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Americosmos: A Mandala of the Unenlightened States of Affliction

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Anyone who has ever been to a Tibetan Buddhist temple or a California
meditation center has probably seen the Bhavachakra. Known in English as the Wheel
of Life, the Wheel of Becoming, or the Wheel of Suffering, this popular mandala
depicts the structure and dynamics of samsara,
the universe of cyclic existence. As with other traditional Buddhist images, the
Bhavachakra is loaded with stylized figures and arcane symbols, each rendered
in strict accordance with long-established formulae regarding placement, color,
size, bodily proportion, etc. Not surprisingly, Buddhist art is not about
self-expression; rather, it is meant to facilitate spiritual awakening.

When I first encountered this fact, and Buddhist
iconographic painting in general, I was fascinated and perplexed. I had just
arrived for a multi-month stay at Norbulingka, an institute in northern India
dedicated to preserving Tibetan art and culture. Although my position as volunteer
graphic designer ostensibly involved sitting in front of a computer, I would
often wander into the painting studio to watch the young trainees working diligently
on their thangkas. I was impressed by
their deep concentration, captivated by their beautiful handiwork, and hard
pressed to define what I was seeing. Was it art or craft? Were these Tibetan
refugees to be admired as exemplars of selflessness or pitied as paintbrush-pushing

I was, after all, raised in the US, where art is primarily a
secular thing, a commodity even, and where being an artist — a real artist, anyway — involves trashing
tradition and forging a unique pathway to infamy. A Bohemian by blood, I had
adopted the label of “artist” after learning to draw Snoopy in kindergarten, and
later adopted Salvador Dali as my personal hero, partly because of his utterly
bizarre persona. I took tons of art classes in college, majored in graphic
design, and subsequently pursued my childhood dream of being a cartoonist,
albeit more Tom Tomorrow than Charles Schulz.

Then, during my stay in India, I got into Buddhism. My
affections changed from Dali to the Dalai Lama, whom I met several times at
Norbulingka, one of many institutions over which he technically presided. In
fact, my living quarters were located just below the sweet suite reserved for
His Holiness’ occasional visits. And just outside my front door, adorning one
wall of the ornate, brightly colored central temple, was a magnificent
rendering of the Bhavachakra. Every day on my way to “work,” I would pause to marvel
at the intricacies of the cosmos within which I was presumably embedded.

A Brief Breakdown of
the Universe

Having returned full circle to the Wheel of Life, I now
present the basic layout, from the inside out. Smack in the center of the wheel
there appear a rooster, snake, and pig, representing desire, aversion, and ignorance
(the three poisons or root causes of suffering). Just outside this inner circle
is the ring of karma, within which tiny figures rise on one side and descend on
the other. The main part of the wheel is divided into six pie slices depicting
the six realms of existence (those of the gods, demigods, humans, animals,
hungry ghosts, and hell beings), while on the outer rim are depicted the twelve
links of dependent origination (which I won’t get into here). The whole of the wheel
is held in the grip of Mara, the demon of illusion. A moon in the upper left
corner symbolizes liberation, while the Buddha in the upper right points the

As complicated as this all might sound, the Wheel of Life is
often used as a teaching tool for children, containing as it does many core concepts
of Buddhism. The image is designed to provide the viewer with a quick download
of dharma and, ideally, inspiration. For
despite Mara’s menacing features and the system of suffering over which he
presides, his main function is to remind us that nothing is permanent. Neither
hell beings nor even gods dwell eternally in their respective realms, but are
reborn elsewhere in accordance with their karma. And all beings have Buddha
nature, the capacity for full awakening. Essentially the Bhavachakra, like
Buddhism in general, is primarily about freedom.

A Sort of Homecoming

So too does the USA stand for freedom, or so I had been
taught. When I finally returned stateside after over a year in the shadows of
Shangri-La, my reverse culture shock was profound. Although I had seriously considered
staying indefinitely in India to study Buddhism and perhaps even become a monk,
I realized almost immediately why my conscience had called me back. Where once I
had perceived only sickening abundance, I now saw abundant sickness and heard a
desperate cry for help. My former cynicism had (mostly) morphed into
compassion. I had, in effect, been reborn into the realm of my own culture, and
into a full awareness of the ubiquity of suffering. It’s no less present in the
McMansions of the Midwest, I grokked, than in the hovels of Himachal Pradesh.

