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Buddhadharma : Spring 2016
64 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 6 be turning transparent and wraithlike, as though contemplating the emptiness of all worldly ambition. Jesuit missionaries, bringing their Christian evan- gelism to China around this time, began circulating images of the Madonna and Christ Child, inspiring yet more cross-cultural borrowing. A Chinese vari- ant of Guanyin called Songzi balances a child on her hip. Carved in sandalwood or other soft woods, or cast in clay like a votive offering, Songzi would have been painted, often with gilding. Like the vir- gin Mary, Songzi knows a woman’s plight. In a five-foot-tall Edo-period painting on silk, Kannon, the Japanese bodhisattva, becomes moth- erly in a different way. The formidable yet kindly celestial female reclines on the rocky shore of the legendary island Mount Putuo, where she is said to dwell. A fold of her bulky headdress shelters a miniature Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, Kannon’s higher power. A chubby boy-like pilgrim wades through the surf at her feet, his hands joined in reverence. He and others like him have come a long way to find her. Clearly pilgrimage is more than just “sandals on the ground.” The act of searching changes the searcher. In the Himalayas, enlightenment is the great path, the way to save beings surely and effec- tively. The tantric power and forthright majesty of Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara radiates laser-like focused energy. The eyes exhibit the fierce concen- tration created by advanced tantric practices. This Chenrezig will burn through all obstacles. The gilded bronze statue, now owned by the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, is a reduced- scale replica made for pilgrims who thronged through the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. The original, a towering Mahakarunika, occupies the temple’s Supreme Compassion Chapel. Mahakarunika has its own exalted Great Compassion Mantra, which is repeated at great length in the practice of Thou- sand-armed Chenrezig. Mahayana practices make a special point of grounding compassion in the wish that all beings be free from suffering. But suffering takes many forms, and many resources are needed to combat it. The task can seem overwhelming for us mortals. There is a resonant story about how Chenrezig got his thousand arms. The bodhisattva vowed to clean up samsara once and for all. He put in a heroic effort. He thought he’d done it. But when he turned around again, the mess was back, unapologetically. Chenrezig was so devastated by his failure to fix things that he shattered in a thousand pieces. That moment when you turn to glass, when paralysis is the only response you can manage, when ignorance raises its angry head and the suffering it causes seems medieval in its ugliness—this is Chenrezig’s dilemma too. A tap of the hammer and glass shat- ters into spikey slivers. What to do when even a bodhisattva of compassion can’t bear it any longer? The story takes an instructive turn. Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, comes down from his Pure Land and converts Chenrezig’s thousand shattered pieces into a thousand arms (plus eleven heads, so he can look in all directions). I find it hugely instructive that Amitabha gives Chenrezig a thousand tools and says, Hey, keep going. Chenrezig’s thousand arms are a token expres- sion of the patience and fortitude essential to the bodhisattva vow. As our world prepares to blow itself apart yet again, Chenrezig becomes more than just a symbol; the bodhisattva is an absolute neces- sity, a guide and refuge. For two thousand years, art has been a power- ful means of transmitting the dharma. It serves this purpose today as well. Our humanity and our bud- dhanature are indivisible—not only spiritual, not only physical; both empty and full of life—and the great art we create is similarly “not two.” The heart of Buddhist practice is beyond words, yet words and images help us shape and embody subtle realms of mind and convey intuitive truths we yearn to realize. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Bud- dhist path without them. The heart of Buddhist practice is beyond words, yet words and images help us shape and embody subtle realms of mind and convey intuitive truths we yearn to realize.