The Wheel of Life (Skt. bhava-cakra)—or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Wheel of Becoming, the Wheel of Existence, the Wheel of Rebirth, or the Wheel of Reincarnation—is a visual representation of the Buddhist notion of death as inseparable from that of birth, portraying in concrete form abstract metaphysical concepts. Shengsi (生死), literally, “birth and death,” the Chinese translation of the Buddhist term samsara, emphasizes the linkage of birth, death, and rebirth seen within the Wheel of Life. Unlike the Western Judeo-Christian concept of life stopping at death, with the dead then moving on to an eternity in either heaven or hell, Buddhism offers a more cyclical approach to life, one cosmologically more connected to the seasonality of the world in which life flourishes, only to die and be reborn again in the upcoming year, and visually represented in the form of an ever-turning wheel embraced by the Demon of Impermanence. The spokes of the Wheel itself typically show the five or six possibilities for rebirth, both good and bad, dependent upon one’s actions in life. The number of paths varies, as some depictions do not separate the asuras (“titans” or “demons”) from the devas (“gods”). The other possible rebirths are human, animal, hungry ghost, or hell dweller.
Mention of “a wheel” is found textually throughout Buddhism, most significantly as a reference to the exposition of the Buddhist teachings (“the turning of the wheel of the law”), but also in other areas more directly connected to actual practice, such as the Tibetan prayer wheel (see Ladner 2000). The Wheel of Life is mentioned mainly within the broader context of Buddhist belief and less frequently within the realm of Buddhist practice. Scholarly considerations of the Wheel of Life are relatively few and have historically been within textual discussions of Buddhism’s theory of dependent origination. One example of such an analysis can be found in Powers 1995. Gethin 2004 is a brief survey combining both text and image. Blofeld 1974 is one of the earliest works focused on Tibetan Buddhism and the Wheel of Life within a Tibetan ritual framework. The most comprehensive treatment of the Wheel of Life crossing time and space is Teiser 2006. In literature, textual references to the Wheel of Life image include fictional works, such as Kipling’s Kim (Kipling 1901).
Blofeld, John. The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide. New York: Causeway, 1974.
This work outlining the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism for a lay audience includes a section detailing the various components of the Wheel of Life, which is illustrated and diagrammed.
Gethin, Rupert. “Cosmology.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 183–187. New York: Macmillan, 2004.
Concise, accessible overview of textual traditions relating theory of dependent origination to various paths found represented within Wheel of Life imagery. Good entry point into basics of Buddhist cosmological beliefs.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901.
Kipling uses the Wheel of Life as a metaphor for the changes taking place not only within the protagonist and his Buddhist mentor, but also within the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the 20th century. Features a Wheel of Life painted image as part of the plot.
Ladner, Lorne, ed. The Wheel of Great Compassion: The Practice of the Prayer Wheel in Tibetan Buddhism. Translated by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Lori Cayton, Khamlung Tulku, et al. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
In-depth discussion of the function of the prayer wheel within Tibetan Buddhist practice; considers how they are perceived by practitioners and provides methods for their construction and use.
Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.
Wheel of Life mentioned briefly within theory of dependent arising but not illustrated. Useful for understanding fundamental Buddhist concepts linked to Wheel of Life imagery.
Teiser, Stephen F. Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.
In-depth chronological study of the development of Wheel of Life imagery from textual sources into visual works. Looks at texts and images from India to China found in caves, painted within temples, and sculpted, from the 4th to the 12th centuries CE. A key resource for study of the Wheel of Life image and texts related to it.
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