Explore the Wheel of Existence Decode the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Wheel of Existence

Wheel of Existence
Tibet; early 20th century
Pigments on cloth
C2004.21.1 (HAR 65356)

The wheel of existence is a representation of Buddhist beliefs about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth known as samsara. The energy produced by one’s past actions (karma) is the force that traps beings within this cyclic existence. Practitioners can determine their place within the concentric circles of the wheel, which delineate the various realms of being.

CLICK THE PAINTING TO EXPLORE

Explore the Wheel of Existence Buddha Figure Three Spiritual Poisons Dark Path and Light Path Realms of Karmic Existence Twelve Links of Dependent Origination Bottom Left Leg of Lord of Death Bottom Right Leg of Lord of Death Head of Lord of Death
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Decode the Wheel of Existence

The wheel of existence is a representation of Buddhist beliefs about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth known as samsara. The energy produced by one’s past actions (karma) is the force that traps beings within this cyclic existence. Practitioners can determine their place within the concentric circles of the wheel, which delineate the various realms of being.

TOUCH A DETAIL TO EXPLORE IT FURTHER

Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Three Spiritual Poisons

At the center of the wheel are the three “spiritual poisons” that keep beings in samsara. These traits are represented by three animals that are endlessly chasing each other’s tails. They include (beginning at the bottom and moving clockwise) a pig, representing spiritual ignorance; a snake, representing anger; and a bird, representing desire.

Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Dark Path and Light Path

The dark path of negative karma, seen at the right side of this ring, leads downward into the the lower realms of existence. It is represented by slumped, gray figures on a dark background. The light path, seen at the left side of the ring, leads individuals upward into the higher, more favorable realms. It is represented by lay people, a monk, and an ascetic on a light background.

Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Realms of Karmic Existence

This ring of the diagram shows the various realms into which an individual may be born
based upon their past actions. Each realm, even that of the gods and demigods, is categorized by a specific distortion of reality and features a buddha offering refuge from that distortion.

  1. Gods and demigods (pride and jealousy)
  2. Humans (selfishness)
  3. Hungry ghosts (greed)
  4. Hell (violence)
  5. Animals (ignorance)
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

This ring of the diagram shows those actions that are carried out instinctively by humans and lead to the creation of karma.

  1. Old age and death 
  2. Mental formations
  3. Base consciousness
  4. Physical body
  5. Six senses
  6. Contact
  7. Sensations
  8. Craving
  9. Taking
  10. Becoming
  11. Birth
  12. Spiritual ignorance
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Lord of Death

The Lord of Death holds the wheel of existence in his mouth and claws, reminding viewers that all life is conditioned by death. There is no escape from death until one reaches a supreme understanding of spiritual enlightenment.

Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence
Explore the Wheel of Existence

Buddha Figure

At the top right of the painting is a figure of Buddha Shakyamuni pointing toward the Lord of Death. The presence of the Buddha is often seen in wheel of life paintings. He is usually
accompanied by symbols, such as a moon or sun, or other figures, such as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Explore the Wheel of Existence