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  • Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples
  • Matthew McDonald (bio)
Stephen F. Teiser . Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. 336 pp.; 88 illustrations, 14 in color; 7 tables; glossary. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0–295–98649–2.

In his most recent book, Reinventing the Wheel, Stephen Teiser investigates the "wheel of rebirth" (Sanskrit: samsaracakra, Chinese: shengsi lun 生死輪), which presents in visual form the Buddhist notion of the cyclical nature of life and death. Several differing versions of the wheel are closely examined in their literary and ritual contexts. Early literary sources concerning the wheel are scattered throughout the medieval Buddhist world. The canonical description, found in the vinaya literature of the Mulasarvastivada school, offers detailed instructions concerning the manner in which the wheel should be painted, the location in which it should be displayed, and its primary function as a teaching device for the laity. However, Teiser's own examination of extant versions of the wheel found in cave temples, meditation rooms, and pilgrimage sites yields a number of variations from this intended standard. Fieldwork and personal observations of surviving wheels in India, central Asia, and western China are used to compare existing wheels in their ritual settings to the officially sanctioned wheel found in the vinaya account. Teiser finds that the creators of wheels understood the canonical account in a number of ways, and that the wheels are products of these differing interpretations. Images have an existence and function apart from the canonical literature that sanctions them. In an effort to demonstrate this thesis, Teiser uses an innovative approach to reconsider several concepts important to historians of religion.

Reminiscent of an approach offered in his previous studies, Teiser maintains the centrality of the image in the lived religious experience of the majority of Buddhists in the medieval world. He points out that "in premodern Asia, far more people were literate in images than in the written language" (p. 40). The image, in Teiser's view, is the most important part of the religious experience of the everyday practitioner. Didactic imagery was encountered during community festivals, on the walls of temples, among public and private paintings and sculptures, and during the entertainment of traveling storytellers and musicians (pp. 40–41). He emphasizes the image as a form of discourse (pp. 41–42, 239–270). By doing so, he takes seriously the notion that the wheel of rebirth in each of its varying manifestations is not an arbitrary construction. Each depiction of the wheel had patrons with political and religious agendas. The patrons and artists who funded and executed such icons targeted specific audiences. Viewing the image as a form of discourse highlights the underlying sociopolitical climates that so heavily influence; [End Page 570] the ritual context of religious iconography. Without such a context, the significance of such icons cannot be fully understood.

The book is divided into ten chapters. Most are devoted to specific mentions of the wheel of rebirth in literary sources, artistic remains, or both. In keeping with the central place of images in religious life, Teiser emphasizes the autonomy of images from canonical reference. The canonical account of the wheel is the focus of the second chapter. The Mulasarvastivada vinaya was originally composed in Sanskrit. Although now lost, scholars place the time of its composition between the second to the fifth centuries. Between the years 700 and 712, the monk Yijing translated it into Chinese (pp. 50–51). A full translation of the text along with an insightful commentary by the author is included (pp. 53–56). The text includes the story of the origin of the wheel, the precise manner in which it should be executed, and its intended didactic functions. The Buddha commands that the wheel replace the sermons of Maudgalyayana, who preaches to the masses about his cosmic journeys around the heavens and hells and instructs all beings on the paths of rebirth (pp. 57–60). The Buddha instructs that the image should be composed of several elements, including the Buddha at the center, five spokes representing the paths of rebirth, twelve stages of dependent origination, two written stanzas...