It has taken me more than a year, but I have finally finished the painting that I’ve been working on in my studio in Colorado.
I call it “The Wheel Of Life,” and to be honest, I did not work on it the whole year.
We traveled for many months, and I also did not paint every day that we were at home, but often went skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer.
But I did spend a lot of time planning and working on this painting, and I enjoyed interpreting the traditional image of the Buddhist Wheel Of Life, to reflect my own understanding and views.
The Wheel of Life is called in Sanskrit Bhavacakra.
In Tibetan སྲིད་པའི་འཁོར་ལོ་ it is Sipé Khorlo.
It is a traditional painting representing the cycles of Samsara- the cycles of birth, death and rebirth, to which beings in the physical world are bound.
Some believe that the diagram was designed by Buddha himself.
It is a popular painting that you can see in front of almost every Buddhist monastery around Tibet, Bhutan, the Tibetan territories in China and Sikkim in Northeastern India.
One of the reasons the Wheel of Life is painted outside and on the walls of the monasteries, is to teach this profound Buddhist view of life to more simple-minded farmers and cow herders.
The painting is full of symbolism.
The fierce being holding the wheel represents the Ego.
It is the mistaken human identity which gives rise to everything that is cyclical or impermanent.
The ego is usually depicted with long teeth, a crown of skeletons, long nails and a tiger skin tied to its waist.
This is because the ego is both fierce and animalistic.
It does not understand that all creation is made of One united and gentle energy.
It is the human ego-mind which carves individual images and forms out of this unity, and then proceeds to believe that these forms are separate from itself.
The ego-mind does not see others as part of itself, and thus does not apply kindness and reason when interacting with “others.”
Instead, the ego resorts to its animalistic nature, and to fighting “tooth and nail.”
At the very center of the wheel are the “Three Poisons,” or the three emotions of:
Greed (empty desires)
Anger (rage and hatred)
Ignorance (lack of understanding).
These three emotions, represented by the pig, the snake and the rooster, are at the root of all human suffering.
The Second Layer represents “Karma,” or the human choice of positive and negative thoughts, feelings and actions.
The two lighter quadrants of the circle represent positive or virtuous actions, which lead to positive karma.
Those who devote their lives to doing good are believed to be more evolved, and thus tend to reincarnate in the three higher realms of “The Human Realm,” “The Demi-gods Realm” and “The Gods Realm.”
Reincarnating in one of these three upper realms gives a person better tools for an easier life, and a desire to practice continuously upwards, towards the final goal of Self-Liberation from the cycle of Samsara.
The darker half-circle depicts negative or non-virtuous actions.
Negative actions lead to the three lower realms of the animals, the hungry ghosts and human hell.
Both paths are illustrated by the saints and sages on the virtuous Path of Bliss, and the demons, armed with nooses who drag the sinners along the Dark Path.
The Six Realms of Cyclical Existence are the focus of the painting.
Buddhism divides incarnations into realms.
They are referred to as the “Six Forms of SELF Imprisonment.”
It is believed that all of us at one point have experienced or will experience each of these realms.
A hell realm,
A hungry ghost realm,
An animal realm,
The human realm,
The Demi gods, or the jealous gods realm,
And the Gods realm.
Below I summarize a bit about each of the six realms:
The Hell Realm
The hell realm is the lowest of the six realms, and an incarnation here is caused by extreme aggression.
There are actually two kinds of hell in the Buddhist lexicon, a burning hot hell and one of freezing cold.
The hot hell is a result of anger, hatred and rage, while the cold hell comes from a cold heart and an icy, heartless attitude.
In the hot hell, beings attack and kill each other over and over again during many incarnations, seeking revenge for the wrongs that were done to them.
Beings here are ceaselessly tortured by Yama, the Lord of Death.
All of these tortures are NOT done by external creatures like demons or devils, they are only PROJECTIONS OF THE MINDS of the beings trapped in this realm by their own aggression.
Emotions like resentment, anger, self loathing and bitterness keep people in this emotional, psychological and physical hell.
Even though there are no external tormentors here, the beings in this realm experience a great deal of pain, sickness, death, murder, gruesome accidents and other misfortunes .
Liberation from this realm comes when a being starts to feel deep sympathy towards others and remorse for his actions.
