Articles About Tibetan Thangka Painting and Visionary Art - index:

An Introduction to Tibetan Thangka Painting

What is a Thangka?

Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

The Mandala And Its Symbolism

Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

The Wheel Of Life

Visionary Art, Cosmology and the Tree of Life

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The Wheel Of Life

The Wheel of Life (Tib: Sipai Khorlo), or "Wheel of Existence", is possibly the oldest of all the images painted in Tibetan Buddhism, it is said to have originated when King Bimbisara of Magadha asked the Buddha what he might give to a neighbouring king after receiving a precious gift. The Buddha explained how to draw the Wheel of Life and it was then given in return. The image had such a profound effect that it soon became widely known throughout the kingdom. The image was then used as an aid to meditation and teaching for travelling monks as they visited scattered villages to spread the Buddha's teachings, a practice which is still in use today. The image is a detailed representation of the ways in which suffering and dissatisfaction occur in the world as a result of states of mind and perceptions, which are based on ignorance of the true nature of reality. The Wheel shows both our internal and external conditions and the situations arising from our desires in which we are caught in a cycle of physical and mental suffering. The way to gain liberation from this cycle exists in our ability to understand the causes of suffering through practising wisdom and compassion, symbolised respectively in the painting by the sun above the hand of the Buddha and by the moon to which he is pointing. This combined with the realisation and acceptance of the transitory nature of all phenomena will lead us to embody the essentially pure state of our own mind.

Aspects and symbolism of the painting:

Yama, the "Lord of Death", who presides over all realms, holds the Wheel of Life - his presence is a constant reminder that all things in the world are impermanent. Around the outside of the wheel are twelve pictures, showing the twelve Interdependent Links - a cycle of thoughts and actions, which keep us trapped in a narrow, restrictive view of the world - these are states of mind which are based on the mis-perception that our identity and reality are fixed, leading to our trying to reach for certain experiences and to reject others. Within this outer circle are depicted six realms of existence: the realms of gods, demi-gods, animals, humans, "hungry ghosts" and the hell realm.

The painting shows the many ways in which beings in each realm suffer and can affect their future by acting out of ignorance. The gods live in a perfect physical world or "Pure Land" full of sensory delights, in which there is no physical suffering until the last seven days of their lives. In this world they live only for themselves and then suffer enormously as each of their luxuries and comforts are lost and they are haunted by the fearful vision of being reborn in the lower realms. The demi-gods live in a pleasant world, but suffer due to their hierarchical society and their envy of the gods with whom they can be seen constantly fighting.

The human realm shows the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death as well as the ways in which the pleasures we find in our lives soon pass away and we are often affected by mental suffering of many kinds. In the lower three realms are the "hungry ghosts", never satisfied with what they have and finding that every effort to satisfy their desire, hunger or thirst only causes further pain and misery. Then there is the animal realm, where animals suffer due to their need to search for and compete for food, the constant fear of being killed by another and at the hands of humans exploiting them in many different ways.

Lastly there is the hell realm, where a being's past deeds are measured and the physical sufferings are excruciating and diverse, coupled with the huge mental suffering of feeling that the experience of pain will never end. All of the experiences of beings within the six realms exist in the human mind, therefore it is said that a human lifetime gives one the best opportunity to gain enlightenment. At the centre of the painting is shown the bardo, the realm that exists between lifetimes. This is where the mind of a being, which survives death, awaits rebirth into one of the six realms depending on the effects of imprints left by actions in previous lives. This idea, when first taught by Shakyamuni, challenged the Hindu belief that once a certain level of spiritual (and therefore societal) attainment had been reached one could not move back "down the ladder" to a lifetime of greater suffering.

The Buddha taught that one's present actions and attitudes would have a direct effect on future experience in this life or the next. If we die out of control of our consciousness we cannot control our rebirth and so will be forced to repeat the cycle of suffering again. Around the inner circle can be seen the souls of the six different beings moving towards their next incarnation and at the centre are three animals, which represent the three root delusions - a pig (ignorance), a pigeon (desirous attachment) and a snake (anger). The pigeon and snake appear from the mouth of the pig, showing that attachment and hatred both stem from ignorance of the true state of reality. At the bottom of the painting are written stanzas of Buddha Shakyamuni's teaching stating that, in summary, through moral discipline, concentration and wisdom all suffering can be eliminated. By the realisation of ignorance as the cause of all suffering a true practitioner can overcome the Lord of Death as easily 'as an elephant destroys a grass hut'. Modern depictions of the painting occasionally include aspects from the modern world, for example, in the six realms of existence there might be images of modern civilisation alongside traditional Tibetan motifs; this helps to demonstrate the relevance of Buddhist philosophy to the people of today. The Wheel of Life therefore contains symbolism reflecting the essence of the Buddha's teaching and, once understood, acts as a clear guide for anyone wishing to follow the Buddhist path.

by Peter "Zotec" Newman ©2002-2009


Singer & Denwood - "Tibetan Art, towards a definition of style". (Laurence King) [p.265]

Weber, A. & Landaw, J. - "Images of Enlightenment, Tibetan Art in Practice". (Snow Lion) [pp.9,18,29-36,128]

Vessantara - "Meeting the Buddhas". (Windhorse Publications) [p.44]

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