Riva Wang

Wheel of Existence as a Teaching Tool

Class of: 2022

Major: Interior Design BFA

Medium: Paper

Faculty: Sharyn Finnegan

Prompt: We are asked to go to a museum, pick an artwork and then write the research and visual analysis paper.

This is the term paper for Object as History class. We are asked to go to selected museums and then write a paper based on research and observations. I chose the work Wheel of Existence in the Rubin Museum because I was attracted by its colors and forms. I started the paper by doing the research in order to understand what each realm means and then reflect on why this can be seen as a teaching tool for ordinary believers to learn to behave in their daily lives. The Wheel of Existence is densely detailed and beautiful work for how it visually shows the process of Samsara, so I also write down my understanding of the aesthetic aspect of the drawing on the paper.


When visiting a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, people may notice there’s a painting of a circle having many similar small scale figures except the one with a fierce look holding a big wheel at the entrance, and this is called the Wheel of Existence or Wheel of Life. This is a densely detailed drawing with extraordinary precise painted characters and scenes. It is always put outside of the temple as a teaching tool for the ordinary people who believe in Buddhism to observe closely and learn about Samsara, the cycle of existence, the cause of evil and how the steps you take affect your next life. Wheel of Existence has no written words, it’s a colorful representation and comprehensive drawing of different actions and consequences of Buddhism’s concepts allow illiterate to understand how to behave.

Looking at the painting, a wrathful and strong deity who holds the wheel is prominent. This scary figure usually represents Yama, the god of death, or sometimes can be recognized as Mara, the god of Seduction. He has three angry staring eyes, which are so (1) big that cover almost one-third of his face. Yama’s mouth is partially hidden by the wheel, but this doesn’t affect his serious look because of the edgy sharp teeth that are biting the top edge of the wheel and seems like he will swallow the whole wheel and looks lethal. People will always feel tension when looking at him, and it enables believers to feel the necessity of paying attention and trusting what the Wheel of Existence explains about Buddhist life. The deity has a dark seal brown and sepia color skin, which may remind visitors of the darkness and gloominess of the palace he lives in. If people don’t behave well, they can end up being dragged to the place he lives in by his robust attendants and then suffering the terrifying judgment from Yama. Details of the deity, (2) for example, are five skull-like characters smiling grimly on the top of his head and also at the bottom, a tail that looks like the one from a tiger and the long nails of his feet all add more solemness to the painting and maximize the possibility of persuading worshippers to concentrate. Behind Yama, There are clouds floating in the sky with Buddhas and another wheel-like object. The color of darker green fades to lighter below and unifies the whole image with the light green in the two outer circles, and create a harmonious visual effect.

It is time to go closer and see what the wheel is made of after observing Yama the deity. There are four circles inside the wheel, and each represents a Buddhist’s cycle of life. The wheel is divided symmetrically, but the drawing in every separated section brings liveness to the organized shape. The one in the center is the smallest, and three animals are drawn there which includes a rooster, multicolored with amber, scarlet, ochre and cool grey, a spring green snake with forest green spots on its body, and a charcoal black pig. They are all in a movement of chasing one another, thus creates a dynamic motion in this little space. In Buddhism’s beliefs, these creations represent greed, hatred, and ignorance that are poisons of life. The choice of vibrant color and the vivid shapes of these animals allowed the viewers to understand the meaning of the wheel easily and clearly. There is a bigger circle with half dark and half light which surrounds the centered one, and six three dimensional distorted white nudes cover the black area. Even though they look like having a correct proportion, their weird body positions, some squatting and some curling up, make them distinct from the ordinary people. Each of their heads is looking at different directions, together with slender limbs provided the audience the opportunity to realize the weirdness of the dark side. Besides them, a scarlet color character that seems to chase or seduce other nudes is also in the dark semi-circle.

1 Gesar Travel, The Buddhist Wheel of Life, accessed on November 5, 2019, https://www.gesar-travel.com/wheel-of-life/?lang=en
2 Sumanta Sanyal, Yama, The God of Death, accessed on November 7, 2019, http://www.crystalwind.ca/mystical-magical/pantheons-and-myths/hindu/yama-the-god-of-death
3 Barbara O’brien, Learn Religions, The Three Poisons, June 23, 2018, accessed on November 4, 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/the-three-poisons-449603