Either Buddha has graced us with His presence in Midtown, or
not. I’m not sure which is the
case though perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, Buddhism has always traveled best by adapting to
local conditions. It figures that here in North America, Buddhism would
flourish as an offshoot of the Self-Help or Entertainment Industries, or else
be propagated in a cloud of misunderstanding and confusion, as is typical of our
public discourse, enough so that an encounter with Buddha might easily pass
unnoticed or else be mistaken for something else.
In any case, the other day I was on my way to a meeting in a
lawyer’s office at 666 Third Avenue – a grade A building one block north 42nd
Street –when immediately upon passing through the revolving doors I encountered
this stone statue, a photograph of which appears below –
A beautiful recumbent body that had been hewn from
volcanic rock. It looked to be at
complete peace – inner and outer. And I thought to myself – “How remarkable is this? A
sight seldom seen in Midtown on my way to a lawyer’s meeting no less.”
Next to the statue, there was a small sign proclaiming this
was Buddha reclining. And I said
to myself – “No it’s not! It’s not Buddha at all. Much more likely this is a statue of Guan
Yin!” As truly, I had never seen Buddha depicted in this manner. In Chinese statuary it’s much more common to see Buddha portrayed
sitting cross-legged or standing hands folded in prayer; or monumental, as at
Bamiyan, or with hands perched atop a big fat belly laughing jovially as a
pendant on a charm bracelet.
And even when Buddha is depicted reclining, never have I seen the figure stretched out this way, smiling and appearing
so at ease, smiling in a way serene and almost seductive.
Whereas the statue in the lobby reminded me very much of Guan Yin as I’ve seen her depicted, including
a statue that sits next to my desk, which was restored and repainted by my wife. There’s a striking resemblance in the
pose and demeanor, as well as in the half-formed bare breast, that’s more typical
of statues I've seen of the Bodhisattva of Mercy.
I will readily concede that I am no expert in Buddhist
statuary and it’s perfectly possible that the stone figure in the office building lobby was
taken from Cambodia or Malaysia or a temple in some other Southeast Asian locale, where
Buddha has adapted to more sub-tropical customs and climate. But it's equally conceivable the person responsible for placing the stone statue on Third Avenue may be
even less expert than I, perhaps misidentifying the statue on the grounds that all
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas look alike anyway.
So as I said at the outset,
perhaps the Buddha has graced us with His presence, or not, depending on one’s point
of view. And in
any case, whether it’s Buddha or Guan Yin makes no difference in the beauty of
the figure, nor does it diminish the significance of the presence of Buddha
spirit right here in the center of Midtown.