Seated Buddha Drawing

One minute of sitting, one inch of Buddha.
Like lightning all thoughts come and pass.
Just once look into your mind-depths:
Nothing else has ever been.

- the Zen Poem “Manzan.”

While wandering the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I encounter the sculpted Buddha sitting on a dais in the center of a room, life-sized, serene and unadorned. He is surrounded on all sides by sculptures of Bodhisattvas, some of them twice the height of a living man, all of them smiling benevolently. The number and variety of Bodhisattvas suggests that the sculptures in the room are the creations of Mahayana Buddhists, who believe that countless enlightened souls deny themselves Nirvana in order to return to earth and help others.

I move across the room to see him better. The Buddha is apparently seated in a full lotus position, although this is indefinite because the leg portion of the sculpture is blackened and smoothly worn away, seemingly melting into the very earth. He wears a simple robe in once-vivid reds and blues, his skin a pale gray-blue dappled with faded remains of gold leaf. Both arms extend onto his lap and vanish, as if his missing hands have touched and entered another realm. The dais is raised so that his seated form brings him to eye level with me, and his eyes are open. Standing within arm’s length of this representation of the magnificent Buddha brings me into contact with a real person; a simple man, sitting cross-legged on the ground. His eyes invite me to look beneath his legend and God-like status, and see a simple human being, a teacher.

I believe the sculptor has intentionally extended this invitation by depicting the Buddha as a young man. Because of the statue’s unmistakable expression of transcendent insight, I know it is the Buddha I am seeing, and not the seeker Siddhartha. Perhaps he is sitting beneath the Bo tree, just moments after reaching enlightenment. How striking to look into the Buddha’s eyes and consider his illumined view of the world.

His illumination was not a quick or easy achievement. Siddhartha began his life in isolated opulence, raised by his father to be a mythic warrior. He might have followed his father’s plan to fruition had not three visions of sickness, old age and death revealed life’s suffering and transience. A fourth vision, of a priest, inspired Siddhartha to go against his father’s wishes, withdraw from the world and seek a path of wisdom.

Pursuing this path could have killed him. By following the ascetic example of contemporary sages, Siddhartha fasted until the bones of his spine were visible along his abdomen. But the life experiences of opulence and starvation enabled him to conceive of something entirely new: the Middle Way, a direct path to truth that cut through the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He was on his way to ultimate comprehension.

In the shade of the Bo tree, Siddhartha sat until he was wholly transformed by understanding. In realizing that all things are inextricably linked together, he devised a doctrine of dependent origination. By relating himself to every element of reality, Siddhartha could no longer consider his unique self as the center of the universe – his personal suffering and desires flew way. In this flash of revelation, he attained “moksha” (freedom from the endless cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara), and became the Buddha. This is the moment I believe is captured by the sculptor in his work of art: a man who has transcended life on earth, 40 years before his final death.

In looking on the young Buddha, I admire how he managed to carry on so long in the earthly realm, to teach and turn mankind away from its single-minded vanity while his own awareness soared in every direction. Despite my admiration, I initially find myself feeling distant from him, rather insignificant and mired in ignorance. I even feel lonely for a moment, until I notice the traces of a smile on the Buddha’s face. Was that there before? It’s as if he is about to wink at me. What’s the joke?

Suddenly, a punch line occurs to me, and I laugh to think that perhaps the Buddha sees me as himself. He has been me. He knows I will be him – he is observing me as the seated statue. For a minute, I am able to enjoy a sense of connection between the Buddha and me, a link that aches to encompass all time and space. Then some tourists ask me to take their picture as they pose in front of him. While snapping the photo, my eyes are on the seated Buddha. Although in enlightenment he must have transcended all emotions, his expression here is filled with compassion and love. I decide these are the feelings he allowed to linger until he made his final departure from the world.

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