Monday, April 30, 2007

Birthdays, Boys, and Buddhas; An afternoon at the musem

Gifts can be treacherous things. They can delight or disappoint us, offer sudden revelations or accessorize deceit. Such a lot of power, isn’t there, underneath all that shiny paper? I, for one, am never content to take the object at face value. I’m always looking for something else, for what it can tell me about the way things really are. How much effort was expended, how much thought given to its procurement? You can probably tell, I’m a lot of fun to shop for.

It’s not so surprising, I guess, that birthdays don’t bring out the best in me. It’s nothing to do with getting old and dying, I don’t need a special day to worry about those things. For the birthday problem, I blame my mother. That probably sounds awful, but I don’t mean it to be. She’s always been great at birthdays. Growing up, my birthday was my day, simple as that. Perfect cakes and perfect presents and me, me, me. How could I possibly expect anyone else’s efforts to live up to hers? And yet I do, and so am endlessly disappointed, through no one’s fault but mine. Not always, but often enough you’d think I might have learned better by now.

At their worst, presents can confirm all of your worst fears. The generic necklace snatched up at the last minute from the boutique next door to his office yells out, loud and clear, “He’s just not that into you.” And somehow you’ve still got to get through dinner. That was a great night.

The best gifts, though, can knock you down and take your breath away, with the force of the messages they carry. It can be quite a shock, discovering just how well know, and loved, you really are. Those don’t come along that often, but when they do? Wow.

My membership to the Rubin Museum of Art, in Chelsea, was a gift like that, a couple of birthdays ago. Boyfriend had planned a nearly perfect day. There’d already been a sweet, sweet morning, brunch I think, and a massage I’d been desperately needing, complete with aromatherapy and hot, hard stones. I could do with one of those right now, come to think of it. My neck is knottier than an old pine tree.

In spite of all those good intentions, all that thought and effort, it was my birthday, and I was in rare form. My mood was mean, and I was in a panic over all the weight I’d gained since we’d moved in together. If anyone had warned me just how bad cohabitation would be for my beauty, I might have reconsidered. Then again, the break up diet does work wonders. My skin’s never quite recovered, though.

So, off we went to the Rubin. I’d been wanting to go since I’d first walked by it, months before, but somehow just hadn’t done it. We live here so we can have these things close by, and then end up too busy, or too tired, too overwhelmed, or just plain lazy, to do anything about them, until someone else has the good sense to drag us out.

Just getting me to finally go through those doors could have been gift enough. Before we’d even passed the admission desk I knew I’d found something important. And I was right. However lazy I may ever be in my own meditation practice, however distracted and disgruntled I may allow myself to become, an hour in the Rubin, surrounded by the centuries of Himalayan art, all those Buddhas and Bodhisattvas hanging on the walls, reminds me who I am, and what I’m looking for.

One of the exhibits up that day was called Eternal Presence, Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art. Paintings and drawings by and of celebrated Buddhist teachers and deities, incorporating their traced hand and footprints. Looking at an eighteenth century painting of the Shamar Lama, an important, and often problematic, figure within the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, I would swear to you I felt time stop, if such a thing were possible.

It was the hands and feet that did me in. They brought an intimacy and immediacy to the painting I’d never imagined possible. The Sharmapa’s hands were there, right there, so were his feet. I’d never experienced anything like that in a museum, or anywhere else, before. I have since, though, right there in the Rubin.

Bringing me to that could have been gift enough. I can be awfully lazy. It’s entirely possible that, left to my own devices, I could have walked by those smooth glass doors a million times, without ever opening them once. A membership of my very own though? That was almost more than I could bear. I can’t think of a time when anyone with whom I don’t share DNA has tried so hard to please me, or to know me, to bring me to a place that felt so much like home.

But things aren’t always what they feel like, are they? After we broke up, I did lose all that weight, or most of it at least, and lots of other things as well. One of them, for a while, was the museum I’d quickly come to think of as my own, the Rubin. I went out of my way to avoid even the sight of it, that whole block of Seventeenth Street ceased to exist, as far as I was concerned. Out of sight, out of mind, or so they say.

I missed my museum, though. I missed it a lot. I had gotten into the habit of popping in a couple of times a week. My office at the time was just a few blocks away, so whenever I felt my mind skitter skattering around itself, I could head down to the Rubin, for that quick hit of equilibrium, and the reminder it offered of the importance of disciplined daily meditation practice. I could only stay away for so long.

I’d been thinking myself in, out, and all around the Rubin for months, keeping myself well away from it in the end. One day, when for once I wasn’t thinking, I found myself walking past, and still without thinking, went right in. I couldn’t help thinking, for a minute, when I pulled out my membership card, but I put a stop to that as quickly as I could, and kept on going. Thinking is often highly overrated.

This time, it was a painting of a thousand armed Avalokiteshvara, that drew me in. Avalokiteshvara is sometimes referred to as the Compassion Buddha, sometimes as a great Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved perfect enlightenment, and could be released from this cyclic existence and all of its suffering, but chooses to stick around, out of compassion for those of us who are still muddling around, far from perfection of any kind. A Bodhisattva’s entire being is dedicated to helping all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. In the case of Avalokiteshvara, he is sometimes represented with one thousand arms, as his ceaseless compassionate activities require nothing less.

Buddhist practice, like any other, demands discipline and diligence. Unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, though, it rewards the practitioner with an awareness of the world’s boundless compassion. Pay a little attention, and you might even catch the occasional glimpse of your own infinite compassionate capacities. Who do you thank, though, for a gift like that?

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