UsingArt to Represent Buddhist Doctrines – The Wheel of Life depicted in TibetanThangkaIntroduction Tibetan Buddhism, a part of the Vajray?n branch, was brought from Indiaand spread in Tibet by the Tibetan King named Trisong Detsen in late 8thcentury. It is a religion that includes many rich visual symbolisms, and puts agreat emphasis on ritual and initiations. The reasons behind this may be thelow literacy rate in Tibet and the esoteric nature of the Buddhist religion.
1 Art and rituals, thereforeprovide alternative ways to introduce the religion to the general public otherthan the traditional religious texts and scripts. Another prominent feature ofTibetan Buddhism is the preoccupation with the relationship between life anddeath. Therefore, making the Wheel oflife is also called the Bhavacakra – a symbolic representation of the cyclicexistence (samsara), an important and fundamental concept.2 This pictorialrepresentation is often found on the walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples andmonasteries to aid the understanding of this fundamental Buddhist teaching. Inthis Essay I want to explore how the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of The Wheelof Life is translated into a pictorial representation, and the importance ofthe Thangka. The Thangka as a TeachingTool Thangka is the most significant type of religious painting in Tibet.
With its distinct artistic style and strong ethnic features it eventuallyinvolved into a symbolic art form. It can be separate into two large categoriesby its material – paint or embroidery on silk. We can also separate Thangka bytheir different functions. The deity images serve to describe historicalevents, or retelling myths. The devotional images serve as centerpiece duringrituals or ceremonies, acting as a medium to offer prayer or make request.3 Moreover, it can be usedas a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path of enlightenment. Mostimportantly, the Thangka is a key religious teaching tool. In accordance of itsfunction, Thangkas are usually framed on a scroll, easy to be hung for worship.
It can also be placed on or beside altars, hung in bedrooms or offices of monksand or other devotees. The significance of Thangka as a medium lies in its transformation of anabstract religion into a tangible existence. Artistic representations subtlyhelp believers to accept the religious emotions and concepts by providing amore straightforward visual explanation. Images provide an omnipresent reminderof the spiritual domain in the physical world. Another crucial point to mentionis the extremely high level of illiteracy amongst the Tibetan population.
Thiscontributes to the importance of graphic representations. The metaphysicalcontext provides foundation for a strong artistic tradition and the creation ofreligious art is based on both faithful piety and great skill.4 Therefore, we can see thatreligion and art is closely intertwined, leading to one another. How exactly,then does the Wheel of life translate the abstract doctrines into graphics?What are the structures and organizations used? TheWheel of Life Explained Image 1.
The Wheel Of LifeBuddhism states that the soul is everlasting but lives in a temporalbody, when the body dies the soul transfers to another body. Moreover, allliving beings are judge by karma, and their deeds in this life will decidewhich realm they will go to in the next life.5 The Wheel of Life, as wecan see in Image 1 explains the reasons for the suffering in our mortal form. Thismetaphysical diagram is made up wheel consisting of four concentric circles.The central circle indicates the origin of suffering, the next states the cycleof lives, the outer circle shows karma, the third shows the never ending cycleof lives, and lastly the outer circle shows what you need to do to achieveliberation and nirvana. All of this is grasped in the hands of the Lord ofDeath, in the form of a large wheel that keeps on turning. The bodhisattvasrepresented here is a typical example of a wrathful deity, the horrificrepresentation act as an admonishment and reminder.
This is a metaphor thataims to say, no one is able to escape the powerful and alarming death. Otherallegories, metaphors and symbols are evident in this Thangka as well. For example, the very center of the wheel shows three animals – pig,bird and snake. These each refer to one of the “Three Poisons” – ignorance, greedand aversion. The composition of the animals resembles the logical relationbetween them. The snake and bird are shown as coming out of the mouth of thepig, indicating that anger and attachment arise from ignorance.
At the sametime the snake and the bird grasp the tail of the pig, indicating that theyboth promote even greater ignorance.6 Its central positionreveals the importance of this idea as the fundamental reason of suffering andhence the cause of the cycle. Image 2. The Wheel Of Life As shown in Image 2, the second ring – the wheel of karma is dividedinto two equal halves. Karma talks about the law of cause and effect.
Thelighter half depicting people attaining spiritual ascension represents how goodintentions and good deeds contribute to good karma. While the darker sectionshowing suffering and chains indicates how bad intentions and bad deedscontribute to bad karma. The placement of this wheel indicates the logicalrelationship between the “Three poisons” and Karma. It is because ignorance,greed and aversion that we have bad intentions and conduct bad deeds. Our deedsin turn become good or bad Karma and decide the realm that we go to in the nextlife, leading to the next layer – Samsara.
This much wider area depicts the six different realms of the cycle ofrepeated birth. Buddhism asserts that we wonder from one life to another withno particular purpose in this never-ending cycle. These realms consist of allpossible states of existence in the universe and all beings cycle between thesestates. Based on karma, they are divided into three higher realms (good karma)on the upper half and three lower realms (bad karma) on the lower half. Thefirst of the six realms is the God realm, believed to be the result of theaccumulation of a life of very good karma. It is completely free of sufferingand filled with pleasure. However, with pleasure come greed and therefore, whenthe good Karma is depleted and beings will suffer through being reborn in thelower realms.
The next is the semi-gods realm that ensures longevity sometimeseven supernatural power, but troubled by jealousy and dispute. The human realmis the secular world that we live in. It is the most important realm because itis considered to be the only realm that offers an opportunity to nirvana andtherefore liberation from this cycle. However when practicing the Dharma, oneneed to go through many suffering – Dukkah, such as aging, illness, death,sorrow and more.
The three lower realms on the other hand, include worst of all – thehell realm, which is typically represented as a place of intense torment wherebeings endure unimaginable suffering. Pathetic creatures inhabit the hungryghosts realm with suffering from extreme and perpetual hunger and thirst, asshown in Image 1. Lastly, the animal realm depicts a life in constant fear andsuffers from being attacked and eaten by other animals. The Buddha orbodhisattva that stands in each of the realms differ in skin color, but hey areall there to help the beings living in that realm to find their way to nirvana. On the outer most circle are the twelve causallinks. They present the mechanistic basis of repeated birth and the resultantDukkha, starting from Ignorance and ending with Death. This doctrine is anapplication of the concept of “Dependent Origination”.7 Dividedinto twelve equal parts, each segment of the ring depicting a phase of the lawof Karma, which keeps us trapped in the six realms of cyclic existence.
Theposition of this ring circumscribing the inner parts acts as a metaphor, toconvey the sense of entrapment. Twelve vivid scene are depicted in the Wheel toaid in the understanding of the twelve casual links: 1. Avidy?: Ignorance – blind man walking2. Sa?sk?ra: Mental volitions – potter shaping avessel.
3. Vijñ?na: Consciousness – monkey grasping a fruit4. N?mar?pa: ‘Name’ and ‘form’ – two men in a boat5. ?a??yatana: the six senses – house with six windows6. Spar?a: Contact –lovers intertwined7. Vedan?: Feelings – man with an arrow in his eye8. T???a: Desires – drinker receiving drink9.
Up?d?na: Attachment – man and monkey picking fruit10. Bhava:Existence – person reflecting11. J?ti: Rebirth –woman giving birth12. Jar?mara?a:Aging and Death – corpse being carried ConclusionBy creating scenarios, and stories the pictorial representations in thethangka help to bring the vague concepts to daily life situations. As weanalyze the different cycles, we come to a clearer understanding of not onlythe concepts but also the representational techniques used. The contrasting andbright use of colors gives a sense of admonishment, and grabs the attention ofthe audience. The use of geometry functions to present the logical connectionsbetween each concept. The Wheel of life is full of metaphors and symbolism thatis characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the animals used to representthe ‘Three Poisons’.
From the successful translation of words to picture, wecan comprehend why the Thangka was and 1 EncyclopediaBritannica, 20172 Yang,20083 Yang,20084 Yangqiusha, 19985 Klostermaier, 1991 6 Xiawuduanzhi, 20157 Wayman,1971