The Wheel of Rebirth

Tangka (painted scroll), by unknown artist, Tibet, 20th century. Museum no. IM.262-1916

Tangka (painted scroll), by unknown artist, Tibet, 20th century. Museum no. IM.262-1916

The Wheel of Rebirth enshrines the main Buddhist teachings on Karma, the laws of spiritual cause and effect. This image of the Wheel of Rebirth is taken from a painted scroll, called a 'tangka'. It is covered in small scenes representing aspects of life and the fates that befall people according to how they live their lives. These symbolic images are used to teach how Karma and the process of rebirth operates.

You can zoom in on the image below to see how all of the miniature scenes are represented as part of each realm and how the artist has included Tibetan inscriptions throughout the scroll to reinforce the messages being portrayed.

The Tibetan inscriptions

As can be seen when you zoom in to the image, inscriptions appear at various points on the scroll which describe the particular area being viewed. These include the Six Realms of Existence (the six main segments of the wheel), the 12 Links of Interdependant Origination (the outer segmented rim) and the inner circle divided into light and dark halves.

The Sanskrit term for the Wheel of Rebirth is 'Bhavachakra', in Tibetan it is 'srid pa’i khor lo'. This literally means ‘The Wheel of Becoming’ or rebirth.

The Six Realms
Each of the realms has a brief title, given below with its Tibetan translation. In some parts of the scroll painting the letters are illegible, we have used a dotted line and question marks to indicate this. The realms are listed in a clockwise direction, starting from the top (12 o'clock position).

‘Abode of the Gods’
rGyal lha yi gnas

‘Abode of the Asuras resulting from envy’
…(?) las kyi skyes gnas lha min gnas

‘The realm of the Hungry Ghosts’
Ser sna leg kyi skyes gnas yi dags gi

‘Realm of Hell resulting from hatred’
Zhe sdang las kyi skye gnas dmyal ba’i gling

‘The realm of the animals resulting from ignorance’
gTi mug les kyi skyes gnas du rdr ‘i ling

‘Realm of Desire' (Human Realm)
‘dod chag ma yul

The Inner Circle (Divided into dark and light halves with figures in them)
These Tibetan inscriptions describe the upward or virtuous, light circle, of those performing good deeds and the downward, dark path, of those doing bad deeds.

dGe ba’i las tschan shor ba’I lam du bkod pa
‘ Those set on the road escaping to the state of virtuous action’

sdig po che ngan song du khrid pa’i lam
‘The road leading to evil deeds (and Hell)’

The Outer ring showing the 'Nidanas' or Twelve links of Interdependent Origination
These are listed in the traditional order, in a clockwise direction starting at the bottom in the 7 o'clock position. (The image showing a man leading an old woman with a staff).
The inscriptions are shown with both Sanskrit and Tibetan versions.

(Ignorance) Sanskrit: Avidya; Tibetan: ma rig pa

(The 5 Aggregates of Being) Sanskrit: Skandas; Tibetan: ‘du byed phun po

(Consciousness) Sanskrit: Vijnana; Tibetan: nam pa skyes pa

(Name and Form) Sanskrit: Namarupa; Tibetan: dang gzhugs

(The 5 Senses) Sanskrit: Sadayatanani; Tibetan: ‘skye mched drug

(Contact) Sanskrit: Sparsa; Tibetan: rtshor pa

(Impact) Sanskrit: Vedana

(Thirst) Sanskrit: Trishna; Tibetan: sred pa

(Satisfying Desire) Sanskrit: Upadana; Tibetan: len pa

(The Next life) Sanskrit: Bhava; Tibetan: srid pa

(A New Life) Sanskrit: Jati; Tibetan: skye ba

(Death) Sanskrit: Jaramarana; Tibetan: rza shi o

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