In fact, the America of my rebirth seemed even more mired in
misery than any so-called “developing country” I had ever visited. I saw it in the
ostentatious affluence, the pervasive obesity, and the vacant expressions of my
fellow countrypersons. It was apparent in the advertising that relentlessly assaulted
the senses and insulted the intelligence. And it was there in the statistics: epidemic
use and
abuse of prescription drugs and painkillers, world-record rates of violent
crime and incarceration, widespread heart disease and other stress-related
illness, chronic over-consumption habits leading 5% of the planet’s population to
ravage 1/3 of its resources, and a military budget as big as the rest of the
world combined. To my acclimating eyes, the pursuit of happiness appeared to be
an epic failure.

As for freedom, I could only recall Goethe’s observation that “none are more enslaved than those who
falsely believe they are free.” As I settled back into American life, I had the
unsettling realization that the whole country was little more than an elaborate
prison in which the inmates were also wardens, and the walls made of illusions maintained
by an invisible entity I came to call “Uncle Samsara.” Indeed, the more I
thought about American culture, the more it seemed like an extreme caricature
of the human condition as depicted in the Wheel of Suffering. The cartoonist in
me couldn’t resist flushing out the parallels, although it wasn’t until years
later that I committed the scheme to paper. It is now preserved for posterity
as a freely downloadable,
tabloid-sized, digital image whose title matches that of this article. Like
all cartoons, it embodies a certain amount of snark, but like the Bhavachakra, its
ultimate purpose is to educate and to inspire genuine freedom.

A Key to the Matrix

What follows is
a description of my mandala, again from the inside out. At the hub of the wheel
appear a dollar bill, a tank, and a television, representing the three poisons
of greed, hatred, and delusion (these exist institutionally as materialism,
militarism, and the media). Just outside the central circle is the ring of financial
karma, in which people slowly climb the ladder to prosperity, only to slide
back down into a hole of debt.

The main part of the mandala depicts the Six Realms of Socioeconomic Existence.
At the top is the Imperial Realm, in
which ultra-wealthy beings live in mansions, ride in limousines, and suffer
from arrogance, isolation, and the occasional bad hair day. Below and to the
left of this realm is that of the Imperial
, who abide in sprawling suburban homes, drive expensive cars, and suffer
from envy and existential angst. To the right of this realm is the Public Domain, populated by working
class humans who live in modest homes, apartments, and trailers, and drive used
cars. They speak highly of freedom while being severely constrained by desire,
fixation, and fear. Many of them suffer from high blood pressure, low self-esteem,
and bad credit. Lower on the ladder lies the Animal Turf, wherein many creatures are subject to displacement, confinement,
and cruelty on the part of humans. Some of them are kept as pets and often treated
much better than beings in the adjacent Homeless
. This realm is populated by nearly invisible “hungry ghosts” who
wander endlessly in search of food and shelter. The lowest of all realms is the
Hellish ‘Hood, the residents of which suffer from
intense anger and psychological illness. Beings in this realm possess very
little freedom, whether held captive in prisons, mental institutions, or army

The outer wheel depicts the Twelve Steps of Codependent
. The sequence begins and ends with shopping, an activity
which leads directly to the accumulation of material objects. Possessing
lots of stuff leads to the need for a “stuff storage facility,” commonly called
a house and usually located outside of town. This necessitates having a motorized
with which to transport one’s person, groceries, and additional stuff. Driving a car necessitates buying
, which contributes to debt and the need to maintain employment.
Working generates stress,
which leads to an urgent desire for relaxation. This often involves consuming
alcohol and/or watching television. Depressants, TV and advertising all contribute to a sense of
lack or emptiness, symbolized here by a black hole. This feeling of
worthlessness leads to an impulse to shop, which begins the cycle anew.

The Wheel of Suffering is held in the clutches of the aforementioned
Uncle Samsara, the Lord of Illusion. This fearsome figure presides over
a vast empire of desire, despair, death and taxes. Outside of this wheel lies
liberty in the form of planetary consciousness, lunar consciousness,
and compassion (symbolized by a green Tara). Ultimate freedom is found in the
form of cosmic consciousness, wisdom and peace (symbolized by a
meditating Buddha).

May all Americans,
and all beings everywhere, be happy and truly free.

Darrin Drda is the author of The Four Global Truths: Awakening
to the Perils and Promise of Our Times
, recently released by
EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. 

2 thoughts on “Americosmos: A Mandala of the Unenlightened States of Affliction”

  1. Hi there! The featured image should be available to right-click and download. Thanks for reading!

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