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A3 16.5 x 11.7 inches
(420 x 297 mm)
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Wheel of Life :

This didactic composition of the Wheel of Life, Becoming or Existence (Skt. bhavachakra; Tib. srid-pa’i ‘khor-lo), was painted by Pema Dorje, and illustrates the Buddha’s essential teachings on impermanence and the sufferings of all being within samsara or cyclic existence. The components of this diagrammatic wheel are its hub, representing the three primary poisons or emotional defilements; its inner ring, representing karma; its main circle representing the six realms of cyclic existence; and its outer ring, representing the ‘twelve links of dependent origination’.

The black pig (wind), green snake (fire), and red cockerel (water) within the central black hub of the wheel, represent the three elemental poisons of ignorance, aversion, and attachment. These three creatures chase and bite each other’s tails, indicating how these three potent poisons give rise to an endless array of self-perpetuating cycles of delusion, craving and hostility.

The second ring shows human beings in the ‘intermediate state’ (bardo) between death and rebirth, who are conditioned by their own karmic consequences. In the white half of the ring monastic and lay practitioners ascend towards the three fortunate upper realms of the gods, asuras, and humans. While in the grey half of the ring naked and bound humans are dragged by fierce red demons towards the three miserable lower realms of the animals, hungry ghosts, and hell denizens.

The environments and sufferings of the six realms are graphically illustrated in the wide third ring of the wheel. The combined realms of the asuras and gods (upper left and top) are conditioned by jealousy and pride, with the envious asuras or ‘jealous gods’ fighting an endless war with the proud gods over possession of the great ‘wish-granting tree’ that divides their realms. The human realm (upper right) is conditioned by attachment and eight kinds of suffering that include illness, old age and death. Creatures in the animal realm (lower right) are conditioned by ignorance or stupidity. The hungry ghosts or tormented spirits (lower left) are conditioned by intense avarice or craving, which is symbolized by the mirages of the barren desert in which they abide, where water turns to puss or fire, while their pinhole mouths, huge stomachs, thin necks and limbs keep them in a constant state of hunger, thirst and weakness. The hell realms (bottom center) are conditioned by intense aversion or hostility, where Yama the ‘Lord of the Dead’ presides, and where the black and white deeds of those dragged before him are weighed in a balance. Depending on the heavy karmic weight of their symbolic black pebbles, unfortunate beings are then condemned to enter one of the eight hot or eight cold hells, which get progressively more severe and enduring in their degrees of self-created karmic retribution.

However, within each of the six realms one of the ‘Six Sages’ manifests in the form of a standing Buddha, whose colour and symbolic attributes relate to that particular realm. White Indra-Sakra is the sage of the god realm, who plays upon a lute that overcomes pride. Green Vemacitra is the sage of the asura realm, who holds armor and a sword that vanquishes envy. Yellow Shakyamuni is the sage of the human realm, who holds a monastic staff and alms-bowl as symbols of the renunciation that overcomes attachment. Blue Sthirasimha is the sage of the animal realm, who holds a book of wisdom to counteract ignorance. Red Jvalamukha is the sage of the hungry ghost realm, who holds a casket of gems and manifests a royal palace to overcome miserliness and avarice. Black Yama Dharmaraja is the sage of the hell realms, who holds a conch-shell full of water and a flame to vanquish the burning hatred and icy malice of the various hell realms.

Around the outer ring of the wheel are cartouche-like illustrations that symbolically represent the Buddhist doctrine of the ‘twelve links of dependent origination’. These links reveal how karmic tendencies, emotional defilements and conditions gives rise to an endless chain that propels beings through continuous cycles of birth, death and rebirth within the six realms of cyclic existence. Circling clockwise from the bottom centre, these twelve links show: (1) a blind man being led (primordial ignorance); (2) a potter (habitual propensities); (3) two playful monkeys (consciousness); (4) two men being ferried in a boat (name and form); (5) an empty house with five windows (five sensory fields); (6) a couple touching (contact); (7) blinded by an arrow in one eye (feelings of pleasure and pain); (8) drinking alcohol (craving); (9) a man picking fruit (grasping); (10) a woman with infants (becoming); (11) childbirth (birth); (12) a corpse being carried to a cemetery (ageing and death).

The entire ‘Wheel of Life’ is clutched in the claws of a ferocious purple demon (mara) that devours the wheel with his sharp teeth to illustrate the impermanent nature of all phenomena within cyclic existence. In the upper right corner of the painting is Shakyamuni Buddha, who stands outside the wheel and points towards a moon-like eight-spoke wheel or dharmachakra, representing the Buddha’s teachings on the ‘Eightfold Noble Path’ that leads to complete liberation from samsara.

At the bottom of this painting is a Tibetan inscription on a red plaque, which begins with the verse: “With the application of effort, in order to get out (of the wheel of samsara), one should engage in the teachings of the Buddha. Whoever practices on the path of discipline with conscientious mindfulness, just like an elephant in a house of straw, the hosts of the Lord of Death will be vanquished. And having completely abandoned the cycle of rebirth, one will arrive at the end of suffering.”

Then follows a list of key points to be identified within this painting: “The realms of the gods, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells. Ignorance, formative actions, consciousness, name and form, sense bases, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, existence, birth, ageing, and death (the twelve links). The three poisons: the path to liberation and the way to the lower realms. The hell of black lines, crushing, heat, great heat, reviving, wailing, great wailing, moaning, teeth chattering, bursting blisters, blue lotus-like, lotus-like, and great lotus-like bursting blister hells.”

© text by Robert Beer