The Wheel of Life

Against a vibrant blue background typical of tangkas from the Derge region of ca, the second half of the 19th century, a figure of Yama, Lord of Death, is lightly holding the symbolic Wheel of Life. This is said to be the only image that the Buddha ever created himself, since he did not write down any of his teachings; he drew this Wheel of Life in the sand while explaining the evolutionary process to some disciples. The wheel is found at the entrance of every Buddhist temple, not only in Tibet but everywhere in the Buddhist world. This presentation of the unenlightened life-cycle of deaths and births in different biological realms portrays the ordinary world as something to be transcended. Truly acknowledging the reality of egocentrically compulsive living to be like this is tantamount to developing the motivation to become enlightened and find real happiness.

In the center of the wheel, a cock, a pig, and a snake spin round and round, symbolizing desire, delusion, and hate, the three primary poisons that drive the unenlightened life cycle. The first circle out from this center has twenty-one figures. Against a white background, ten are going up on the left side by doing positive evolutionary actions that bring beneficial results, and against a black background, eleven are diving down the right side b doing negative actions that bring suffering. The next largest circle out presents the six realms and species of living beings, with the gods in heaven at the top. Then, moving clockwise, are the jealous titans attacking the gods to oust them from their heavens; then the pretans in their tantalizing limbo, looked after compassionately by Manjushri, Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, and a standing buddha; then the hell beings at the bottom suffering their horrendous tortures, with a Yama as king of hell and judge of deeds standing over them; then the beasts, with three white deities in little pavilion to look after them, perhaps Tara and her companions; and finally, at nine o'clock, the humans gong about their business, with a seated Shakyamuni buddha sitting at the top of their realm. The essential idea conveyed by this Wheel of Life is that unenlightened living endlessly cycles between these realms, moving up with good deeds and falling down with bad ones. The last ring of the wheel contains twelve scenes that illustrate the twelve links of dependent origination, the famous schema that the buddha offered through which to understand the biological process of life and death; it begins from ignorance, which is misknowledge about the status of the egocentric self, and ends with old age and death. The unchallenged force of ignorance again leads to another life and another and another of endless suffering.

The figure of Yama is rather well modelled, and the light-colored landscape and vivaciously grinning skulls on the crown of Yama create a relatively cheerfulmood in confronting the serious subject. Figures and landscape are well drawn, and may well represent an example of the Derge school, one of the important schools og the 19th and 20th century.

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