the Clifton Buddha

Light of Mind: The Following by <a href=''target='_blank'>Mairianne Giovanna Genova Lividini</a>
Light of Mind: The Following by Mairianne Giovanna Genova Lividini

In a sparse, basement-level room of the Unitarian Church in a small Midwestern city—let’s call it Clifton—the fifteen or so members of the Clifton sangha gather on a Wednesday evening. There is no authorized teacher, though some members have studied with Zen or Tibetan teachers. Elaine, who convenes the weekly meditation session, pulls a ten-inch bronze Buddha statue out of a cabinet and places it on a small table. She leads a short Zen chant, and the group sits in meditation facing the wall for thirty minutes, followed by a reading, then ten minutes of walking meditation. After another brief chant, the group turns toward the Buddha image and bows deeply.

O  Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form

Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form…

Across the globe, there are countless images similar to the one to which these Midwesterners bow. This one was purchased in Lhasa, Tibet, at one of the dozens of open-air vendors on the circumambulation circuit around Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims come from all over Tibet to walk or prostrate around the circuit, spinning prayer wheels and chanting mantras. During a two-week trip to China, another member of the sangha, Carl, chose this statue from hundreds of others available. The vendor tried first to offer Carl a new factory-made buddha, but he asked for one that looked older, more antique, so the vendor dutifully mussed one up a bit and brought it back the next day. Finally they settled on an older figure that, the vendor claimed, was once used in a Tibetan monastery. After the monastery was dismantled by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, it stayed in a devotee’s house for a few decades and then found its way to the open market. Carl wanted an “authentic” image rather than one made in a factory, one that was made for a spiritual purpose rather than just to sell to tourists.

According to the vendor, the image was crafted by an artisan over sixty years ago. If this is accurate, it would have sat in limbo when completed alongside the other bronze buddhas in the studio with scarves wrapped around their eyes. When they were installed in a temple, a monk would have performed a consecration ceremony that has been going on since before the common era in which the Buddha is invited to take up residence in the image. In the final stage of the ritual, the scarf is removed and the eyes are painted in. Then the Buddha can look out at the devotees who come and prostrate themselves before it, praying for a better rebirth in the next lifetime, alleviation of sickness, or success on exams.

Carl’s buddha now finds its home in the basement at the Unitarian Church, where it is kept most of the time in a dark cabinet. On Wednesday evenings, Elaine brings it out, sets it on a makeshift altar and lights a stick of incense before it.

A few in the sangha admit that they think there may be a special quality to items that have had intimate interaction with advanced practitioners—a kind of spiritual “energy.” But no one in the group thinks that bowing before it will give them karmic merit, success in business ventures, material prosperity, or a better rebirth. They are happy that it is old and consecrated, but they don’t believe that the Buddha dwells in the statue. Its eyes are as blind as metal deep in the cold earth.

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