The smallest glimmer of true compassion is usually enough to result in a rebirth in a higher realm.
As in all realms, the Buddha is usually painted as a reminder that the path towards full liberation is a possibility.
All sentient beings can choose to let go of their illusions and to liberate themselves.
The Hungry Ghost Realm
The hungry ghost realm results from a life where extreme frustration, jealousy and unsatisfied desires ruled the being’s consciousness.
Again, all of this has nothing to do with external conditions.
Even very rich, famous and successful people can have the mentality of a hungry ghost, oblivious to their blessings, full of envy and always craving things they do not need.
This is why the hungry ghosts are usually painted holding food in their hands, but with throats that are thin and constricted, leaving them unable to satisfy their cravings.
The suffering in this realm is less intense, but the endless obsession with what they lack can lead to very dissatisfied minds. They are depicted as beings who live as wraiths, dwelling in desolate places.
They have no real external reason to be kept in this realm, and like all of us, they are surrounded by an endlessly abundant Universe.
Everything they need and want IS THERE, but their delusions prevent them from seeing it.
Even when they receive many blessings, their insatiable hunger and lack of gratitude prevent them from enjoying them.
A hungry ghost can liberate himself by practicing constant gratitude, giving to others, loving everyone and choosing to feel HOPE and positivity, instead of fear.
The Animal Realm
In the animal realm, one is only conscious of the ego-self and its immediate needs like hunger, food, sex and physical comforts.
The beings spend most of their days in activities related to the satisfaction of their survival needs and desires.
All is instinct in this realm; there is neither reflection nor introspection.
The animal realm is always painted with symbolic rocks and lakes, because beings trapped in this realm can embody inanimate objects as well, such as rocks, lakes and trees.
They have the range of perception that humans do, but their reasoning and intellect are underdeveloped.
They perceive the world entirely in relation to themselves, with no deeper meaning.
The suffering here results from the constant struggle for survival.
It is a world where the mottos are, “dog eats dog,” “only the strong survive” and “kill or be killed.”
In this realm, the Buddha appears as Dhruvasimha, holding a scroll and signaling a sacred hand gesture (mudra), representing that one can study the Dharma (the spiritual teachings) to achieve liberation.
This is significant because a gentle use of language marks a crucial stage in the evolution of consciousness.
The ability to reason with others who try to grab your food means that you are using a higher level of intelligence than what is available to a wolf or a hyena.
The Human Realm
The human realm is often described as a “middle realm” which is not excessively burdened by negative past actions or deluded with power, as are some beings dwelling in the god realms.
In the human realm, one gets a magnificent opportunity to achieve liberation and enlightenment.
It is a reward to be born human, one that comes with a great deal of merit, growth, evolution and higher understanding.
I painted in this realm two red-robed monks, who are practicing Self Liberation by renouncing pride, empty ambitions and the craving of power and status.
In the human realm, liberation can be achieved by controlling and understanding empty cravings and desires, getting rid of bad old habits, and attachments to manipulate others to achieve desired results.
I also painted a spiritual warrior, who represents unwavering determination and resolution to achieve enlightenment and liberation from the human realm.
To achieve liberation, the mind must become fully awake and one must see the unity in everything.
Humans walk daily a razor’s edge between the veil of delusions and the real world.
Most human suffering stems from believing that illusions and the physical world are real, and from the belief that the body is real and solid, born but to die, subject to sickness, decay and death.
The challenges of all the other realms, like greed, craving power, anger, hatred, ignorance, unexamined desires, pride, impatience, arrogance, and physical delusions, all exist in the human realm, and need to be overcome in order to be liberated to a higher realm.
The Demi-gods or the Jealous-gods Realm
The realm of the demi-gods is also referred to as that of the jealous gods.
The realm is populated by human beings who have realized that they are creators, creating their own realities.
They have realized their powers, but they have not yet achieved Nirvana or pure bliss, and thus are still tempted to use their powers to control external circumstances instead of themselves.
The Titans in this realm are warring against the gods, fighting for the fulfillment of their desires and ambitions for changing the world or the behavior of others.
I painted in this realm two powerful Titans or Demi-gods holding swords.
