Himalayan Art Resources

Wheel of Life: Three Poisons

Wheel of Life: Components

First Center: The inner most of the 4 concentric circles shows a black pig (ignorance), green snake (anger/aversion) and a bird, usually depicted as a rooster (desire/attraction) circling on a variously coloured background. They are often shown biting on each others tail in a circle. In Buddhist philosophy these three animals are used to symbolize the Three Poisons.

Video: Three Poisons

The original Sanskrit source is the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Vibhanga text has been translated into a number of languages. The Chinese version was translated earlier than the Tibetan and has some variations one from the other. The Chinese version describes an image of the Buddha placed at the center with the Three Poisons depicted below. The Tibetan version of the translated text does not describe a Buddha figure and only mentions the animals representing the Three Poisons. Currently only a single Himalayan art style painting of a Wheel of Life with a Buddha at the center can be identified (see an example).

The most common depiction of the Three Poisons is with the three animals each biting down on the other's tails thus forming a circle of the three figures. Other examples are where the three animals are simply placed within the central circle or disc with no interaction. With some examples the figures are stacked one above the other. They can also be found depicted against a tree with the pig at the bottom, the snake slithering upwards and the rooster or bird at the top.

It is believed by some Tibetan Buddhist teachers that there is a correct and an incorrect order for the depiction of the three animals representing the Three Poisons. The correct order should be with the pig biting down on the tail of the snake and the bird. Possibly this is explained as the two, attachment and aversion, arise from ignorance.

Placement of the 3 Animals:
- Pig biting two tails
- Each animal biting a tail forming a circle
- Disassociated placement of the three
- Stacked upward
- Placed below or beside a Buddha

The images below are all of the examples on the HAR site that depict the pig biting down on the tails of the snake and bird.

Jeff Watt [updated 6-2022]

Source Text: Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Vibhanga: (translated from the Chinese version of the Sanskrit text)

'In the hub make a white circle and paint an image of the Buddha in the center. In front of the Buddha image paint three symbols. First make a pigeon to symbolize greed. Next make a snake to symbolize hatred. Last make a pig to symbolize delusion.'

(Reinventing the Wheel. Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Stephen F. Teiser. University of Washington Press, Seattle & London. 2006. Page 55).