The Wheel of Existence, or Wheel of Life, is a representation of Buddhist beliefs about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth known as samsara. Past actions (karma) are the force that keeps beings within this cyclic existence. The central hub that makes the wheel rotate is the ultimate cause of samsara. The rim that holds the wheel together consists of states of consciousness in the process of rebirth. The whole of existence is depicted between these two parts of the wheel.
1: THREE POISONS
At the center of the wheel are the three “poisons” that trap all beings in samsara. Three animals that chase each other’s tails represent these main roots of suffering. Beginning at the bottom and moving clockwise, a pig symbolizes ignorance; a snake stands for anger or hatred; and a rooster represents desire or attachment.
2. LIGHT AND DARK: UP AND DOWN
The bisected circle represents virtuous and non-virtuous actions (karma). In the light half, people are moving up towards good rebirths, because of their good karma. In the dark half, figures are moving down, because they still must exhaust their bad karma before they can have a better rebirth.
3. REALMS OF EXISTENCE
This section depicts the six realms where beings are born propelled by their karma. Each realm has its own conditions of life that determine experiences of reality. Some are more suitable to creating good karma, and others are full of suffering. Anyone can be born in any of the realms.
A. Realm of the Gods
B. Realm of Demigods (Asura)
C. Human Realm
D. Animal Realm
E. Hungry Ghosts Realm
F. Hell Realm
4. TWELVE LINKS OF DEPENDEDNT ORIGINATION
This ring symbolically depicts a consciousness being reborn. It arises in dependence on the root causes of samsara and its preceding mental states shaped by karma.
1. Ignorance (blind person)
2. Volition, creation (potter)
3. Consciousness (monkey)
4. Name and form (two people in a boat)
5. Six senses (empty houses)
6. Contact, touch (a couple hugging)
7. Feelings, sensations (arrow in a person’s eye)
8. Craving, desire (person drinking)
9. Grasping/clinging (person gathering fruit)
10. Becoming (pregnant woman)
11. Birth (woman giving birth)
12. Old age, death (old person with a corpse)
5. LORD OF DEATH
The Lord of Death holds the wheel of existence in his mouth and claws, reminding that all life is conditioned by death. There is no escape from death until one reaches a complete understanding of reality, or awakening.
See The Wheel of Existence on view in the exhibition Death Is Not the End at the Rubin Museum from March 17, 2023–January 14, 2024.
About the Contributor
Elena Pakhoutova is a senior curator of Himalayan art at the Rubin Museum of Art and holds a PhD in Asian art history from the University of Virginia. She has curated several exhibitions at the Rubin, most recently Death Is Not the End (2023), The Second Buddha: Master of Time (2018), and The Power of Intention: Reinventing the (Prayer) Wheel (2019).
Wheel of Life; Tibet or Mongolia; 19th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.131 (HAR 78)