Thursday, February 02, 2006
Meeting a buddha at Bloomingdale's
The top photo shows one of my favorite pieces of art -- certainly my favorite example of Japanese Buddhist art. It's a 1,500-year-old wooden sculpture of Miroku (Maitreya in Sanskrit), the Buddha of the Future. (I'll get to the bottom photo in a minute.)
The embodiment of all-encompassing love, Miroku is the last of the five earthly Buddhas and is expected to arrive in about 30,000 years, according to my "Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen."
I had seen photos of this famous statue, but when I first saw it in person in 1996 (in a temple in Nara, the capital of Japan before Kyoto), I was transfixed.
Blown away, actually.
It wasn't so much the statue's great age or blissfully serene facial expression that captivated me. It was its raised right hand, forming the Vitarka (Sanskrit for "teaching") mudra.
Mudras are physical manifestations of states of mind or being, or of certain aspects of Buddhist teachings. In Buddhist iconography, different mudras are associated with different Buddhas. So, when you're viewing a statue, the mudra is almost like a scorecard, offering a key as to which buddha you're looking at.
The mudra in the Miroku statue shows a buddha engaged in the act of teaching.
To me, the position of his hand makes it look as if he's exquisitely and delicately stressing a point.
"It is just like THIS," I can almost hear him saying. "Just like this. Nothing more, nothing less."
A couple of years ago, I was in a Bloomingdale's department store here in New Jersey. I was taking a shortcut through the furniture department when I noticed a small sculpture on a shelf.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
It was of a hand forming the Vitarka teaching mudra.
"How much?" I asked the sales clerk.
"Well, it's really just part of the display," she said. "But wait a minute, let me see if there's a price on the bottom."
There was a price, and I gladly paid it.
In the bottom photo, you can see the statue on the right, rising above some of my other friends.
I never thought I would encounter the essence of Miroku -- and in a Bloomingdale's, no less.
We meet buddhas in the strangest places.