About the Artwork

This Wheel of Life thangka was probably painted in Eastern or Central Tibet in the late 19th or early 20th century, and is perhaps one of the most complete renditions of this didactic composition that have ever been painted, particularly in its accurate depiction of the six realms of cyclic existence.

In the central hub of the wheel are a pig, a cockerel and a snake, which represent the three primary defilements of ignorance, desire and aversion. These three creatures chase and bite each other's tails, indicating how primordial ignorance gives rise to desire and to aversion, which then give rise to endless and self-perpetuating cycles of delusion, craving and hostility. In the second circle are five naked human forms and a buffalo, which represent beings in the 'intermediate state' (bardo) that rise and fall as they take rebirth into one of the six realms.

The environments, characteristics and sufferings of these six realms are graphically depicted in the wide third circle of the painting: with the three 'higher realms' of combined jealous-gods or asuras (left) and gods or devas (top), and the human realm (right), appearing in the wheel's upper half. And the three 'lower realms' of the hungry ghosts or pretas (left), hell realms (bottom), and animal realm (right) in the lower half of the wheel.

The entire 'Wheel of Life or Existence' (bhavachakra) is grasped in the claws of a wrathful red demon (mara) that devours the wheel with his sharp teeth to symbolize the ultimate impermanence or temporality of all cyclic existence. In the upper left corner of the painting is Shakyamuni Buddha, who stands outside the wheel and points towards a full moon, symbolizing the path to enlightenment that will lead to complete liberation from samsara. In the upper right corner appears the Pure Land of Sukhavati, which is presided over Amitabha Buddha and his two attendant bodhisattvas. A white pathway leads from beneath the skull-walled 'judgment court of Yama' in the hell realm to Amitabha's heavenly paradise, upon which ascend those fortunate monks and devotees that follow the practices of the Pure Land tradition.

© text by Robert Beer

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