A Visual Explanation of Buddhist Cosmology

Eric Huntington
Wrathful deity holds wheel decorated with five main scenes and multitude of smaller scenes and portraits

Wheel of Existence, detail showing image area; Tibet; early 20th century; pigments on cloth; image area 31-7/8 × 23-1/8 in. (81 × 58.7 cm), with brocade frame 65-5/8 × 40¾ × 1½ in. (166.7 × 103.5 × 3.8 cm); Rubin Museum of Art; C2004.21.1 (HAR65356)

Wheel of Existence

Central Tibet ca. early 20th century

Wheel of Existence, detail showing image area; Tibet; early 20th century; pigments on cloth; image area 31-7/8 × 23-1/8 in. (81 × 58.7 cm), with brocade frame 65-5/8 × 40¾ × 1½ in. (166.7 × 103.5 × 3.8 cm); Rubin Museum of Art; C2004.21.1 (HAR65356)

Summary

Buddhist Studies scholar Eric Huntington explores one of the most recognizable and longstanding visual explanations of Buddhist conceptions of the world: the Wheel of Existence. A fierce demonic figure grasps the wheel to signify that all forms of life are subject to death—that everything is impermanent. Painted on portable cloth or displayed on the outer walls of monasteries, such images are meant to educate the public about key ideas in Buddhism, such as interdependence, and the laws of cause and effect.

Key Terms

Buddhism

Buddhism is founded on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime between the sixth and fourteenth century BCE in northern India. Buddhists believe that sentient life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but that if one achieves a state of awakening or nirvana, it is possible to escape this cycle. Buddhists refer to the Buddha’s teachings as the Dharma. There are many different traditions or denominations of Buddhism, including Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Scholars also discuss regional traditions, such as Indian Buddhism, Newar Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and so on.

chakra

Wheels are an important symbol in Buddhism, which often refers to the Buddha’s teachings as “turning the wheel of the Dharma.” When depicted in the hands of a deity or human, a wheel can also denote political power, symbolizing the chakravartin or universal ruler. In the Hindu tradition, the chakra is an ancient weapon, carried by gods such as Vishnu. Chakras can also refer to focal points in the human body; in both Hindu and Buddhist systems of yogic meditation, practitioners channel the energies of the body through these points to obtain higher states of consciousness.

hell realms

In Buddhism, the hell realms are the lowest portions of samsara, or the wheel of reincarnation. Different texts give different accounts of these realms, but a standard list says that there are eight cold and eight hot hells. Beings are reborn into these realms due to their negative karma, and although they may spend many eons there, eventually they will die and be reborn elsewhere.

impermanence

Impermanence is a core concept in Buddhism. The Buddha taught that all beings, things, and thoughts are constantly appearing, changing, and passing away in samsara. We suffer because we are attached to these unstable things. In Madhyamaka philosophy, impermanence is a central part of the doctrine of emptiness.

karma

Hinduism and Buddhism both hold that actions (Skt. karma) have inevitable results which may take a shorter or longer time to occur. Mental, verbal, and physical actions all have positive or negative consequences and are considered karma. Depending on conditions, karma can manifest results either in this or future lives. Karma directly relates to the idea of reincarnation, and positive karma can also create religious merit and lead to a better rebirth, while negative actions, or karma, result in worse experiences in the present and future lives. Buddhists strive to achieve enlightenment to escape this cycle of karmic action and consequence.

nirvana

Nirvana is said to be a state beyond the cycle of reincarnation (Skt. samsara). It is defined as the end of suffering of being born, living, dying, and being reborn, and the ultimate goal for Buddhist practitioners. The Buddha achieved this state meditating beneath the bodhi tree, and his followers aim to advance to that state by gradually clearing out their karmic limitations. Different Buddhist traditions variously characterize nirvana, indicting several levels of awakening, from achieving peace to utterly transcending both the suffering of samsara and the peace of nirvana.

samsara

In Buddhism and Hinduism, samsara is the phenomenal world in which we live, and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In Buddhism, samsara refers to the six realms of existence in which beings can be born according to their karma: as hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods (Skt. asura), and gods. The central goal of Buddhism is to escape the suffering of samsara by achieving nirvana, a state beyond this cycle of rebirths.

The wheel of existence is one of the most recognizable and long-standing visual explanations of Buddhist conceptions of the world. It carefully diagrams the causes and conditions of life, the problems of life, and hints for how to resolve the problems. The main impact of the image is to educate viewers about the key ideas of , and early texts even state that the wheel of existence should be displayed on exterior  walls with a monk posted nearby to explain it to visitors. This kind of instructional art may thus be understood as distinct from other major genres, such as devotional images that relate to ritual, mandalas that suggest , or portraits and narrative works that emphasize the stories of individual people. 

Understanding the Cyclic Nature of Existence

The wheel of existence is depicted as a large circle that contains numerous separate vignettes, each of which characterizes something about the nature of life (fig. 1). The overarching lesson is provided by the demonic figure who stands outside the wheel and grasps it firmly, signifying that all forms and aspects of life are subject to death—in other words, that everything is impermanent. This demonic figure is sometimes identified with Yama, the god of death, and in this painting (although not necessarily in others), he is indeed depicted much like Yama, who also appears with similar dark-red complexion and tiger-skin clothing, dancing in flames in the realm of hells, about one-third of the way up from the bottom of the painting (fig. 2). The wheel itself is divided into four concentric circles of images representing, from the outside to the inside: a) the twelvefold chain of dependent origination that conditions all states of being; b) the five realms and six paths of life in the world; c) the two motions upward and downward that trap sentient beings in cyclical existence through these paths of life; and last, at the axial center, d) the three psychological poisons that drive this entrapment, an interminable cycle of suffering known as .

Wrathful deity wearing tiger and human pelts stands, outlined in flames, in dynamic pose
Fig. 2. Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing Yama in the hell realms; Rubin Museum of Art

The largest area inside the wheel is taken up by the five realms and six paths of life in the world, represented separately in complex scenes of many characters. The wedge toward the top right shows the realm and path of humans (fig. 3), with a formal gathering in the foreground; images of the aged, sick, and dead toward the right (recalling the four visions of the historical ,  Siddhartha Gautama) (fig. 4); and an assembly around yellow-skinned  at the top. 

At bottom, scene depicting group in fine clothes outside tent; At top, Buddha is hovering above attendants
Fig. 3

Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing the realm of humans; Rubin Museum of Art

Prince, seated at right, gazes upon corpse shrouded in red brocade, borne by four attendants, at left
Fig. 4 Shakyamuni Sees a Dead Person, detail of the Twelve Deeds of Shakyamuni; Mongolia; 19th century; pigments on cloth; Erdene Zuu Museum; photograph by Eric Huntington

Clockwise from the human realm, the next wedge shows the realm and path of the hungry ghosts (pretas) (fig. 5), whose small throats and distended bellies reveal their constant starvation. Here too, as in all the other realms, a buddha offers relief. In the sky above appears the  of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, expressing the Buddhist goal to aid all sentient beings. In fact, the six buddhas depicted inside the wheel of existence are sometimes said to be emanations of Avalokiteshvara intended to help beings on the six paths according to their needs (fig. 6). 

The bottom wedge of the wheel depicts scenes from  (fig. 7), with Yama overseeing various tortures of cutting, boiling, freezing, and so on that are partially alleviated by a dark blue buddha. 

Infernal scene depicting animal-headed figures presiding over groups of people inside large cauldrons beset by flames
Fig. 7. Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing the hell realms; Rubin Museum of Art

Continuing clockwise, the realm of animals holds creatures of the land, sea, and sky, including a human-serpent naga in a small palace, and a dark green buddha (fig. 8). At the top left, the final wedge depicts the paths of gods (, top) and anti-gods (Asuras, left) battling for dominion over the world, along with the two buddhas dedicated to their aid (fig. 9). 

Scene depicting green-skinned Buddha amongst animals of all kinds in bucolic setting
Fig. 8 Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing the realm of animals; Rubin Museum of Art
Battle scene depicting two armies on elephant- and horseback, charging one another, creating dust clouds
Fig. 9 Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing the realm of devas and asuras; Rubin Museum of Art

The next interior ring is divided in two (fig. 10), with pious figures climbing to better existences in the white half (on the left) and miserable figures crawling downward to worse ones in the black half (on the right). The key message here is again one of , that all states of existence end. One’s good or bad actions () have consequences, creating new states of existence that are better or worse, respectively. One may experience starvation as a hungry ghost due to previous gluttony, violence as an anti-god due to previous jealousy, or pleasure as a god due to previous generosity. Crucially, these new states are also impermanent, so that even someone experiencing hellish sufferings or heavenly pleasures will move on to new experiences resulting from their continued actions. All beings are thus subject both to the worst torments and to the loss of the best pleasures, meaning that all states of existence, good or bad, ultimately cause misery. The only true release from suffering is thus not a state of pleasure but rather an escape from the cycle of action-and-consequence altogether. Luckily, the very fact of impermanence allows the possibility of escape, since, unlike in some other religious traditions, even heaven and hell are not eternal destinations. 

Roundel featuring three animals biting one anothers’ tails; Half-black, half-white, outer ring decorated with figures
Fig. 10. Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing the central registers; Rubin Museum of Art

Escape from Suffering

In order to understand the means of escape, one must first grasp the mechanism of imprisonment, as depicted in the two remaining rings of the wheel. At the center, a rooster, a snake, and a pig represent the three psychological factors that drive the cyclical motion: attraction, aversion, and delusion or ignorance (fig. 10). It is because of desire for more pleasure, repulsion from displeasure, and ignorance of the consequences of their actions that sentient beings become trapped in this wheel. Overcoming these negative factors means that one can avoid the sufferings they cause. 

The outermost circle reveals in more detail how ignorance (represented by a blind person with a cane, top right) is the ultimate cause of desire (which includes repulsion) and therefore also the cause of all suffering (fig. 11). The cure for suffering is thus the overcoming of ignorance by correctly understanding the very lessons conveyed in the diagram. With proper insight into one’s motivations, one can become liberated from the traps of desire and thus the cycle of causation altogether. 

Figure with grey skin and grotesque expression walks, doubled over, with the aid of knobby cane
Fig. 11. Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing a blind person representing ignorance; Rubin Museum of Art

This possibility of escape is visually embodied by a buddha standing entirely outside the wheel, at the top right of the painting (fig. 13). He points to an inscription (in a dark-blue cartouche) and set of symbols at the top left (fig. 12), indicating that the teachings of Buddhism are the means of escape. 

Wheel divided into eight sections situated on lotus pedestal atop black text box amidst stylized clouds
Fig. 12 Detail of Wheel of Existence, top left; Rubin Museum of Art
Buddha in red and gold brocade robe extends left arm and points above head of attendant
Fig. 13 Detail of Wheel of Existence, top right; Rubin Museum of Art

The Inscription

The inscription in this painting includes four passages that convey slightly different meanings. It begins with the first of two verses that commentaries say should be inscribed on the wheel of existence to motivate adoption of the Buddhist path. A second short verse summarizes the idea of dependent origination as the crux of the Buddha’s teachings. This verse also appears commonly elsewhere in Buddhist art and ritual to consecrate images and objects, making them efficacious. The third passage exhorts sentient beings to do good deeds and is sometimes also recited to pacify the deceased. The last phrase is a used to ritualize the completion of the image after artists have finished painting it. The combination of these different passages reveals that the wheel of existence, though ostensibly educational in its diagrammatic form, also has connections to ethical directives, ritual interactions, and perceptions of art as sacred. Above the inscription appears an eight-spoked wheel (dharmachakra) on a lotus, designating the teachings of the Buddha, and a small white circle, representing the liberation of .

Format, History, and Transformation

Even this single painting reveals something of the adaptability of the wheel of existence to various circumstances. For example, it unusually depicts a figure in Western clothing and a pith helmet in the foreground of the human realm (fig. 14), exemplifying the cross-cultural interactions of its time. It is also painted on cloth and framed by multicolored brocade (fig. 15), in the format of a portable hanging scroll known as a , even though the wheel of existence would more paradigmatically appear in murals on the entrance walls of monasteries or temples. Indeed, the earliest extant wheel of existence dates from the fifth century and remains, albeit fragmented, on the walls of the exterior entranceway of Cave 17 at , India (fig. 16).

Fig. 14

Detail of Wheel of Existence, showing man in pith helmet in the realm of humans; Rubin Museum of Art

Painting mounted on brocade depicting wheel divided into multiple scenes held by wrathful deity
Fig. 15

Overview of Wheel of Existence, showing cloth frame; Rubin Museum of Art; C2004.21.1

Significantly damaged mural above doorway depicting wheel; sections of wall appear plastered over
Fig. 16

Wheel of Existence; Cave 17, Ajanta, India; 5th century; mural; photograph by Eric Huntington

While many characteristics of this image differ from more recent versions, the overall message seems similar. Such large, public images may help spread the ideas of Buddhism, just as the earliest textual sources describe the wheel of existence as a lasting record of the stories of the Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana, who had visited all the realms of existence to witness for himself the consequences of good and bad actions. In East Asia and Mongolia, Maudgalyayana’s travels became a popular subject of narrative art, although versions of the wheel of existence also appear in various forms, including a relief sculpture at Baodingshan in China and a frontispiece illustration for the  (Flower Garland Sutra) in Korea. More recently, imagery of the wheel of existence has also been disseminated through the traditional medium of woodblock printing (fig. 17). Perhaps in part because of the didactic elegance of the imagery, the wheel of existence has also been reinterpreted by a variety of contemporary artists and authors to express views about the modern world, including themes of capitalism, social dysfunction, the relevance of Buddhism, and more.

Line drawing in red depicting wheel divided into multiple scenes held in teeth by wrathful deity
Fig. 17.

Wheel of Existence; Tashicholing Temple, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; 20th or 21st century; block print; height approx. 24 in. (61 cm); photograph by Eric Huntington

Footnotes
1

Stephen F. Teiser, Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 56.

2

See, for example, Donald S. Lopez Jr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

3

See, for example, Peter Alan Roberts and Tulku Yeshi, trans., “Za Ma Tog Bkod Pa/The Basket’s Display/Kāraṇḍavyūha” (84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2019), http://read.84000.co/translation/toh116.html, 1.18.

4

For more on this subject, see Lobsang Tharchin, King Udrayana and the Wheel of Life: The History and Meaning of the Buddhist Teaching of Dependent Origination (Howell, NJ: Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, 1984), 83–143.

5

Lhundup Sopa, “The Tibetan ‘Wheel of Life’: Iconography and Doxography,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 7, no. 1 (1984): 128–32, 143n12.

6

Daniel Berounsky and Lubomir Sklenka, “Tibetan Tsha-Tsha,” Annals of the Náprstek Muzeum 26 (2005): 69n25, 70.

7

Khenpo Kunpal Śāntideva and Khenpo Chöga, “Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-Charyavatara, According to the Tradition of Paltrül Rinpoche, Commentary by Khenpo Kunpal, with Oral Explanations by Khenpo Chöga,” trans. Andreas Kretschmar, Buddhism.org, 2003, http://www.buddhism.org/Sutras/2/Shantideva.htm, 522.

8

See for example Marek Mejor, “Painting the ‘Wheel of Transmigration’ (Saṃsāra-Cakra): A Note on the Textual Transmission,” in From Turfan to Ajanta: Festschrift for Dieter Schlingloff on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, ed. Eli Franco and Monika Zin, vol. 2 (Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2010), 678.

9

Stephen F. Teiser, Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 79–100.

10

Stephen F. Teiser, Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 53–56.

11

Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, “Teaching the Dharma in Pictures: Illustrated Mongolian Books in the Ernst Collection in Switzerland,” in The Arts of Tibetan Painting: Recent Research on Manuscripts, Murals and Thangkas of Tibet, the Himalayas and Mongolia (11th–19th Century) Proceedings of the Twelfth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Vancouver, 2010, ed. Amy Heller (Asianart.com, 2010), http://asianart.com/articles/paulenz/index.html.

12

See, for example,Karil J. Kucera, Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhism: Visualizing Enlightenment at Baodingshan from the 12th to 21st Centuries (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2016), fig. 18; Stephen F. Teiser, Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), chap. 9.

Further Reading

O rgyan ’jigs med chos kyi dbang po (Patrul). 1988. Kunzang Lama’i Shelung / The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala.

Teiser, Stephen F. 2006. Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Tharchin, Lobsang. 1984. King Udrayana and the Wheel of Life: The History and Meaning of the Buddhist Teaching of Dependent Origination. Howell, NJ: Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press.

Citation

Eric Huntington, “Wheel of Existence: A Visual Explanation of Buddhist Cosmology,” Project Himalayan Art, Rubin Museum of Art, 2023, http://rubinmuseum.org/projecthimalayanart/essays/wheel-of-existence.

Buddhism

Buddhism is founded on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime between the sixth and fourteenth century BCE in northern India. Buddhists believe that sentient life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but that if one achieves a state of awakening or nirvana, it is possible to escape this cycle. Buddhists refer to the Buddha’s teachings as the Dharma. There are many different traditions or denominations of Buddhism, including Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Scholars also discuss regional traditions, such as Indian Buddhism, Newar Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and so on.

chakra

Language:
Sanskrit

Wheels are an important symbol in Buddhism, which often refers to the Buddha’s teachings as “turning the wheel of the Dharma.” When depicted in the hands of a deity or human, a wheel can also denote political power, symbolizing the chakravartin or universal ruler. In the Hindu tradition, the chakra is an ancient weapon, carried by gods such as Vishnu. Chakras can also refer to focal points in the human body; in both Hindu and Buddhist systems of yogic meditation, practitioners channel the energies of the body through these points to obtain higher states of consciousness.

hell realms

In Buddhism, the hell realms are the lowest portions of samsara, or the wheel of reincarnation. Different texts give different accounts of these realms, but a standard list says that there are eight cold and eight hot hells. Beings are reborn into these realms due to their negative karma, and although they may spend many eons there, eventually they will die and be reborn elsewhere.

impermanence

Impermanence is a core concept in Buddhism. The Buddha taught that all beings, things, and thoughts are constantly appearing, changing, and passing away in samsara. We suffer because we are attached to these unstable things. In Madhyamaka philosophy, impermanence is a central part of the doctrine of emptiness.

karma

Language:
Sanskrit

Hinduism and Buddhism both hold that actions (Skt. karma) have inevitable results which may take a shorter or longer time to occur. Mental, verbal, and physical actions all have positive or negative consequences and are considered karma. Depending on conditions, karma can manifest results either in this or future lives. Karma directly relates to the idea of reincarnation, and positive karma can also create religious merit and lead to a better rebirth, while negative actions, or karma, result in worse experiences in the present and future lives. Buddhists strive to achieve enlightenment to escape this cycle of karmic action and consequence.

nirvana

Language:
Sanskrit

Nirvana is said to be a state beyond the cycle of reincarnation (Skt. samsara). It is defined as the end of suffering of being born, living, dying, and being reborn, and the ultimate goal for Buddhist practitioners. The Buddha achieved this state meditating beneath the bodhi tree, and his followers aim to advance to that state by gradually clearing out their karmic limitations. Different Buddhist traditions variously characterize nirvana, indicting several levels of awakening, from achieving peace to utterly transcending both the suffering of samsara and the peace of nirvana.

samsara

Language:
Sanskrit

In Buddhism and Hinduism, samsara is the phenomenal world in which we live, and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In Buddhism, samsara refers to the six realms of existence in which beings can be born according to their karma: as hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods (Skt. asura), and gods. The central goal of Buddhism is to escape the suffering of samsara by achieving nirvana, a state beyond this cycle of rebirths.

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