(Chicago, March 2010)
I visited Chicago about two weeks ago and visited the Art Institute Museum. This was one of my "had to see" spots when I was planning my trip. I took the train in from my aunt's house, which was about 45 minutes outside Chicago. With my iPhone in hand and Googlemaps pulled up, I was ready to explore.
Upon reaching the museum, the size of it and the architecture alone was amazing and beautiful. I checked in my coat and camera bag and began my self guided tour.
I stayed in the second level the longest, which featured Asian art. It was split into three sections, Chinese, Japanese and Indian. What fascinated me the most in the Chinese section were artifacts found inside coffins. The Chinese would line the coffin with large jade disks. The reason for these are debatable. Some say it's for the sky and heavens, others say it's for protection.
Jade is a huge part of the Chinese culture, which has influenced the Vietnamese culture heavily. My grandmother, aunts and mom each own jade jewelry. My mother gifted me a jade prayer bracelet a few weeks ago and it is very special to me. Jade is a very resilient gemstone that cannot be molded by the usual tools, but has to be grind down. Luck and protection are some things that have been associated with jade.
After I finished with the Chinese section, I made my way to the Indian section. The whole floor was filled with statutes of Buddha and bodhivista. Internally, I was confused. I felt the need to bow to these sacred statues, but here they were, put on displayed to be regarded as a work of art.
I sat down a few times to take everything. To many, these may have looked interesting and fascinating, to me, it was sacred. I imagined the temples these came from, and wondered what was left of them. I know some were rescued from destruction due to wars and for that I am grateful for. I imagined the people who used to visit these statues and wonder how they felt when they first saw them.
It wasn't until I made my way down to the end of the exhibit did I see the Buddha statue, the photograph at beginning of this post. It was truly amazing to see and I felt drawn to it.
I was born into a Buddhist family and attended the temple services every weekend. However, along the way, I chose to go a different path and find what religion means to me. I questioned whether Buddhism was for me and spent a few years studying and attending services of other religions to see if I had a connection. It wasn't until this past year, did I choose to study and delve deeply in Buddhism. Now, I feel a stronger connection to it, and when I saw this statue, I felt that pull that I can only describe as my heart strings connecting with something greater. I felt a familiar sense of calm as I've always do when I step into a temple with the smell of incense in the air. I stood there for a long time taking in the serenity of it. Others stopped by to look at it, commenting on what a beautiful piece of art it was. For me, it was a different. It was a religious connection.
As I stood there, a woman walked by and put her foot up on the platform to tie her shoes. I was slightly insulted by a display of disrespect, but I thought about context. We were not in a temple, but a museum, and to many, these were just pieces of art. Just as I see sculptures of Buddha's head in homes displayed to be part of their "zen" theme. This, I find disrespectful and insulting, but then people take crosses and use them as decorations for their necklaces or designs. These are all symbols that mean something to some and nothing to others.
When removing these figures from their religious surroundings, they are free to be interpreted by others. Buddhist statues were not produced until thousands of years after his passing. His figure is not for us to idolize. He represents a state in which we should aspire to be at, a stage of enlightenment.
We use symbols and statues to give us tangible figures to relate to. But as Buddha has taught us, all that is around us will be gone one day and we cannot take it with us. The statues will crumble, the temples will fall, but what we believe in, what we feel and connect to and what we think is the meaning of it all, will remain with us.
Before leaving the statue, I stood in front of it, brought my hands to prayer, closed my eyes and bowed.