The emphasis on ritual and initiations. Moreover,

The Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra) Thangka

Buddhism and Art

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Tibetan Buddhism a part of Vajray?n Buddhism was brought from India and spread in Tibet by the Tibetan King named Trisong Detsen in late 8th century. The preoccupation with the relationship between life and death is a prominent feature of Tibetan Buddhism. Also, it includes many rich visual symbolisms and puts an emphasis on ritual and initiations. Moreover, it combines elements of earlier Tibetans faiths such as Bon.


Thangka is a type of Buddhist painting popular in Tibet. With its distinct artistic style and strong ethnic features it eventually involved into a symbolic art form. It can be separate into two large categories by its material – paint or embroidery on silk


The Wheel of life is also called the Bhavacakra – a symbolic representation of the cyclic existence (samsara), consisting of three concentric circles.  This pictorial representation is often found on the walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries to aid the understanding of this fundamental Buddhist teaching. This symbolic representation is derived from India.


In this Essay I want to explore how Thangka art is used to represent the idea of The Wheel of Life. What is the Importance of Thangka art.




The Thangka has a few different functions. The deity images serve to describe historical events, or retelling myths. The devotional images serve as centerpiece during rituals or ceremonies, acting as a medium to offer prayer or make request. It can also be used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path of enlightenment. But the most important function of the Thangka is its use as a religious teaching tool.  Therefore, Thangka are usually framed on a scroll, so it is easy to hang up for worship. It can also be placed on or beside altars, hung in bedrooms or offices of monks and or other devotees. Importance of Thangka as a medium lies in its transformation of an abstract religion into a tangible existence. Subtly using artistic representation to help believers to accept the religious emotions and concepts. Metaphysical context provides foundation for a strong artistic tradition. Thangkas with Buddhist theme shows that it is in service to the religion. The creation of religious art is based on both faithful piety and great skill. Therefore, religion and art is closely intertwined, leading to one another. This relationship is most evident in Thangka. Images provide an omnipresent reminder of the spiritual domain in the physical world. Graphics are used as aids at all levels of society – illiteracy. 95% people could not read.


–       The important role of supernatural beings from the ancient Tibetan religion – Bon

–       Bodhisattvas are represented in the form of benevolent godlike figures and wrathful deities




Image 1. The Wheel Of Life


A characteristic of Buddhist art is that it can make esoteric and intangible Buddhist doctrines into graphics – straightforward explanation. Buddhism believes that the soul is everlasting, living in a temporal body. When the body died, the soul transfers to another body. All living beings are judge by karma, and their deeds will decided which realm they will go to. All of this is held in the hands of the lord of death, in the form of a wheel that keeps on turning. An allegory. A lot of use of metaphors. Many symbols.


The Wheel shown in Image 1 explains the reasons for the suffering in our mortal form. It is a metaphysical diagram made of four concentric circles held by the Yama – the Lord of Death. Here we see a typical example of a bodhisattvas represented in the form of a wrathful deity. This is to symbolize that no being can escape from death.


The sky above the wheel and the Buddha pointing at it symbolizes freedom from the cyclic existence is possible.


At the very center of the wheel there are three animals – pig, bird and snake, referring to the “Three Poisons” – ignorance, attachment and anger. The composition of the animals resembles the logical relation between them. The snake and bird are shown as coming out of the mouth of the pig, indicating that anger and attachment arise from ignorance. At the same time the snake and the bird grasp the tail of the pig, indicating that they both promote even greater ignorance. This is in the very center because it is the fundamental reason of suffering and hence the cause of the cycle.


The second smallest concentric circle is divided into two equal halves and colored in light and dark.  This is the wheel of Karma – the law of cause and effect. The darker section indicates individuals experiencing the results of negative actions, while the lighter portion shows people experiencing the results of positive action and attainting spiritual ascension.





Image 2. The Wheel Of Life


The next layer is a much wider area that depicts the six different realms of Samsara – the cycle of repeated birth. We wonder from one life to another with no particular purpose in this never-ending cycle. This is a key Buddhist concept. Every rebirth is in accordance with one’s own karma. These realms consist of all possible states of existence in the universe and all beings cycle between these states. They are divided into three higher realms and three lower realms.


1. Human realm is the secular world that we live in.  The most important realm and most suitable realm for practicing the dharma. Lots of pain and endurance. Eight paths to enlightenment – 8?

2. The semi-gods realm. Longevity, but stuck in jealousy and dispute from the previous life.

3.  The god realm

the best. Freedom, no suffering.

But when they deplete their good Karma and they will suffer through being reborn in the lower realms.

The three lower realms include first of all the hell realm – the worst, which is typically represented as a place of intense torment where beings endure unimaginable suffering – terrible tortures inflicted by demons. There is also the hungry ghosts realm, which is inhabited by pathetic creatures with suffering from extreme and perpetual hunger and thirst. Lastly, there is the animal realm, live in constant fear and suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals. Metaphor of refusal to see beyond the physical needs.

inside each realm there is a Buddha or bodhisattva trying to help the beings living in that realm to find their way to nirvana. The outermost concentric ring of the Wheel of Life presents the process of cause and effect in detail. The circle is divided into twelve parts, each depicting a phase of the law of Karma, which keeps us trapped in the six realms of cyclic existence.


On the outer circle are the twelve causal links.  Presents the mechanistic basis of repeated birth and the resultant Dukkha, starting from Ignorance and ending with Death. This doctrine is an application of the concept of “Dependent Origination”.

Avidy?: Ignorance – a blind man, often walking.Sa?sk?ra: Mental Formations – a potter shaping a vessel.Vijñ?na: Consciousness – a man or a monkey grasping a fruitN?mar?pa: Name and form – two men afloat in a boat?a??yatana: Six senses – a dwelling with six windowsSpar?a: Contact – two lovers kissing or entwinedVedan?: Feeling – a men with an arrow in the eyeT???a: Craving – a drinker receiving drinkUp?d?na: Grasping – a man or a monkey picking fruitBhava: Existence – a couple engaged in intercourse or a standing reflective personJ?ti: Rebirth – a woman giving birthJar?mara?a: Aging and Death – a corpse being carried

Central circle – the origin of suffering

Middle circle – cycle that people go through

Outer circle – what you need to do to achieve niravana



The value of this work

1.     Religious learning to

2.     Easy to understand


Contrasting colors – strong – a sense of warning and admonish

Use of geometry to make sense of the image



In conclusion,