- Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples
With Reinventing the Wheel, Stephen Teiser takes a step farther in his exploration of the Buddhist afterlife in medieval times, begun in The Ghost Festival in Medieval China and then in "The Scripture on the Ten Kings" and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.1 Taken together, these three monographs provide a historical corrective to the [End Page 234] modernist tendency in Buddhism in Asia today to emphasize this-worldly social engagement, or, in the West, to highlight the ways in which Buddhist practices can provide the foundation for self-cultivation and internal experiences. In the past—and even, perhaps, among the majority of Buddhists today—Buddhism is, above all, a framework for understanding and negotiating a cosmos that extends far beyond the visible world in which we live, and far beyond the present, to include future and past lives as gods, ghosts, hell beings, and animals, as well as humans. As Teiser asserts early on in Reinventing the Wheel,
One item on this book's agenda, then, is the importance of ideas about rebirth and karma in Buddhism. I hope to direct attention to the prevalence, if not the ubiquity, of cosmological notions in the history of Buddhism. The rebirth cosmology, I believe, deserves to be added to the growing list of problems deemed central to Buddhism: nirva. a, the status of the Buddha and his relics, no-self, dharmas or the analysis of existence into its constituent parts, causality, monasticism and renunciation, the soteriological orientation of morality, and so on.(P. 39)
Nowhere is the Buddhist vision of karma and rebirth expressed more evocatively than in the diagram analyzed here.
Reinventing the Wheel is the first study of the origins and early development of depictions of the "Wheel of Life and Death," now most commonly found in Tibetan temples. Among the most striking images in Buddhist art, the wheel consists of three main parts, neatly summarizing Buddhist cosmology: an outer circle depicting the twelve-fold chain of causation through symbols—a blind man for ignorance, a monkey for consciousness, a corpse for death, and so on; the inner circle depicts the five (or six) realms of rebirth (gods, humans, ghosts, hell beings, beasts, and sometimes titans); finally, a core circle at the center depicts a cock, a pig, and a snake, representing the "three poisons" of greed, delusion, and hatred. The entire wheel is in the grasp of a ferocious monster, usually said to represent impermanence.
The earliest textual reference to the wheel occurs in the vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivāda sect, written in Sanskrit sometime between the second and fifth centuries and later translated into Chinese and Tibetan. According to this account, in order to illustrate the structure [End Page 235] of the cosmos and the forces that drive it, the Buddha commanded all monks to paint a wheel of birth and death before the room at the gate of the temple. The Buddha further commanded his followers to appoint someone to explain the significance of the wheel to its viewers. The bulk of Teiser's book examines instances in which Buddhists followed these instructions, creating wheels of life and death outside of monasteries that survive, at least in part, to this day. Specifically, after introducing the canonical source for the wheel, Teiser examines depictions of the wheel in a fifth-century mural at Ajaṇṭā; in Western India; at a small meditation cave in Kumtura, in Central Asia, painted in the ninth century; in a tenth-century cave temple in Yulin, Gansu; at an eleventh-century temple in Western Tibet; and finally at a thirteenth-century pilgrimage site in Sichuan.2
In the broad sweep of Buddhist expansion across Asia, the story of the wheel of rebirth would seem to be a prime example of the determinate power of texts in Buddhist history. For the most part, the wheel followed the text that first promoted it: the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya. Of the six...