anatomy of wheel of life thangka

Wheel of Life is a complex mandala that portrays the circle of existence of beings as per the Buddhist philosophy. It is indeed a widely popular subject and incorporates all the important topics of Buddhism such as the four Noble Truths, the origin and causes of sufferings, the cyclic phenomenon of our existence, impermanence and more.

So, Wheel of Life thangka is a profound depiction of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha that shows how a deluded state of mind imprisons us within the circle of sufferings. And as long as we are not enlightened, we remain imprisoned by the sufferings within this circle. This portrayal is actually a visual aid that gives us a clear understanding of how a mind works.

It is also called as “Bhava Chakra” in Sanskrit language. Composed of two words “Bhava” and “Chakra”, it means the circle or the rotation of the Worldly existence or Samsara. This reflects our both external and internal conditions within this cycle.Wheel of life sketch

So, how did the Wheel of Life thangka Originated?

It was during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, when the First Wheel of Life diagram was made. There was a king named Bimbisara in the kingdom of Magadha. He was one of the chief patrons of Shakyamuni.

One day, the king received a very precious gift from his friend who was also a king from a neighboring land. Upon the receiving the gift, king Bimbisara was in great dilemma, as he could not think of a suitable return gift. Then, Shakyamuni suggested him that a “wheel of life” diagram would be a perfect gift to return to his friend. He also explained the clear instruction on how to draw the picture.

When Bimbisara presented his friend the completed picture of Wheel of life, he was extremely happy and immediately developed renunciation. As he read the stanza inscribed beneath the diagram, he felt the powerful inspiration of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Soon, the whole kingdom contemplated on the Wheel of life thangka and everyone were greatly benefited.

An Insights of the Wheel of life Thangka:Wheel of life thangka

Click here to view our original Wheel of Life Mandala Thangka

The Central of the Wheel:

Towards the center of this thangka, in a small circle are the three animals namely a pig, a rooster and a snake. These three animals represent the three major delusions or the causes of sufferings. Each of them represents:

Pig: Ignorance

Snake: Anger

Rooster: Desire/ AttachmentAnger, Ignorance and Desire

As both the snake and rooster as shown as arising from the mouth of a pig, it indicates that both the destructive nature of desire and anger arises due to Ignorance.

Or in some other paintings, all three of them form a ring to indicate the interdependent nature of all three delusions.

Six Realms of the Wheel of Life:

This is the largest wheel of the thangka and it is further segmented into Six sections. Each section represents an individual realm namely,

  1. God Realm
  2. Demi God Realm
  3. Animals Realm
  4. Hell Realm
  5. Hungry Ghost Realm
  6. Human Realmsix realms of wheel of life

Since our actions of body, speech and mind are caused by the initiation of our mental intends, these six realms are too, the creation of our own mind. They can be understood as the different states of our consciousness as we experience different kinds of sufferings.

Click here for the high quality Thangka prints of Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra)

The Gods Realm:

This realm lies directly beneath the face of the Yama in the thangka. There are the depiction of Gods, residing in their kingdom and living their life lavishly. They enjoy the perfect health, wealth and comfort but are distracted far away from the idea of practicing Dharma.

As shown in the thangka, the gods up in the sky are battling with the demigods (down in the ground). Their king, Indra rides an multi headed elephant with his men to fight against the demigods.

The Demi Gods Realms:

This realm lies next to the God’s realm to its right. They are also called Asuras and are portrayed as battling a war against Gods. As they are fighting, many of them are dead or severely injured by the attacks from the God’s realm. There are blood pools formed by their dead bodies.

Why are the Gods and the Demi gods fighting?

In the Wheel of life thangka, the beings of these two realms are shown as fighting against each other. This is because of the Wish Fulling Tree. As shown here, the tree is depicted in such a way that the lower half of it belongs to the demi god realm while the upper half belongs to the gods.

This indicates that only Gods are being able to enjoy the fruits of the tree which is the reason why demi gods are dissatisfied. And they decide to set a war against them and even try to cut the precious tree out of the jealousy.god and demigods realm

The Animal Realm:

Down next to the Demi god realm lies the kingdom of animals. Here are portrayed the different kinds of animals. These animals suffer because of their limited intelligences and always fear of being chased and eaten by the other animal.  Also, they are heavily used and abused for their labor by humans. They are also consistently exposed under strong sunlight and harsh cold wind, rain and other extreme conditions.

The Hell Realm:

The Realm lies in the middle of the lower section of the wheel. This realm is further segmented into 18 section.

  1. The Eight Hot Hell
  2. The Eight Cold Hells
  3. The Neighboring Hell
  4. The Ephemeral Hell

the eight hot helleight cold hellsIn the middle of the hell realm is the Lord of Death, Yama. He is depicted as seated inside his palace, attended by his minions. He holds a Stick and a mirror in his hands. And before him, is a recently deceased being. His past deeds are reflected in the mirror of Yama and are weighed in the scales.

There are extreme levels of pain that the hell beings have to suffer. 

