4 of 5

Picturing paths

Pictorial representations of paths are as old as Buddhism: according to tradition, Shakyamuni envisioned the first such image as the Wheel of Life.  Painting, sculpture, architecture, and other media have long been used to illustrate significant aspects of various paths. Many of these depictions remain vital today.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life is known throughout Asia and is especially prominent in Tibet. Doubling as a map of the path and a map of the cosmos, this richly colorful diagram teems with a cast of ordinary and extraordinary beings.  A central area depicts six realms of conditioned existence (samsara), populated by gods, fighting titans, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and denizens of hell.  The border of the Wheel illustrates the doctrine of dependent origination, in twelve links that lead from ignorance to death.  Shakyamuni or a bodhisattva appears in the pictorial space outside the Wheel, because the highest aim for aspirants on this path is to free oneself from the cycle of samsaric existence.

ashoka To learn about the Wheel of Life, see the Ashoka course The Meaning of Life: The 12 Links of Dependent Arising, taught by H.H. The Dalai Lama with Jeffrey Hopkins

An East Asian variant of the Wheel of Life adds four paths of enlightenment to the six realms, eliminates the twelve links, and puts the Sino-Japanese character for "mind" in the Wheel's hub. 

Another influential depiction of a path is the Ten Oxherding Pictures.  Developed in the eleventh century by the Ch'an (Zen) school in China, this series of ten images uses an ox to symbolize Buddha nature, inherent and universal.  The spiritual aspirant, represented by a young oxherd, is shown searching for the ox, finding it, taming it, and eventually—in the tenth image—returning to society. 

Ten Oxherding Pictures  

In contrast to the colorful style of the Wheel of Life, the Oxherding Pictures usually employ a spare black-and-white style, framing the ten images in identical circles.  The eighth illustration, entitled "Both Self and Ox Forgotten," is a completely empty circle.

Generations of Zen practitioners have felt special fondness for the set's third picture, in which the searching figure first glimpses the partially hidden ox, because that scene corresponds to an initial experience of awakening (kensho in Japanese). 

First Glimpse of the Ox

Yet another pictorial map, still used in Tibetan teaching, illustrates the meditative Path of Calm. 

The Path of Calm (detail)

A man, an elephant, and a monkey are repeatedly depicted on an ascending road with sharp curves.  The man represents the meditator, the elephant symbolizes the mind, and the monkey stands for the mind's agitation.  At the outset, the monkey leads the elephant, and the man pursues them from a distance.  Eventually, the man gains control over the elephant, and the monkey disappears.  The ever-increasing stillness of mind (samatha) is also expressed through the use of black and white: the elephant and the monkey start out completely black, but their blackness recedes in each successive scene until both animals are completely white. 

The Path of Calm and the Oxherding Pictures probably have historical links.  In terms of basic structure, the maps discussed above employ distinctly different patterns: a circle with multiple sectors, a flat line with directional movement, and an ascending line that zigzags.

How well must a cartographer know the terrain in order to produce an accurate and useful map?  It depends.  In certain situations, the mapmaker must be intimately familiar with the territory.  In other cases, it may be enough to sketch a coastline or identify a category of topography.  Many maps of spiritual paths claim to record only the actual experiences of practitioners, though most of them go on to describe advanced states theoretically accessible to the most gifted and highly trained devotees.  The paths depicted in the Wheel of Engaged Buddhism are based almost entirely on the experience of contemporary Buddhists.  When ideals are expressed, they are polestars by which one may set one's course, not all-or-nothing absolutes.  The investigation of a path can bear fruit well before that path has been mastered.