Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seeing the Face

Buddha with bodhisattvas, 5th century China, Worcester Art Museum

Last Wednesday I gave my first gallery talk at the Worcester Art Museum.  I sketched in the basics of Buddhism and Zen, and guided everyone in contemplation of the two stone carvings of the historical Buddha.  The photo at the left is of the first statue we contemplated, and below is the second.

Sitting in silence, with eyes closed...and then opening to receive the face of these carvings, done so many centuries ago in China by other human beings who had realized for themselves something that we can encounter today.  The group that had gathered for the talk all had interesting experiences, from feelings of resistance to a deep peacefulness, and everything in between.

Zen Master Wumen once said, "Seeing the face is better than hearing the name."  Of course, he also said, "Hearing the name is better than seeing the face."  To resolve this matter, I recommend reading the poem below by David Whyte.  (Suggested by Betty Spargo -- thanks Betty!)

The Faces at Braga
by David Whyte
Head of Buddha, 6th century China, Worcester Art Museum 

In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight
the old shrine room waits in silence.

While above the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding.  “Will you step through?”

And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.

We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,

see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the hand held light.

Such love in solid wood!
Taken from the hillsides and carved in silence
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.

Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers

we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
their slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.

Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through the age
and their mouths curve through the delight of the carver’s hand.

If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.

If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,

we would smile too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.

When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.

And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.

If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers

feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.

Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
every day, would gather all our flaws in celebration

to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hand.

from “Where Many Rivers Meet”
Many Rivers Press
Langley, Washington

1 comment:

  1. Wow, how remarkable and coincidental!

    The first time I took my time strolling and taking in the entire WAM, I immediately loved the room from these photos. I especially loved the large stone one of the Buddha with attending Bodhisattvas, and then noticed the little microphone icon on the bottom left of the stand. It was one of the only items I could find museum wide that had a prepared audio guide piece.

    So I scrambled to the front desk, checked out my headset, and enjoyed the brief but informative narration. Somehow, I think I would have preferred your guided meditation, Melissa.

    Bows to you.