The Human Realm:

Next to the Hell is the human realm, which is considered to be the most fortunate realm of all. Human beings are depicted as enjoying the utmost amount of freedom. They cultivate wisdom and learn necessary morals needed to control the roots of sufferings. They are suffered by the four main causes of sufferings which are birth, growing old, sick and ultimately the death. Along with these sufferings, beings are also haunted by uncertainty, jealousy, frustration and dissatisfaction.

The Hungry Ghost Realm:

This Realm is the one next to the human realm. The beings here are also called the hungry spirits as they are constantly suffered from the insatiable pain of hunger and thirst. They are depicted as having smaller neck but bigger bellies. Some of them have their necks tied into knots and they experience the hindrance while feeding on foods.

The Intermediate State, Bardo:

This state is represented by the inner middle circle. It is divided into black and the white section. In the White section are depicted the future human, gods and demi gods who are directed towards the upper realm while the beings in the black section are the hell beings, animals and the hungry ghosts, being directed towards the lower realms.

Click here to know the 42 Peaceful and 58 Wrathful Deities of Bardo.

The 12 Links of Dependent Origination:

This is the outermost circle of the wheel. The rim is further divided into 12 sections where each section is directly linked with another one in a chain, representing a dependent arising. These 12 link is one of the most important philosophical doctrine of Buddhism. It has the most profound meaning, deeply defined in all schools of Buddhism. 

  1. Ignorance (Avidya): represented by an old and blind person (On the top most left)
  2. Compositional Actions (Sanskar): represented by a person making potteries
  3. Consciousness (Bigyan): A monkey climbs up and down of a tree
  4. Name and Form (Nama-Rupa): Men rowing a boat on water
  5. Six Sources (Sadayatana): Represented by an empty house with Six windows
  6. Contact (Sparsha): A man and woman embracing each other
  7. Feelings (Vedana): a man is shot with an arrow on his eyes
  8. Craving (Trishna): A man indulges in alcohol
  9. Grasping (Upadana): A man grabbing a fruit from a tree
  10. Existence (Bhava): Sexual Copulation
  11. Birth (Jati): A baby is being born
  12. Aging and Death (Jara- Maran): Depiction of a man carrying a dead body for cremation 

An interesting account, depicts a story of a Shakyamuni Buddha when he was giving teachings on these 12 links and the dependent origination for the first time. One of his disciples told him that he fully understood this topic. To this, Shakyamuni mildly chastised him and said that if one fully understood this wonderful doctrine, he would attain Nirvana and be free from this cyclic existence (Wheel of Life).

The Six Sages of the Six Realms:

There are six sages or Buddhas who resides in each of these realms of Samsara. Each of them are distinctively different in colors and holds unique attributes to help the beings of each realm from the sufferings.

  1. Sage of the gods (Indra Sakra): White in color and holds a Sitar (musical instrument) and he subdues the pride of gods and relieve their sufferings.
  2. Sage of Splendid Fabric (Vemacitra) : He is blue in color and resides in demigods to subdue their jealousy and relieve the sufferings. He holds a sword.
  3. Sage of the Shakya's (Shakyamuni), abides in the human realm. He is yellow in color and holds a monk’ staff and a bowl.
  4. Sage of Splendid Lion (Sthirasimha), resides in the animal realm to subdue the defilement of ignorance. Green in color, he holds a dharma text.
  5. Sage of Flaming mouth (Jvalamukha) resides in the hungry ghost realm to subdue the defilement of the miserliness. He is red in color and holds a small casket.
  6. Sovereign of Dharma (Yama Dharmaraja) resides in the hell realm and he subdues the defilement of hatred. He is brown in color and holds a conch shell.

The final Stanza Explanation

"Undertaking this and leaving that,
Enter into the teaching of the Buddha
Like an elephant in a thatch house
Destroy the forces of the lord of Death.
Those who with thorough conscientiousness
Practice this disciplinary doctrine
Will forsake the wheel of Birth
Bringing suffering to an end"

Words Sourced from: Images of Enlightenment

These lines explain how one can eliminate all the sufferings completely by practicing. Just like a powerful elephant can destroy a fragile hut, a enlightened being can overcome the Lord of Death and attain Nirvana.

    Even when there is this recurring cycle of existence, there is another realm outside of this wheel. This is depicted by the portrayal of Amitabha Buddha Pure land on the top right corner of this thangka. On the left side is the Buddha (a fully awakened one) pointing towards the Amitabha land, symbolizing the immense possibility of attaining Nirvana and being completely free from Samsara (the cycle).

    The depiction of the Lord of Death who is holding this entire Wheel of life within his fangs and claws also symbolizes that impermanence pervades this cyclic existence. And none of the experience in any of these realms will last forever.

    Hence, the Wheel of life represent the first noble truths of sufferings and the causes of suffering. The figures outside the wheel represents the other two noble truths: the cessation of suffering and the path of enlightenment.






    This is life changing information. I am no longer the same person. This has shown me that to escape the material world, enlightenment is the only way. I discovered this image not by mistake, which led me to this site but I have seen this cycle in my dreams and always existing just beyond my conscious space. I am grateful for this. You are not meant to suffer, the pathway to eternal freedom and enlightenment exists right here.

    Jo Mac

    Jo Mac

    great explanation. thank you, it is hard to find a thorough explanation like this!

    Leave a comment