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Wheel of Existence

Wheel of Existence, Tibet, early 20th century, pigments on cloth, 81 x 58.7 cm (Rubin Museum of Art, New York) Rubin Museum senior curator Dr. Elena Pakhoutova and Smarthistory’s Dr. Beth Harris reflect on a thangka painting of the Wheel of Life, also known as the Wheel of Existence. The painting depicts the cyclical nature of life, death, and rebirth (samsara) in various forms, which are in the grip of the Lord of Death, Yama. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

[Dr. Beth Harris] We are in the Rubin Museum of Art and we are standing in front of a thangka, a painting, and the subject is the Wheel of Life. This encapsulates the Buddhist worldview. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] Sometimes this painting is also called Wheel of Existence, implying that what we see here is the cyclical nature of life that manifests in these various forms, and all of them are in the grip of this scary looking being, the Lord of Death. [Dr. Beth Harris] And he has got this wheel in his mouth, and he has got three eyes, he wears a crown with five skulls, his nails are claws, and we have this idea that all of existence is subject to death, to impermanence. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] We see the usual elements of a wheel, something that looks like spokes and the rim, and the hub that makes the wheel move. And in the center are the three animals, which represent three afflictive states of consciousness: ignorance, represented by a pig; desire, or attachment, represented by a rooster; and hatred or revulsion, represented by a snake. They are connected, biting each other's tails, again implying the circular nature of these afflictive emotions. [Dr. Beth Harris] These emotions that keep us in this cycle of rebirth, of samsara. In the circle around that, we have a division between light and darkness. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] It refers to the power of karma that propels us to be born in so called lower states of rebirth, or the states of suffering, or progress because of a good karma to the states which are higher existences. And the best option for existence in this understanding of life is to be a human. Humans have just enough balance between suffering and being aware of suffering, and looking for something that can improve our condition. It's important to look at these five different forms of existence. We mentioned humans, and then there's gods and demigods, and then there are animals, hungry ghosts, and the hell realms. [Dr. Beth Harris] So in these cycles of rebirth, these are one of the forms that we can return to. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] So even if you are a god who lives a very blessed life, once the karma of you being a god is exhausted, then you can be born in any of these realms, even in hell or as an animal. [Dr. Beth Harris] It's so interesting to me that being a god still keeps you within this cycle of death and rebirth, and the cycle of suffering. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] Suffering is not just the physical suffering according to Buddhist understanding of it. Change is also suffering. Suffering can also be mental, psychological, not just physical. [Dr. Beth Harris] On the left side we see animals, tigers, an elephant, deer. And on the opposite side, this realm of hungry ghosts, where we see grayish figures with tiny necks and tiny limbs. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] They are in constant suffering because they cannot ingest food because they have very tiny necks. And they are also suffering of thirst. [Dr. Beth Harris] At the top of this realm, though, we see the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] In this example of the Wheel of Life, we see the Buddha or some kind of divine presence in each of the realms that are depicted. And it implies that with the teachings that were spoken by the Buddha, it is possible to escape from the suffering. [Dr. Harris] The most frightening scene is this scene of hell, where we see beings being boiled, cooked alive. Another figure surrounded by fire, beings crawling from the earth. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] These are depictions of the cold realms, where it's so cold that the skin and the flesh is split apart. And this wrathful deity we see is actually the Lord of Death, because he presides over the hell realms. If you look at the human realm, you see that there are images of various kinds of people. And one very interesting detail, you see an image of an Englishman in a typical hat. This painting was created in the early 20th century, and this is the time when Tibetans actually encountered the British. [Dr. Beth Harris] So let's talk about this outer rim, which is a little bit more complicated philosophically. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] What you see are these twelve vignettes. They symbolize particular states of consciousness, or consciousness becoming manifest in physical form, if you will. In this example, we begin with the person who is blind and walking with the help of a stick. I think there's an important and interesting correlation between sight and insight, which refers to wisdom, understanding the true nature of reality, and this dependent origination that is depicted here. [Dr. Beth Harris] So this figure is lacking wisdom. He's lacking the insight that would enable him to escape from this cycle of existence. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] Yes, to break this chain of dependent origination, wisdom is the key. Without it, it's not possible to escape from that chain. I think another vignette that we can understand, we see a person with arrows stuck in his eyes, and that symbolizes feeling, and it's one of the links or the states of consciousness that then leads to attachment. And we have a second person who is drinking beer, and that then leads to grasping, or having more of that. And then we see the image of a monkey who is collecting fruit. [Dr. Beth Harris] So paintings such as this showing the Wheel of Life would often be displayed at the entrance of temples so that as you entered, you would see them, and as you exited, you would see them. At the very top, we see an inscription and a set of symbols, and on the right, the figure of Buddha. [Dr. Elena Pakhoutova] A symbolic representation, a symbolic key that lets you know, even by the posture of the Buddha who is pointing to this upper left image of a wheel, which is the wheel of his teachings, of Dharmachakra, on the lotus. And above the wheel is the image of a full moon, which can also refer to the light of enlightenment or the cooling of suffering. And underneath we have an inscription. The inscription says something like, "commence and come forth, enter the teachings of the Buddha. Like a great elephant in a house of mud, destroy the Lord of Death's army." Another part says, "all phenomena arise from a cause. The Buddha has explained this cause. The great monk," the Buddha "also explained what the cessation of this cause is. And then, do not commit any unwholesome actions. Accumulate vast collection of wholesome actions. Totally subdue your own mind. This is the Buddha's teaching."