by Gladys Montgomery Jones
Why do you want things?
As the empty pedestals and barren niches of a thousand temples attest, people have been taking away Asia’s treasures for centuries. Perhaps, along with their Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, they hope to possess something that cannot be possessed—the intangible mystique of cultures that hold these images sacred. I was as willing as any materialist that came before me. Yet, one acquisition eluded me until the end of my expatriate days.
Every Westerner I knew in Asia, it seemed, not only owned a Buddha, but a big, impressive Buddha at that. I spent a great many of my days in Asia wanting one too.
Early in my expatriate life, I met the Buddha of my dreams, sitting cross-legged on a lotus blossom in a Bangkok antique shop. Its crown was a spire, its ancient patina a dull, brownish green, flecked with particles of gold leaf. It was a Buddha that few practicing Buddhists would want: its arm from shoulder to wrist had broken off leaving a jagged hole in its side. Despite this. I noted, the perfect peace of its smile remained unaltered. I could not afford to buy that Buddha, but took its photograph and left.
And traveled. In Bangkok, where the immense reclining Buddha shimmers with gold leaf pressed there by the hands of the faithful. To Indonesia’s Borobodur, huge as a gothic Cathedral, where a constellation of larger-than-life Buddhas sit meditating on lotus blossoms under fretwork bells. To Burma, where the Buddha on Mandalay Hill gazes benignly upon the shaven heads of saffron-robed monks, the sweet smell of incense heavy in the air, and where, in the dark caves of Pagan, white stone statues glow in the brave light of hundreds of candles. To Kyoto, Japan, where the wasp-waisted Buddha Nyorai, said to have been hijacked from Korea during the fifteenth century, inclines its head in reflection, and Kamakura, where the huge Buddha that has survived tsunami tidal waves sits placidly on a hill above the sea.
I visited the stylish motherlode of expatriate collections in Bangkok, in the museum that was the home of Jim Thompson, the American who parachuted into Thailand in the last days of World War II and remained to turn Thai silk into an international business. There, I glided barefoot across hand-planed teak floors, marveling at mah jong tables used for dining. Ming plates, carved cabinets and a variety of Buddhas, an astonishing array of Asian artifacts in an urban Eden. Thompson’s house, itself a collection of traditional Thai structures poised overlooking a canal, seemed to epitomize the expatriate experience, and his Buddhas—some valuable antiques, some not—seemed a necessary part of that experience. To inform myself as a buyer, I tramped through temples and historic sites, poured over art books, attended lectures, ignored the boredom of friends while I lingered in museums to read exhibition captions. I learned the 36 characteristics that denote the true Buddha image, such as the elongated ears, the rings of flesh around the neck, the mound of curls atop the head, the circle in the center of the forehead.
Caught up in Expatriate Buddhalust, I scoured antique shops large and small, from Bangkok, to Seoul, to Kyoto, to Hong Kong. I bypassed the souvenir shops with their fat-bellied jocular Buddhas for tourists. In the dim corners of dusty lofts, I wiped the grime from a hundred cheeks, examined faces, assessed smiles. There were Khmer Buddhas, stone heads with taut smiling lips and wide, flat noses, decorative elements lopped off temples in the jungle. Thai Buddhas, their topknots curving upward like the flames of chalices. Burmese Buddhas in the Mandalay style, their swirling robes trimmed with vari-colored glass. Meditating, standing, teaching, sitting cross-legged, in the posture Southeast Asians seemed always to have liked best, with the downstretched fingers of one hand “calling the earth to witness.” Their expressions—serene, all-knowing, eternally smiling inscrutable smiles the Mona Lisa might have envied.
As a changing parade of shopkeepers poured tea and told stories about the hundreds of Buddhas before us, I found no other that matched the first I had loved, no other that spoke to me like that one had.
The more I saw and learned, the more remote the perfect Buddha seemed.
In Tokyo, I tried to satisfy myself with a new, inexpensive wooden Buddha from Okinawa. Its hands were folded in its lap, index fingers and thumbs circled and touching. I took it home, and, as I put it on a shelf, I saw sawdust inside one hand. Picking out the dust with a knife. I discovered a small worm—by Western standards an imperfect creature—had hewn that hand smooth and perfect, while the other retained rough edges. Apparently, I mused, imperfection can be a path to perfection.
Though the telling of the worm story increased the charm of that humble Buddha, Expatriate Buddhalust demanded I acquire a more “important” one.
Finally, after eight years in Asia, I found the object of my desire in a Chiang Mai antique shop. It was a Burmese bronzed, seated, its fingertips touching the earth, its pointed face and quirky smile typical of the Shan style. My expatriate days were at an end; the price was a fraction of the first statue I had loved in that antique store long ago. Plunking down my American Express card, I bought the Buddha, and we drove away in a hired car, the statue in a box beside me on the backseat.
As the driver steered my purchase and me down dusty lanes, past rice fields, beneath overhanging palms and between walls dripping with yellow trumpet vine and pink bougainvillea, uneasiness overcame me. Not, oddly enough, about the considerable amount of money I had just spent. The thing is—I am not a Buddhist. I grew up as many Christians do without even an image of Jesus in my home. For me a statue of the Buddha was a trophy. I thought about the Buddhist teaching that desire and attachment block spiritual understanding. And the parallel lesson in Christianity that life’s true treasures are spiritual, not material. Returning to the shop, I returned the Buddha, who—without having been taken from his box—had reminded me of one of the most important lessons of all. Here was an irony—through a material obsession, I had acquired some spiritual understanding too.
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him, says a famous Buddhist aphorism. Unencumbered by either Buddha or Buddhalust. I stood outside that antique shop in Chiang Mai, amid the swirling dust of passing cars, in the scalding and searing brightness of the mid-day sun and grinned, I’d like to think inscrutably. And, unburdened, if yet unenlightened, I set forth on the road unfolding before me.
Gladys Montgomery Jones is an ex-expatriate writer. An Okinawa Buddha meditates on her desk in Reading, Massachusetts.
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