Saturday, May 5, 2012

Buddha in the Window

“Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.—Buddha

Front: Buddha I spotted when I was 13.
Right: Wooden Buddha that came with house.

I really can’t explain why, but I have always been attracted to Buddha figurines and Buddhist doctrine. They possess some inexplicable lure. Even when I was only 13 and had no idea what Buddhism was, I was drawn to buy a small incense burner of Buddha, which I still have to this day. The doctrine appeals to me because it is nonjudgmental (we’re all on the path to enlightenment, some people are ahead of us, some behind), teaches personal responsibility (aka karma) and suggests that it is incumbent upon us all to relieve the suffering of others if we can (the doctrine of compassion). I can’t say I’m a devout Buddhist. I’m actually quite a miserable one. But luckily, there is no requirement to be anything in Buddhism. The goal, in fact, is not to be. So that works for me.

Buddha with the laughing eyes.
It seems wherever I go, Buddha shows up and stares at me with puppy eyes. “Please take me home,” he seems to say. Always, when I least expect it. When we moved into our current house, we discovered a wooden Buddha half buried in mud in a shed in the back yard. I washed it off, rubbed it with teak oil and it looked like new. I have no idea how long it had been out there, but the elements did not appear to have damaged it.

“Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism…, was born as a prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal.” 

This past Saturday, my husband, Steve, and I were wandering around lower Manhattan. Steve spied a store selling used CDs at very reasonable prices. Next door was an Asian antique and furniture store going “out of business.” Yes, I know. Going out of business is a regular business practice in New York, usually for the benefit of tourists, so one can rarely take it seriously. But everything in the store was “half-off,” so I decided to browse in the shop while my husband stalked CD bargains next door.

The antiques—or perhaps nicely crafted reproductions—were like works of art. There was a large round wooden curio shelf as tall as I am—which admittedly isn’t all that tall. I admired a carved wooden bed that had its own ceiling. I’m sure there is a special name for this type of bed, but I don’t know what it is. 

After about 15 minutes of wishing I could afford one of the exquisite pieces of furniture in the store, I walked out and turned to view their display window for the first time. There, sitting in the window, was a silver metal incense burner about the size of a basketball. The sides were surrounded in reliefs of Buddha figures and one happy Buddha sat on top. It had dog faces for handles and three clawed feet.

“In his early years (Buddha)… lived as a prince in the royal palace but when he was 29 years old he retired to the forest where he followed a life of meditation. After six years he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.” 

Just as I stood there ogling the piece, my husband emerged from the CD store, thrilled that he had found the sound track for the 1933 King Kong for only $6.99. I congratulated him and pointed to the Buddha incense burner.

“It’s probably too expensive,” I apologized, “But I’d like to go inside and ask about it anyway.”

Antique or reproduction? I may never know.
“Go ahead,” he replied. So we entered the store and I asked the man working there if we could see the incense burner and if he could tell me how much it was. He cheerfully retrieved it and showed us the price. The piece was remarkably heavy; even Steve was taken by surprise when I handed it to him to examine. It was priced at a bit more than I would normally pay for something, but at half-price was within a range that, if I felt like being self-indulgent, I could afford.

It has always been difficult for me to buy anything expensive for myself. I would gladly spend good money to buy something for a family member. But for some reason, spending big bucks on my own behalf has always made me feel a tad guilty.

My husband does not share that philosophy. He took one look at it and said, “Do you really want it? Would it make you happy to have that Buddha sitting on the shelf at home?”

I gazed at it longingly. “It is lovely,” I said. The man in the store told me it was an antique that had been used in Buddhist temples in China and was about 80 to 90 years old. Of course, there is a 50-50 chance that it is merely a well-crafted reproduction, but my reason for buying it wasn’t because of its possible monetary worth. I thought it was really beautiful—just as having a nice piece of artwork on the wall might give someone pleasure.

“In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are also beginning to flourish in the West.” 

Buddha with laptop (right of center) was a gift from a co-worker.
The last thing I expected to do in New York that day was to purchase an expensive “antique” Buddha incense burner, but sometimes the unexpected is what makes life so much fun. After some encouragement from Steve, I purchased it. The man in the store told me if I rubbed the Buddha’s tummy and made a wish, it might come true.

He now presides over a small cadre of Buddhas that sit on a shelf in my bedroom, where they cheerfully greet me every morning and evening. Not a bad way to begin and end each day.

“Look within, thou art the Buddha.—Buddha


  1. Nice story; a Jersey Home Companion? Lake Boobegone? Thanks, a great read.

  2. There's a Buddha that sits atop our shelf of cubbyholes at Curves. It stares serenely over the pocketbooks and street shoes of the women exercising behind it on the great mandala of workout machines.

    Nice piece. But where's the Buddha you found in the back yard? I don't see the picture...

  3. There's a Buddha that sits atop our shelf of cubbyholes at Curves. It stares serenely over the pocketbooks and street shoes of the women who exercise behind it on the Great Mandala of workout machines.

    Nice piece. But where is the Buddha you found in the back yard? I don't see it here...

    1. The first picture identifies that Buddha as the one on the right, slightly out of focus. It is also third from the left in the last photo.