching (see “The First Buddhist Monks”).
The site today is a historical park, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders Nepal. The tree in the photograph is the Anandabodhi Tree, believed to have been grown from a sapling of the tree that sheltered the Buddha when he realized enlightenment.