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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese