Artists Books
Penny Nii, Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life is a short fiction I wrote about reincarnation. The story called for a circular book in which each of the reincarnation was revealed as the story progressed. The turning of the page is accomplished by turning the wheel. A small accordion book contains information about the Buddhist view of reincarnation and the wheel of life. It is attached to the inside of the canister cover.

The Story

The Wheel of Life

In his youth the warlord received from his best friend a small dog. The Dog was not much to look at, a mongrel of dubious origin. The warlord had many other dogs, all handsome, all highly skilled. The Dog was very shy and intimidated by his own kind. But the Dog soon became inseparable from his master, for the only place he felt safe and comfortable was by the master’s side. Day and night, no matter where, no matter what the circumstance, the Dog stayed with his master.

One day a war broke out. The warlord mounted his horse and headed for the battlefield. The Dog followed. In the heat of battle, a fearsome enemy brandishing a sword attacked the warlord. The Dog, fearing for his master’s life, bit the enemy’s leg, and the master was saved. That evening the Dog was much celebrated, but the Dog knew he acted only from selfishness — what would become of him if his master died? The next day, and the days after, the Dog accompanied his master to the battle field. And on the seventh day, the Dog was killed by a stray arrow.

The Wheel of Life turned a notch. The Dog’s death was noted: his loyalty, his bravery. It was determined that his reward would be the highest possible, and he was reincarnated as a man.

The Man was born into a wealthy, powerful family as its only son. The father was a captain of industry who owned a gold mine and a fleet of trading ships. The Man grew up with the best of everything, a fine house, expensive horses and carriages, a private tutor. But the Man was shy, and he was often afraid of his father’s stature and power. As he matured, the Man’s bashfulness grew until he was an indecisive, reticent man.

One day his father died leaving the Man in charge of the gold mine and the fleet of ships. To gain some semblance of courage, he began to drink. But he was no captain of industry. He lost a ship to a competitor. He drank more. Then he lost another ship. One by one he lost all his ships, his gold mine, his home, everything. He became a drunken bum, begging for money for his next drink. As he became desperate for a drink, he became bold enough to commit petty thefts, then robberies. One day, craving a drink, the Man tried to rob a tavern and was killed.

The Wheel of Life turned a notch. The Man’s death was noted: his ingratitude, his cowardice, his sloth. It was determined that his punishment would be the severest possible, and he was reincarnated as a woman.

The Woman was born into a poor, but genteel family. She was the loveliest of women with an oval face, white skin, and shiny black hair. Although her sisters were gregarious and sociable, the Woman was very shy. When her sisters went out, she stayed home and helped her mother, practiced her piano, read books. When the family had company, the Woman was praised for her modesty and industry.

One day a wealthy, handsome young man accompanied family friends to the Woman’s house. The sisters vied with each other for the young man’s attention. The man noticed among the crowd a lovely young woman helping the mother. He spoke to her, but she blushed and looked down at her hands in silence. The young man mistook her shyness for coyness. His initial curiosity turned to interest, then to ardor. Eventually the Woman married the young man. In the wealthy family the Woman was beloved by her servants for her intelligence and quiet thoughtfulness, and by the husband for her diffidence and obedience. As she grew older, the Woman gained confidence, becoming an elegant and sophisticated lady. She died in old age and was mourned by the whole family.

The Wheel of Life turned a notch. The Woman’s death was noted: her grace, her charity, her accomplishment. It was determined that she would be elevated from her lowly status as a woman, and she was reincarnated as a dog.

— July 16, 1999

The Pamphlet

Hindu and Buddhist doctrine about events after death.

The judgment takes place in the Hall of Yama, situated in the underworld, where the record keeper Chitragupta reads out the balance sheet of our deeds. Those who lived a life of purity and truth and avoided any evil thought or act are sent immediately into the heavenly realm to enter a state of everlasting beatitude. All the rest — the very good who fell short of perfection, the moderately good, the bad, and the supremely wicked-are destined to repeat the earthly pilgrimage. They must try again.

Before re-entering the physical plane, each receives his share of reward or punishment according to the way he lived. For the virtuous the reward is a period of joy in paradise. The wicked, on the other hand, must suffer punishment in one of several hells appropriate to the transgression — pangs of thirst, suspension from spiked branches of poisonous trees, immersion in the lake of fire, drowning in mire, torment from prodding fiends.

This interim punishment, or pleasure, does not settle the debt. Heaven and hell are mere interludes, reminders of what awaits after the next birth. Relentlessly and remorselessly, the wheel turns until the balance sheet is clean.

Wheel of Life painting

Sometimes known as the Wheel of Rebirth, the Wheel of Life illustrate in a popular way the Four Truths of Buddhism: the existence of earthly sufferings, its origin and cause, the prevention of misery, and the path to liberation from earthly suffering.

In the center are the Three Spiritual Poisons: black pig for ignorance, red cock for lust and greed, green snake for envy and hatred. Half of the ring surrounding the center shows the consequences of succumbing to the basic evils; the other half shows the Path of Bliss.

The six spokes depict the realms into which a being may be reborn: at the top is the realm of gods; clockwise next is the realm of demi-gods and anti-gods who constantly struggle for dominance; next is the realm of ‘hungry ghost,’ those who after death are still attached by desire to this world. At the bottom is the hell realm showing the hot and the cold form of torment; next is the animal realm where sentient beings are confined in fear and ignorance; and near the top is the realm of the humans. In each grim realm dharma provides the opportunity for liberation from the repetitious situation known as samsara.

The rim of the wheel depicts the twelve causes and effects that drag the ignorant and the sinful mercilessly through the Wheel of Life.

8.5″ diameter, 3/4″ thick. Stored inside a 9.5″ movie reel canister.

A short story and a pamphlet explaining Asian ideas on Buddhist reincarnation.

Circular structure made with foam core and book boards.

Scanned images manipulated in Photoshop and printed on inkjet printer.



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