A man stands in front of an abstract painting.

The Autobiography by Temo Svirely

I was born April 21, 1964 in Georgia and am now 50 years old. I remember soft fluffy light snow and deep velvet warm nights with fireflies in a village in western Georgia; the soft soil, so rich in moisture, of early spring; the first snowdrops and violets, which my mother always took me to look at in the fields, along with the blossoming plum and cherry trees – there are the most vivid and brightest experiences of my childhood.

At the age of 10, I met my first teacher. He was an artist and taught drawing at my school. He revealed nature to me: the richness and limitless variety of colours and their shades, with which nature is so generous. I was delighted by the mere presence of my teacher, who was also an older friend, and I studied painting very diligently and later became an artist. My teacher often said that it is important to be alive, sensitive and strive for freedom in life, to be hardworking – and this is the main thing to become a good artist.

I spent my student years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, and on the streets, participating in demonstrations against the Soviet empire, demanding  independence of Georgia. On April 9, 1989, our peaceful protest was brutally suppressed by punitive special forces of the Soviet army. That night 19 peaceful demonstrators died on the central street of Tbilisi – from wounds caused by sapper shovels used by the military, and from heavy chemical gas. A great many people suffered permanent injuries.

After the collapse of the USSR and the fall of the Iron Curtain, I left the Academy of Arts and left Georgia in the hope of studying Western European classical and contemporary art and just seeing the world. I lived in various places where young artists gathered and sold my paintings first on the streets and then in various galleries in Moscow (Russia) and Ukraine.

In Kyiv I met my future wife, and here I got acquainted with the Tibetan Kagyu Lineage of Buddhism, which my girlfriend was fond of. We also had books by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (pirate-published in Ukraine), which we studied.

In the early 90’s the world around us was changing very rapidly. What was absolutely impossible to dream of a couple of years ago and for which you could go to jail –  was now available to us, the inhabitants of the post-Soviet space, and was becoming a reality.

So I started practicing in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition under the guidance of Sakyong Mipham  Rinpoche, dharma heir and lineage holder of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

I remained very devoted to my work as a painter and did not allow any carelessness, aggression or dirt, which was so often found in the works of contemporary art of that period. I tried to hold on to the pure line of vision that the Buddhist teachings revealed to me, consciously, but not formally applying it in my paintings, which I felt gave my art freshness, softness, warmth, energy and balance. Not spilling my neurosis on the canvas, but rather in the process of work, cleansing the kleshas (afflicted emotions) and consciously working with emotions, I could also work with the painting in different forms and different manifestations of meaning, on the external, internal and hidden levels.

I have always worked a lot and often it was not easy for me, like for many artists, but in the last two years I especially felt very tired from work and from life in general. In the last year I mounted four exhibitions: in New York City, in France and two in Kyiv, Ukraine. And although I liked all of them very much and felt inner satisfaction, inside I felt deeply that the contamination and obstruction had completely taken over my whole being.

In November in Ukraine there was an acute political crisis that led to the revolution. The confrontation was very tough, the danger was very great and I spent all these last few months on the street, like many of my friends. Day and night, in the snow and frost, I did not want to be a part of these events and would have been happy to go somewhere else, but I could not leave the people who had risen up, defending their dignity and homeland from the internal and, as it has now become clear, from the external enemy. Many innocent civilians and fine soldiers were mercilessly shot by snipers, blown up with grenades and tortured by special forces.

During the last weeks of the confrontation I saw everything in a haze, some kind of illness was coming over me and eventually I went to the doctor and was treated in the hospital as an outpatient, and at night, when it was a dangerous time, I went into the city to the now famous Maidan and tried to help in any way I could, or simply was present there under the sound of stun grenades and fire. Events in Kyiv as expected developed in the most tragic way …

Treatment did not give any result, I was getting worse and deeper examinations showed that I was sick with pancreatic cancer and only a successfully performed very complicated operation, if I was lucky, could save my life.  The shocking news of a threatening and devious disease struck like a thunderbolt-)))))) There was a feeling of hopelessness and panic, fear completely paralyzes the will, which is expressed in the body as a lack of energy and strength, blocking the channels, and if it is all aggravated by intoxication of the body caused by the disease, as was the case in my situation. There was a strong feeling that the flow of a dirty muddy river carried me and I could not move my hand, deprived of the ability to resist…. I felt incredible pain for my children and my youngest daughter, that I still had to help her and also for my wife; and this added greatly to my suffering. This went on for a day or two, but the teachings, which I still practiced sparingly in spite of everything, helped me. I was able to look at the life I had lived, it was a sin to complain about the fate-))))))  25 years ago a drunken Soviet sergeant opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle at the car I was riding in, several bullets passed within a couple of centimetres of my ear, death was incredibly close, and I could die as a senseless, completely ignorant young man, without ever meeting my wife, without having met my three children, without having painted a huge number of good paintings, without having seen almost all the famous art museums and collections of paintings that I loved so much, and finally without having met the precious dharma (buddhist teachings), my favorite teachers, and a huge number of people in the sangha (community) whom I also loved so much!

And all this happened in the last 25 years, when my guardian angel saved me from the bullets of a drunken sergeant in the Soviet army, from going into oblivion, and allowing me alone to miraculously survived.  A feeling of gratitude to my fate filled my heart and it was the first breakthrough. I was able to straighten my back and practice meditation, being present here and now in the hospital. I again felt the joy and softness of my heart and sadness and compassion for other sick people and the open, boundless space and the energy of the basic goodness of the Buddha nature. I found myself smiling, and it was the smile that my teacher was talking about and that had happened to me before in moments of awakening.  I continued practicing and praying, and although my health deteriorated by half as the tests showed, my spirit became much stronger. I had a straight back, a lively mind and I was no longer a victim, but in control of my world and was able to encourage other patients and be attentive to others. Of course I felt regret that I had made many negligent mistakes in my life, but surprisingly I did not feel the usual sense of guilt at all.

Before the operation I also realized that before the illness I was not ready to live and die, but now I was ready and, if I had to, I could die in a space beyond the pain of duality, beyond the constant swinging between fears and hopes and that the falling and confusion between these two extremes was over.  I no longer had fears and hopes, I was just ready to accept what is and what will be both death and life.

It was April 10, my surgery coincided strangely with the birthday of my mother and my youngest daughter, the doctors were very worried that it would be too late and could not move the date and the birthday is also not possible to move to another day-))))) and yet it would be certainly very upsetting and inappropriate to die on this day and always spoil this day for my closest people.

The surgery lasted about 8 hours and thanks to the higher powers, protectors, the art of doctors and the great support of so many friends and people from all over the world and thanks to the practice and prayers of the precious sangha everything went well and successfully.  I survived and by continuing to practice and pray I got well very quickly, got on my feet, successfully worked with pain and after a week I returned home.

Now, I am trying to live life to the fullest, practicing, painting a little, practicing Tai-Chi in a group and preparing for a long course of chemotherapy, which the doctors said I need to take.

At the end I just want to say that despite the threatening illness, I am grateful to fate for the invaluable experience that I had and have now. The opportunity to awaken and not to get lost and degraded by the world of the setting sun, by the energy of ignorance, fear and indifference, caught in the trap of ego fixation of kleshas, the narrow view of the “me plan” and the mentality of the beggar.

May 11, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2014

Iryna Vorobiova


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