I and most other sentient beings are suffering in this circle of interdependent origination. Its root is ignorance, which is the complete opposite of the Dharma wisdom that perceives the absolute reality.
1 Ignorance (ma-rig-pa)
The blind man shown on the wheel of life symbolizes the ignorant person, who does not see where he is going, where he will be reborn, what he has suffered or what he will suffer in rebirth. Ignorance is the cause of the 84,000 delusions.
There are two kinds of ignorance:
Ignorance of absolute truth, which binds me more strongly to samsara. The main purpose of all the teachings of Guru Shakyamuni is to remove ignorance by the realization of absolute truth, just as the main purpose of medicine is to remove sickness.
Ignorance of karma arises from ignorance of absolute truth; it causes rebirth in the three lower realms.
2 Karmic formation
Ignorance generates karmic formation. This is symbolized by a man producing clay pots. Just as a clay pot can be fashioned into many sizes and shapes, so does the creation of different karmas bring different results.
Karma may be meritorious, unmeritorious or indifferent.
3 Consciousness (nam-she)
Karmic formation generates consciousness. This is symbolized by a monkey with fruit in its hand, swinging from tree to tree, to show that consciousness, bearing karmic impressions, joins past to present and present to future. The monkey is uncontrolled, impure, because its outlook depends on its position in the tree, just as my consciousness depends on karma. Consciousness is the mind, which perceives the different aspects of objects.
There are six kinds of consciousness: those of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.
4 Name and form (ming-zug)
Consciousness generates name (mind) and form (body). This is symbolized by a man rowing a boat, and shows that to do so, many conditions such as the boat, the oarsman, the ocean, etc., are necessary. Similarly, name and form could not exist without the five skandhas (aggregates).
The skandha of form (zug-kyi p’ung-po) is the fertilized egg, and the skandhas of feeling (tsor-wä p’ung-po), of cognition (du-she kyi p’ung-po), of compounded phenomena (volition) (du-j’e kyi p’ung-po) and of consciousness (nam-she p’ung-po), inhabiting the fertilized egg, are the name.
5 Six sense organs (kye-ch’e-dr’ug)
Name and form generate the six sense organs. This is symbolized by an empty house. From the distance the house looks full and lived in, but it is empty. Similarly, the six sense organs are empty because they are meaningless without an object.
For the six sense organs there are also six outer objects and six inner sense bases.
6 Contact (reg-pa)
Six sense organs generate contact. This is symbolized by the contact of a man and a woman, the meeting of sense organs with their objects. There are six contacts.
7 Feeling (tsor-wa)
Contact generates feeling. This is symbolized by a man with an arrow in his eye, who is suffering because of his contact with an object. Without contact there is no feeling; therefore, if my mind is uncontrolled, I am better off to avoid contact with objects that lead to more greed and further suffering. This is why Guru Shakyamuni, with great compassion, made the rule that one should be well contained and have few possessions.
There are three kinds of feeling: suffering, happiness, and indifference.
8 Craving (se.pa)
Contact and feeling generate craving. This is symbolized by a man drinking wine. Just as this man’s thirst is never satisfied, so the person deluded by greed is never satisfied and craves more things. This greed ruins the present and many future lives.
There are three kinds of craving, and all cause suffering: desiring release from fear and ugly objects, desiring no release from beautiful objects to which I am attached, and attachment to the body, fearing loss of the "I" at death.
9 Grasping (len-pa)
Craving generates grasping. This is symbolized by a monkey picking fruit from a tree. Having tasted one fruit, he clings to the tree for more and more. Grasping is created by craving and procreates becoming, just as human beings grasp at and cling to their physical bodies. This grasping causes greed, hatred and ignorance, bringing much suffering.
There are four kinds of grasping, all of which cause suffering: attachment to beauty, attachment to wrong beliefs or doctrines—such as the belief that karma, and past and future lives are non-existent—clinging to the wrong conception of the self-existent "I," and holding the belief that non-virtues, such as sacrificing living beings or using sexual happiness, are pure methods of receiving liberation.
10 Becoming (si-pa)
Grasping at the body generates becoming. This is symbolized by a pregnant woman. The greater my attachment to the physical body, the sooner will rebirth come. The becoming caused by ignorance is strengthened because craving and grasping conditioned it.
There are four kinds of becoming, all under the control of delusion and karma: the becoming of rebirth, the becoming of death, the becoming of the intermediate state, and the becoming of lifetime.
11 Rebirth (kye-wa)
Becoming generates rebirth. This is symbolized by a woman giving birth. The skandhas are determined by delusion and karma, and determine the form of the present rebirth.
There are four kinds of rebirth: in the womb, from an egg, by heat, and intuitive, i.e., not needing the bodies of parents.
12 Old age (ga-wa) and death (ch’i-wa)
Birth usually generates old age. This is symbolized by an old man walking with a cane. Becoming old is the result of delusion and karma.
Birth or old age generate death. This is symbolized by a corpse. Death ends the life, and the round of existence circles again.
I do not desire suffering, so I must stop circling in samsara. To do so I must overcome delusion and karma. Ignorance leads to action, which leaves impressions on the consciousness. The results of those may appear in this lifetime, the next, or in subsequent lives.
The complete round of the twelve links of dependent origination may be completed in two or three lifetimes. An example follows:
In this lifetime I ignorantly create the karma for rebirth as a rat, this impression being left on my consciousness. But for the rest of my life I give up attachment to the samsaric life, become celibate and keep the precepts purely. So the craving, grasping and becoming of the rat rebirth are interrupted by those of the desired perfect human rebirth.
I am reborn human, living in perfect chance, and the seven results from the dependence of a perfect human rebirth finish with this second life. But as this life is not spent in pure practice, rebirth as a rat occurs because its craving, grasping and becoming are now the strongest. In this
life the dependence of the rat finishes.
Two deluded actions (links 2 and 10) arise from three deluded causes (links 1, 8 and 9); seven uncontrolled results (links 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11 and 12) arise from those two deluded actions. Again three deluded causes arise from these seven results. Such a wheel of life goes round and round.
"Despite the fact that we are a ceaselessly transforming stream, interdependent with other beings and the whole world, we imagine that there exists in us an unchanging entity that characterizes us and that we must protect and please. A thorough analysis of this reveals that it is only a fictitious mental construct".
Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche.