Tibetan Thangka Painting- Wheel of Life

Thangka served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various influential lamas and other deities and bodhisattvas. One popular subject is The Wheel of Life, which is a visual representation of the Abhidharma teachings (Art of Enlightenment).

The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the drawing was designed by the Buddha himself in order to help ordinary people understand the Buddhist teachings.

Thangka Painting


The Figure Holding the Wheel: Impermanence

Thangka Painting

The wheel is being held by a fearsome figure who represents impermanence. This figure is often depicted as Yama, the lord of death. The meaning is that the entire process of cyclic existence (samsara) is transient; everything within this wheel is constantly changing.




Thangka Painting In the hub of the wheel are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird.

The pig stands for ignorance; this comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of animals, since it sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. The snake represents aversion or anger; this is because it will be aroused and strike at the slightest touch. The bird represents attachment (also translated as desire or clinging). The particular bird used in this diagram represents an Indian bird that is very attached to its partner. These three creatures chase and bite each others tails, giving rise to the endless cycle or becoming.


The Second Layer


Thangka Painting The second layer of the wheel shows two-half circles:

One half-circle (usually light) shows contented people moving upwards to higher states, possibly to the higher realms.

The other half-circle (usually dark) shows people in a miserable state being led downwards to lower states, possibly to the lower realms.


Third Layer: Six Realms


Thangka Painting

These six realms can be divided into three higher realms and three lower realms.

The three higher realms are:

God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma.

Demi-god realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they suffer from competitiveness and ambition as they strive for the realization of their desires.

Human realm: The human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).

The three lower realms are:

Animal realm: wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans.

Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks.

Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment.


Outer Rim: The Twelve Links


Thangka Painting

The outer rim of the wheel is divided into twelve sections that represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.

The twelve causal links, paired with their common visual representations, are:

  1. ignorance – a blind person, often walking, or a person peering out

  2. volitional action or conditioning – a potter shaping a vessel or vessels

  3. consciousness – a man or a monkey grasping a fruit

  4. name and form- two men afloat in a boat

  5. six senory organs (i.e. eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – a dwelling with six windows

  6. contact or touch – lovers consorting, kissing, or entwined

  7. sensation – an arrow to the eye

  8. desire, craving, thirst – a drinker receiving drink

  9. grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruit

  10. becoming or existence – a couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person

  11. birth – woman giving birth

  12. decay and death – corpse being carried




Thangka Painting

At the top right of the painting is the paradise of Amitabha. A pathway leads from the judgment hall of the dead in the hell realm to Amitabha’s paradise, along which those being with the most fortunate Karma proceed. At the top left is Shakyamuni Buddha who, having attained liberation from the wheel of existence, points towards his perfect wheel of the Buddhadharma.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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