Reimagining the Wheel of Life

Oct 19, 2021

How Buddhist Teacher David Nichtern and Illustrator Andrew Archer Created a Contemporary Portrayal of the Classic Buddhist Painting

Often painted on the exterior of Buddhist temples, the Wheel of Life, also referred to as the cycle of existence, is one of the most well-known pieces of Buddhist art. The ancient painting includes detailed symbolism representing the Buddhist view of the universe and a variety of teachings that are interpreted in many ways. As Buddhist teacher, musician and author David Nichtern explains in his book, Awakening from the Daydream: Reimagining the Buddha’s Wheel of Life, “the Wheel portrays the different ways we get trapped in repetitive patterns and imprison ourselves emotionally, intellectually, and in relation to our eternal life circumstances.”

With Awakening, Nichtern set out to present the ancient teachings in contemporary terms, and he viewed the book’s visuals as equally important as its words to connect with a modern audience. For the book’s cover art, Nichtern sought a fresh depiction of the famous Buddhist drawing that would spark as powerful a reaction in today’s readers as the original painting elicited from early viewers.

With the guidance of his publisher, he enlisted New Zealand illustrator Andrew Archer to take on the challenge. The result is a vivid, imaginative interpretation that accomplished precisely what Nichtern aimed to achieve: “Andrew created a very cool piece of art. It has an anime quality and a Grateful Dead energy while remaining true to the meaning of the original painting.”

Here, David and Andrew reflect on their collaboration, their process for reimagining the Wheel, and what inspires them as artists.

David, the artwork in discussion serves as the cover of your book Awakening from the Daydream. Can you summarize the concept for us?

David Nichtern: The premise of Awakening from the Daydream is to recognize a certain quality in our everyday experience that is somewhat dreamlike—there's an element of fabrication to it. It’s like a narration of a movie in our mind or a projection, an overlay, a filter. It keeps us from being in direct connection with whatever is actually happening.

The book is based on the very important classic teaching of the Buddha, the Wheel of Life. This painting was on the outside wall of the monasteries facing the civilians, inviting them to see that a lot of what they're experiencing is their own projections rather than reality. Awakening from our daydream mind is why we meditate. It allows us to experience a clear moment of being present and free from thoughts. Recognizing this moment is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

Why did you want the cover of the book to have a modern portrayal of this classic painting?

DN: I realized that people today could look at the Wheel of Life and not have any idea what it means. There’s a really cool backstory for the teaching. The Buddha was asked by the ancient king Bimbisara to help him come up with an idea for a gift for the Indian king of Rashasa. Buddha gave him exact instructions on how to create this painting. When the king presented the gift, the Indian king of Rashasa looked at it and became enlightened on the spot. My aspiration was to make a version of the Wheel that people today could look at and understand in a similar way.

My view of the Wheel of Life was heavily colored by the way I learned it from my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He formulated this psychological way of looking at it, that these are states of mind that you go through, that states of mind and the environments that we live in are somewhat co-created by our own state of mind. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the person who made the translation into Western culture in the first place. I'm just trying to take it further and extend it out to the next generation.

What was it about David’s vision for the Wheel of Life that inspired you to collaborate on this project? What was your process for adapting this very famous painting into this modern version?

Andrew Archer: The project was attractive to me because of its contemporary approach. I think as an artist the most challenging thing is to create a visual which people from different continents, backgrounds and ethnicities can all be interested in, and then be able to build their own story around the subject. Creating a visual that would align with David’s approach to the Wheel of Life really let me be myself and find real-life scenarios and inspiration which relate to this contemporary take on the classic painting.

I took the ideas presented to me and let them grow based on my everyday life. David’s ideas were relatable, so I naturally had a nice starting point. From there I focused on creating an aesthetic which was contemporary but also honored the history and longevity of the Wheel of Life.

In his work, David often explores the intersection of artistry, spirituality and ability to make a living. With that in mind, Andrew, could you share what inspired you to become an artist?

AA: I can’t say there was a specific moment or person who triggered my inspiration but more so a series of events and passions through my life and younger years that lead to me creating art full time. My younger years of skateboarding and their graphics played a large part. Travel and culture I experienced throughout Asia inspired me in a big way as well.

What is it about Asian culture that has made such an impression on you?

AA: The dedication to craftsmanship really is at the core of it all. Throughout history they have maintained a respect and desire to create unique works, and have focused on the journey and story of the works. Not everything is created for profit or to benefit from—there’s an underlying passion for the creation and its purpose in life which can be seen and felt.

What is your advice for up-and-coming artists developing a practice in their craft? How do they find success?

AA: Follow the path as it comes to you, but once you find your footing branch out and build your own creations which are for you, your IP and that will always get your attention. Personal work fuels everything commercial and it should not be ignored.

Observe who you are, what you’re passionate about and find a way to bring it all together. It may seem stupid or unwanted at the time, but if you put the work and time in, there will be a day when you shine for the uniqueness and passion which comes through in that work.

DN: That's wise. It's good advice and very much in alignment with how we view things at Dharma Moon. When you ask about developing a practice, the words that come to mind are “authenticity” and “genuineness.” I think my creative process is almost like it's coming through. I want to get my catcher's mitt out rather than my baseball bat. A lot of the time you have to just let it bubble up and be receptive. But then you have to finish it. Like Andrew said, now it's yours. You’ve got to finish it and you’ve got to put it out there. And you’ve got to have some guts to do that.

To further explore the Wheel of Life, join David and the Dharma Moon team for an exclusive online workshop November 12-14, 2021. Reserve your spot today: Wheel of Life


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