They symbolize that they have become powerful enough to manifest all their desires directly from the Universal, with only a flick of their fingers.
Beings in this realm often are powerful people on earth, but they do not use their powers wisely.
They are envious of the serene Gods’ realm, unaware that if they were to become motivated by the Light of love, they too will evolve to become Gods.
Fundamentally they have all the same God given powers, intelligence and a pure divine nature, but they do not understand the POWER OF LOVE and how it is the ONE and only principle at the very core of all creation.
It is NOT considered auspicious to be born in the Demi-God realm, because despite their intellect, powers, and potential, they can easily lose sight of Grace and fall into the three lower realms of hell, hungry ghost, or animal.
Think of charismatic people like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or less destructive but still very power hungry political leaders.
Their tendencies are towards unloving and tribal ways of thinking, which lead to aggression and violence.
They are capable of doing great good as well as great evil, and they possess tremendous energy.
If they are attracted to religion, it is usually not used to elevate everyone but to dominate.
The Gods Realm
Beings in the gods realm realize their powers and godliness.
All beings are ONE with God, and are given all the power, spirit and blessings to become god-realized beings.
We arrive in this realm by removing illusions from our minds.
We reach this realm by realizing our UNITY and ONENESS with everyone and everything.
When a beings dwells in love ALL the time, she loses sight of her ego identity and of all personal needs and wants.
The gods realm is the land of perfection, of total joy and bliss.
I painted one of the gods playing a musical instrument and the other floating in the air holding a vase, containing the elixir of life.
The gods in this realm have refined senses, and are able to see glowing energy and to smell pleasant fragrances.
They experience NO frustration and pain but live as pure spirits, free from danger and attack.
Humans can be reborn into this heaven by following the spiritual principles of unity and love in all their thoughts, emotions and deeds.
They are still WITHIN the cycle of time, born of attachment and desire, but this is considered to be the most fortunate rebirth, the result of many lives of virtue.
The difficulty here is that gods experience such ease and joy, that they have little motivation to advance BEYOND this point.
Those who are advanced spiritual teachers on earth and other highly evolved beings might stay stuck in this realm.
Their egos tell them that they are making great progress and are constantly evolving, but they are blinded by the image of themselves as highly evolved spiritual beings, and do not understand that this identity blocks their further progress.
This is why famous spiritual teachers often attract terminal illness and die and need to be reborn again.
The realized gods need to become totally EGOLESS, empty and humble, seeking to live like hermits with no needs, in order to move beyond this realm.
Since these gods have transcended their physical bodies, they do not undergo death as we define it.
They have immensely long lives, and then simply wake up in a different realm.
The gods usually play musical instruments and speak via thought transference.
The language of music is easier for people to understand since it generates pleasure and people are more likely to listen to it.
Liberation from this realm occurs when a god-being wishes to transcend all realms, all forms and all ideas of formlessness.
A desire to achieve union with God, the Formless Absolute, means that one is willing to let go of the “Self” that wishes to attain this union.
It is described that at the dawn of enlightenment, the being isn’t certain whether it is becoming enlightened or actually going insane.
All world views are shattered when enlightenment is achieved.
The outer layer of the painting is traditionally painted with the “Twelve Links” of interdependent origination, with their cause and effects.
I chose NOT to paint the traditional twelve pictures in the outer circle, but instead to paint the toys and trinkets that bind us to the cycle of Samsara.
In the background, beyond the ego, beyond all realms, beyond all music, is SILENCE.
I painted the Music and the Silence as geometric patterns all around the painting.
On the upper right corner is the Buddha pointing at the Moon.
The moon symbolizes the Liberation from Suffering.
The Buddha is pointing out that freedom from the cycle of Samsara and achieving Self-liberation, is possible in ONE LIFETIME to all who seek it sincerely.
The Buddha demonstrated that there is a gradual way toward the cessation of suffering by means of walking the Noble Eightfold Path.
(The Noble Eightfold Path includes: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.)
All the spiritual teachings of humanity throughout the years, have told us the purpose of life on earth is to achieve union with our fundamental, enlightened Spiritual nature.
The only way to do this is to awaken to the Truth and to undertake the spiritual journey towards Spirit with all the strength, determination, intelligence, courage and discipline for willingness for transformation, that we can muster.