On Saturday, I drove to Rhode Island to attend a Buddhist precepts ceremony and subsequent festivities at the Providence Zen Center. As I’ve noted here before, going to PZC always feels like a spiritual homecoming. Although I’ve never lived at PZC, I’ve spent enough time there on retreat and attending ceremonies that there’s something decidedly familiar about its buildings, grounds, and familiar faces.
And then there are the Gold Guys.
Providence Zen Center has not one but four gold Buddha statues: the largest in the main Dharma room, a second in the smaller upstairs Dharma room, a third in the octagonal peace pagoda, and the fourth in the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery up the hill from the Zen Center. (These pictures show the main Dharma room Buddha as well as the one in the monastery: I didn’t photograph the Buddhas in the upstairs Dharma room and peace pagoda during this weekend’s visit.) As I’ve noted in a previous post on Buddhist iconography, newcomers to the Providence Zen Center who come from a Judeo-Christian background are often uncomfortable with big gold statues that look like idols. Speaking from my own Catholic-turned-evangelical-gone-Buddhist perspective, though, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of the Gold Guys.
PZC’s gold Buddhas aren’t gods or idols: truth be told, they’re actually hollow. But like a familiar doll or stuffed animal, these Buddha statues do seem to carry an aura of personality, as if they are looking down and watching the various goings-on happening in their midst.
During Saturday’s welcome ceremony for new Dharma teachers in training, Zen Master Soeng Hyang admired the newly re-gilt upstairs Dharma room Buddha, trying to remember how long she’d sat with him. Now that Zen Master Seung Sahn is gone, the Gold Guy who now sits in PZC’s upstairs Dharma room is one tangible link to the Gray Guy who founded the Providence Zen Center and the international network of Zen Centers and practice groups affiliated with it. Zen Master Gray Guy is dead and gone, but the Gold Guys he brought over from Korea–and the human men and women who sit with them–still carry on.
Although the Gold Guys are just statues, if you spend enough time with even an insentient object, you get a feel for the personality of the thing. If we attribute familiar personalities to our cars, boats, and other everyday objects, why wouldn’t we grow fond of the accoutrements of our spiritual practice, especially if they have human forms and faces? Given the long hours on retreat I’ve spent cross-legged and achey, cross-legged and sleepy, cross-legged and scatter-brained, or just cross-legged and cross, it’s comforting to think someone in the room is cross-legged and comfortable, even if he’s really a hollow man with gilt that’s only skin deep.
In my years of teaching college composition classes, I’ve read many essays by homesick freshmen describing the places and objects that mean “home.” After reading piles of papers describing the almost magical aura of places like Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’ve come to believe that the tendency to make icons out of everyday objects is an essential part of human nature. Children are creatures of habit, so they rely heavily on those simple rituals that remind them they are loved and cherished. The lesson of Grandma’s bottomless cookie jar or Grandpa’s magically replenishing candy dish is that there’s one place where you’re always loved, even when you’ve been naughty or Mom says you’ve already had enough sweets.
Although it might seem absurd to say that PZC’s Gold Guys feel almost grandfatherly to me, I do think these ritual objects carry the same sort of iconic power that Grandma and Grandpa’s house wields in the hearts of so many of my college freshmen. Just as Grandma and Grandpa will always (or so we hope) have cookies, candy, and other treats set aside whenever cherished children come to visit, Providence Zen Center feels like home to me in part because I know the Gold Guys will always be there. No matter how many times I nod off while meditating, slip and slouch in my meditation posture, or fall off the practice bandwagon entirely, I know the Gold Guys continue to practice unmoved and unmoving. No matter how many times my attention wanders and I find myself doing anything but meditation practice, I know the Zen Center with its Gold Guys will be there when my attention and intention return.
The Providence Zen Center just paid a hefty chunk o’ change to give their Gold Guys a makeover, commissioning master gilders to re-cover their hollow forms with gold leaf. So even though Buddha’s been sitting a long time, he’s looking fabulous these days with a fresh application of ruby-red lip paint and spring-green eyebrow and moustache appliques:
Although to non-Buddhists it might seem silly to spend good money fixing up a statue that’s not much more than a glorified doll, the real value of a bright and shiny Buddha becomes clear during a picture-perfect precepts ceremony when rows of Gray Ones assemble beneath the Gold Guy. Providence Zen Center isn’t about a place or even the objects assembled there: it’s about the people who congregate in their midst. Just as the magic of Grandma and Grandpa’s house is really about Grandma and Grandpa, their hollow house being of secondary importance, the iconic power of a place like Providence Zen Center is only indirectly reliant upon liturgical accoutrements. Gold Buddhas are wonderful, but flesh-and-blood practitioners are even better, their beauties being far more than gold-leaf deep.
For this reason, my favorite image of this weekend’s Gold Guys is one in which a smiling statue seems to be leaning to listen as Zen Masters Wu Kwang and Dae Kwang give congratulatory speeches to new preceptors: a trio of smiling Buddhas, one of them gold-skinned and hollow and the other two gray-clad and whole.