Think of it as a kind of cosmic hamster wheel — like those little wire wheels that caged hamsters run around in, never getting anywhere. Tibetan Buddhists call it the Wheel of Life, and it represents the endless cycle of birth and rebirth that souls experience before achieving Nirvana. The Wheel of Life is divided into six segments, each representing a spiritual condition that a soul is born into. There is the realm of the animals for those who are driven primarily by instinct, the realm of the hungry ghosts for those governed by their cravings, the realm of the hellish beings for those consumed by rage. And so on. At the center of the wheel are a cock, a snake and a pig, symbolizing greed, anger and ignorance, the three propellants that keep the wheel churning.
The highest segment you can be born into is the realm of the gods, located at the top of the wheel. This is the realm where souls with good karma go to live happily ever after. They seemingly lead a charmed life: rich, powerful, without a care in the world. They are apt to congratulate themselves on their worldly accomplishments and assume that God smiles on them. They do not realize that the whole thing is a setup. Their pride and complacency have blinded them to the reality of human suffering. They eventually discover that living happily ever after does not extend to the hereafter, when they find themselves reborn somewhere lower down on the cosmic hamster wheel.
I am reminded of a classic Twilight Zone episode in which a petty thief named Rocky Valentine unaccountably finds himself in heaven after being shot while fleeing the scene of a crime. His supposed guardian angel shows him to his luxurious new quarters, decks him out in a snappy new wardrobe and introduces him to seductive young women. He has all the money he ever dreamed of. He tries his luck at the roulette table and slot machines and discovers he can’t lose. At first he is overjoyed but then eventually grows bored with his unending string of good luck.· “I don’t belong in heaven, see,” he finally tells his guardian angel.· “I want to go to the other place. · His companion reacts with mock surprise. “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place.“
Gautama Buddha grew up in circumstances that very much resembled the realm of the gods. He was born Prince Siddhartha in India in the sixth century B.C.E., and his parents did their best to shield him from the ugly realities of life. The young Siddhartha knew nothing of poverty, old age or death. They were a revelation to him once he ventured out into the wider world. Unlike denizens of the god realm who are oblivious to human suffering, Siddhartha recognized that it lay at the heart of the human condition. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are all directly concerned with the reality of suffering and the path to its cessation, which gets you off the cosmic hamster wheel.
In Buddhism, suffering is simply a fact of life and not evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. Buddhists do not believe in a personal god, so there is no higher power to blame for one’s predicament or to pray to for deliverance from pain. This enables them to focus on ending their suffering rather than indulging in unanswerable questions about why they are made to suffer.
The Old Testament’s Book of Job highlights some of the drawbacks to this latter approach, as Job and his friends wrangle exhaustively over who is to blame for his suffering. Job does not dispute God’s right to deal with him as he will. But he feels he is at least owed an explanation, which is never forthcoming. This is perhaps just as well, since God appears to have acted on a whim, betting Satan that Job would remain faithful in spite of everything.
St. Jerome set the keynote for much Christian understanding of suffering in this life when he first used the term “vale of tears” in his 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible. Until Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, Christians had been viciously persecuted both by Jews and Romans. St. Paul, author of many of the New Testament epistles, stirred up animosity wherever he went. He was stoned, beaten, vilified, shipwrecked, jailed and eventually killed. Yet he appeared at times almost to revel in his misfortunes, writing, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Our mistake is to think that salvation lies in the avoidance of pain. “You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you,” the 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade instructed. If you find yourself in a place where you are feeling no pain — watch out! You are in the realm of the gods, and there is nowhere to go from there but down.
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment